Guest Blog: "The Name Game" by Jessica Coplen

Here I am taking two weeks in a row off from the blog! Unprecedented! Thankfully, I do have something to present to you this week while I continue to work on some of the larger projects we have planned for this year. Jessica Coplen once again regales with her thoughts on that elusive and mysterious topic, the television show title.

I'm on the verge of finishing up some big stuff in the next week or so, and plan some big announcements for next week. In the meantime, it is my fondest hope to host more guest blogs here on the site in the weeks to come. Got an idea? There's fifteen dollars to be made, here folks!

Now, take it away Jessica!

If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then you shouldn’t judge a television show by its name. But of course, that’s exactly what we do. 

A common negative response to tv shows is “it sounds dumb.” Part of this is in response to the synopsis of the show, but the title—like a book cover—is a gate keeper. If the title isn’t interesting or appealing, people may not read or look any further. 

Take the show Cougar Town (ABC/TBS) for example. It managed to stay on the air for six seasons, but only after swapping networks halfway through and launching an ad campaign that literally admitted that it was a “crappy title.” This is a bit of an extreme example, though. Do you remember The Event (NBC)? It was about an event that happened, and that event was a mystery. So while the title is on point, it’s so generic that it couldn’t stand out from other Lost-esque shows that flooded the networks.

So what makes a good—or successful—title? 

If you check out the list of longest running tv series, the answer is this: straight-forward, non-generic, and short (typically one-word, sans The). 

The longest running scripted series is The Simpsons (FOX) at twenty eight seasons so far. This fits the bill, as it’s a straight-forward title that tells you it’s about the Simpson family. It’s not the most unusual name, but it’s enough for people back in 1989 to at least get past the title. It also falls in line with the tradition of early television series that were the names of the performers or main character. The Jack Benny Program (CBS/NBC) came out in 1950 and is the tenth longest running scripted tv series of all time at fifteen seasons. The list of longest-running shows is littered with similar titles, and many have a single word title. For instance, Bones (FOX), Frasier (NBC), Rosanne (ABC) and Coach (ABC) all had at least nine seasons. 

Single word titles are so popular that six and a half of the top ten series have single word titles. I say half because Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC) is commonly referred to as ‘SVU’ to distinguish it from its predecessor Law & Order (NBC). Even in ad campaigns, the network will call it SVU. Why are one word titles so prevalent? Because they are easier to say in a conversation around the water cooler. “Hey, did you see ER (NBC) last night?” “Did you hear Timeless (NBC) was renewed after it was cancelled?” And despite the fact that NCIS (CBS) is four syllables, it is still the second ranked television series behind The Big Bang Theory (CBS) for the 2016/2017 season, and currently the seventh longest running series of all time. Perhaps it is because in our mind an acronym is the same as a single word.

But what about current tv champ The Big Bang Theory? That’s not a short title at all, but it is a phrase that is already engrained on the American psyche, and the world, as a scientific concept. The same with Law & Order and Family Guy (FOX), two terms that well existed before their shows did. Also, The Big Bang Theory is easily shortened to Big Bang and doesn’t lose its notability. 

Short titles, or titles with an easy acronym, are the way to go. Current favorites Orange is the New Black (Netflix) and Game of Thrones (HBO) are referred to as OitNB and GoT respectively. HBO even uses GoT as part of its ad campaign, just like NBC and SVU. Battlestar Galatica (ABC/Sci-Fi) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Syndication) are called BSG and DS9 more widely than their full titles. It’s the same concept as giving people nicknames; the easier and shorter, the better. 

The television market has exploded, from three networks in the 1940s, to the hundreds that are accessible today. From network channels, to basic cable, to premium cable, to streaming services, the lists of new shows are endless. The battle for the audience’s attention is at an all time high. It’s important to stand out from the pack with titles easily transferred through word of mouth and viral marketing.  A TV show’s chosen name becomes the nexus in which the show will evolve. In the end, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the title doth maketh the show.