The right choice can set the tone for new TV shows
What’s in a name?For the producers, studios and networks crafting this year’s crop of primetime contenders, pilot monikers matter. As they head into the pilot screening room, CBS still has a problem with “Shit,” CW is stuck in Wyoming and Fox is considering other avenues for “Traffic.” Among this year’s crop of still nameless pilots, CBS has its “Criminal Minds” spinoff and an untitled John Wells medical drama; and the CW has its “Untitled Wyoming Project.” Others may still change: Fox is said to like its comedy “Traffic Light,” but is worried auds will think the dating show is about drug trafficking. And industry observers are guffawing over the dilemma CBS has with “Shit My Dad Says.” The comedy is based on the popular Twitter feed of the same name. It’s a memorable title, but it wouldn’t pass the standards test, and would likely offend millions of potential viewers. Advertisers wouldn’t exactly be lining up to throw dollars at a show with an expletive in the title. (That’s why “Bullshit! With Penn and Teller” ran on ad-free Showtime.) A good title won’t make or break a project’s chances at getting on the air. But it can make a difference when it comes time to attracting an aud. And in the age of diminished ratings returns, networks can’t afford to alienate potential viewers. It’s not easy to find the right title, which is why so many shows enter pilot season without one. Clearing a title isn’t always easy — there’s also the issue of standards, the desire to avoid viewer confusion and the question of marketability. And on top of it all, a good title will not only help explain the show’s premise, but draw people in. One good example is CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory”: Hidden inside that name is a reference to the show’s geeky characters, a nod to the idea of character origins — along with a nice euphemism for sex. ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” was also considered a near-perfect title. It creates a sense of urgency and intrigue, but is also relatable. But even strong titles can have unintended consequences. “How I Met Your Mother” is a memorable, whimsical title. But it also means critics have been hung up over the idea that the show needs to live up to its title, and quickly introduce the “mother.” Also at the Eye, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “Old Christine” was a reference to the fact that her character’s ex-husband had fallen in love with a younger woman also named Christine. CBS — sensitive to the notion that its audience sports more gray hairs than its broadcast rivals — attempted to temper the word “old” in the title by turning it into a mouthful: “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” Earlier this spring, FX was forced to change the name of its Timothy Olyphant drama “Lawman” to “Justified,” after A&E went to air with its reality series “Steven Seagal: Lawman.” And sometimes, networks stick with a title, even though they have some real reservations. Execs at CBS, for example, have wondered whether the name of their promising freshman drama “The Good Wife” has turned away some guys who might otherwise have been inclined to watch. Ditto ABC’s “Cougar Town,” which is a catchy title but doesn’t aptly describe what that sitcom has become. “Cougar Town” has morphed into a more ensemble-driven show, and the idea of Cox dating younger men (making her a “cougar,” natch) has mostly been dropped. “A bad title will hurt more than a good title will help,” said media analyst Steve Sternberg. “Shows like ‘Life on Mars,’ ‘Viva Laughlin,’ ‘The Forgotten,’ ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ — who had any idea what they were about? “?’Cougar Town’ probably was hurt by the title — ABC was trying to be cute, but it probably put off a lot of folks who otherwise would have watched or been drawn in by Courteney Cox.” More recently, the Alphabet has added the tagline “Don’t let the name fool you” to its promos for midseason drama “Happy Town” — a nod to the fact that the title is ironic, and that “Happy Town” is, well, more creepy than jolly. And of course, a bad title can be saved if the show becomes a megahit. Among TV’s current faves, Fox’s “House” (the name of star Hugh Laurie’s physician character) was confusing enough that the network unofficially added the tag “M.D.” to the title in its marketing materials. Puns, locations and character (or lead actor) names are usually safe bets for title names. Bob Newhart, for example, has starred in series named “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Newhart” and “Bob.” “New York” has appeared in countless titles. Also, though rare, networks may decide to change a show’s title after it’s already on the air. In the ’90s, “These Friends of Mine” became “Ellen,” while “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” became just “Two Guys and a Girl.” Nets are also known to recycle titles when previous versions weren’t well known. “Lost” was the name of a 2001 NBC reality show before it became ABC’s thriller. “E/R” was a 1980s hospital sitcom before “ER” became a 1990s hospital drama (both starring George Clooney). These days, the move toward presold formats also has made things easier, as projects based on books, remakes or international adaptations come with presold titles. There are plenty of contenders for worst TV title of all time, but the winner for laziest title ever is clear. When ABC was unable to find a title for its 2002 Peter Tolan comedy about the inner-workings of a fictional TV network, the Alphabet finally gave up and named the show after its timeslot. That’s when the sitcom “Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)” was born (and died, two weeks later).