In the TV industry’s latest battle against its biggest enemy – the remote control – producers and networks are coming up with new tricks to cut down on channel surfing.
That means getting rid of anything routine or boring. Some series have practically eliminated their opening credits to jump right into the episode, while others now stage elaborate openings to keep viewers entertained.
They’re also coming up with tricks for the end of the show. On the minimalist side, many series have switched to so-called living credits, small vignettes that run during the closing credits rather than the usual theme song and a scroll of names for a minute or two.
Those that don’t use living credits give up about two-thirds of the TV screen to the network so other shows and events can be promoted. And the bulk of the webs no longer run commercials between sitcoms, so viewers will be less enticed to flip channels.
NBC has been the leader in the movement to keep the remote on the coffee table. A few years ago, the web conducted a study that found a 25%-30% drop in viewership when end credits started running.
“It was a message that ‘Now is the time to leave this channel,’ ” says John Miller, NBC’s exec VP of advertising and promotion. Concerned about that drop, NBC a few years ago instituted “seamless” programming. In other words, one show would lead into another with no commercial break.
Miller says that since then, the drop has fallen to 5%. “There is not as much time to surf around now,” he says.
Other networks have followed suit, and since then, further steps have been taken to keep viewers tuned in.
As recently as five years ago, the typical opening titles – theme song and credits – for a sitcom was anywhere from one minute to 90 seconds. These days, many shows have opening titles that run 10-20 seconds tops. Shows including NBC’s “Seinfeld” don’t even really have an opening title. They just start with the first scene, which leaves viewers no chance to surf.
Not all shows are going without openings. ABC’s “Ellen” and “The Drew Carey Show” have experimented with quirky opening titles; “Ellen” has used celebrities in her opening credits. Other episodes have opened with actress Ellen DeGeneres competing in Olympic events, with celebrity judges scoring her performance.
“Drew Carey” has twice put together elaborate – and expensive – musicvideos that have generated much attention for the show.
In the case of “Ellen,” producers came up with the concept of different opening-title vignettes every week after the network cut back on the time allotted for the show’s opening credits. With only 20 seconds to play around with, a traditional opening title sequence of theme song and credits was tough to come by for the producers.
“When you’re trying to do something in 20 seconds, it’s difficult,” says “Ellen” executive producer Vic Kaplan. “We finally reached a point where Ellen DeGeneres would literally come out and say the titles were not ready. That led to improvisation, and since then, the show has been bringing in celebs and musical acts for the opening, quite often as judges for DeGeneres’ Olympic shtick.
“Carey’s” musicvideo openings were the result of a car trip that the actor and the show’s exec producer Bruce Helford took this year to Carey’s native Cleveland. The two heard the 1966 Vogues song “5 O’clock World” on the radio and decided that a musicvideo to the song featuring the cast would be fun and attention-getting. It would also help distinguish the sophomore show during the onset of the new season, which featured 40 new shows.
“We knew that coming back for our second season we needed to find a way to grab the attention from the new shows, and the video served that purpose,” says Helford. It worked so well that the show decided to do an even bigger production for the November sweeps, with the 1973 Tower of Power song “What Is Hip.” That one cost more than $100,000, and ABC pitched in to get the video made.
Both videos generated huge publicity for the show from the consumer media, and “Drew Carey” has become a hit for ABC.
Of course, besides production costs, there are also legal issues. Before settling on “What Is Hip,” Helford and Carey wanted to use music from “West Side Story” but couldn’t get permission from Leonard Bernstein’s estate.
“We applaud these shows for doing what they are doing,” says Jim Vescera, senior VP of advertising and promotion at ABC. “We want the shows to have more fun and let people realize that they are spending time at ABC, where something is going on.”
End credits are also becoming production numbers for the webs. Concurrent to the rise of living credits has been the elimination of studio and production company logos at the end of shows. Now there are more logos than ever because actors and producers increasingly have their own production companies. The series of logos run before the living credits – which allows networks to move even more quickly from one show to another.
For example, “Spin City” features logos for DreamWorks, which produces the show; Ubu Prods., the company of exec producer Gary David Goldberg; Lottery Hill Entertainment, the company of star Michael J. Fox; and ABC, all before the living credits. Still, end credits are shorter than they were five years ago.
Shows that don’t have living credits give up anywhere from half to two-thirds of screen space so the networks can promote other shows.
While local TV stations have been cutting into end credits for years to promote their news, NBC is thought to be the first network to cut into credits to promote other shows or events. NBC even went so far as to create the NBC 2000 unit, which focuses only on promotion spots for the network during end credits.
All the webs have had to deal with angry producers and guilds who don’t like to see the reduction of names of all the people who work on a show.
“It is an ongoing fight with the networks,” says “Drew Carey’s” Helford. “They don’t care about the credits, and we do.”
It is a battle, however, that the creative community has been losing. “Sooner or later, we will run out of steam,” says “Ellen’s” Kaplan.
Meanwhile, the shorter openings and endings do not mean more time for the show. The webs generally have cut the average sitcom from 22 minutes to 20 or 21. The reclaimed time is given to ads, to affiliates, or to promote the rest of the schedule.
“ABC has cut back two minutes from our show over the last two years,” says Carmen Finestra, co-creator and executive producer of “Home Improvement.”
“It’s getting worse and worse,” Kaplan adds. “We have less time to tell a story, and it’s brutal for the writers.”
That’s why you won’t see a new video every week on “Drew Carey.” While the production numbers are riveting, they also take at least two minutes away from the episode.
NBC, however, says it has managed to give time back to the producers in spite of the short openings and closings. The web says that generally its shows still run at the old industry standard of 22 minutes.
Look for more stunts and gimmicks from the webs as their fight against the remote control grows more intense.
“If you give an audience more than 15 seconds to make a decision,” says “Home Improvement’s” Finestra, “they’ll go to another network.”