Titles are show’s first message

Marketers say show's name is vital for audiences

Watch Hugh Laurie roam the hallways of Princeton Plainsboro Hospital, and the name “House” immediately comes to mind. Except it almost didn’t turn out that way.

In fact, when it comes to TV titles, what seems obvious now wasn’t always so.

Writers might want to keep an original title, but they understand the importance of marketing, research and focus groups in coming up with alternatives.

“If you heard about a show called ‘House,’ you wouldn’t think it’s about a diagnostician with a Vicodin problem,” says Fox marketing topper Joe Earley in explaining the battles the network went through in coming up with a title for a show about a genius doctor with a bad bedside manner.

“There was a big fight internally about that,” recalls Earley of the discussions prior to the show’s 2004 launch. “(The name) didn’t sound like a medical show and didn’t tell you anything, but the people on the show stuck to their guns, and now you couldn’t imagine the show being called anything else.”

When a series is in development, there is always a struggle among a network, studio and writers to come up with the best possible name. The writer wants to ensure the title is catchy and unique, but the studio’s and network’s main concern is to be able to market it to audiences.

As is the case with “House,” sometimes a title doesn’t have to be so self-explanatory that it will automatically pique viewer interest. A little mystery can be good. Take ABC’s “Castle,” for instance.

That drama could’ve been about a medieval family’s manor, or the employees of a hamburger chain that specialized in sliders. Instead, the successful Alphabet skein is centered on a mystery novelist.

On the other hand, HBO’s “Hung” — which has a name that might attract the casual TV watcher — is pretty much about what most everyone thought it would be about.

Sometimes a network will massage a title to get it just right. And yet, even if they do, that’s far from a guarantee that the show will be a hit.

“It’s a tortuous process to get there, trust me,” said Michael Sardo, creator of “Fairly Legal,” the USA Network drama that was originally called “Facing Kate.” “Ultimately, you want it to fit really what the show is; you don’t want the title to be something that the show is not. I do think that this (title) encapsulates our show very well.”

Fox announced a title change in October when Shawn Ryan’s “Ride-Along” — about cops in the Windy City — was retitled “The Chicago Code,” which premiered in February. So far the cop drama is earning middling ratings and hasn’t gotten the Super Bowl bump Fox was hoping for when the series received promotion during the big game.

While title changes are common, most come before a show is seen by the public. “Ride-Along” was presented to international buyers at the L.A. Screenings in May as well as journos during the summer.

But, if a network believes a poor title will hurt a show’s chances, a late change is better than no change at all. Once a network commits to a new name, it must completely wipe out the old title as if it never existed. That means altering posters, websites, billboards, marketing materials and other promos to make sure there’s a singular message to potential audiences.

Jamil Barrie, a principal at Title Doctors, which works with studios and networks to come up with titles for television and film, says the best titles should evoke an emotion, be appealing, be easy to pronounce and be able to be spelled without possible errors.

While she doesn’t believe a poor title necessarily cripples a show’s chance to be a hit out of the gate, a good title offers the best chance for success.

For instance, some have said that FX’s short-lived “Terriers” wasn’t an appropriate fit for a show about two laid-back San Diego investigators. Artwork included a dog, and the title was meant to imply the that the two lead characters were tenacious in their pursuit of whatever they were chasing.

Yet that connection was difficult to convey to auds, and some who didn’t watch from the outset said the title was confusing. The show was canceled after its first season.

Simple is usually best, says Barrie, who adds that single-word titles are often the ones viewers recall first when it comes to remembering their favorite shows — think “MASH,” “Lost” or “Seinfeld.” But there are variants within that rule, too. Barrie says the title for NBC’s megahit “Friends” was perfect. (“You’re not going to forget it”), but “Fringe” may be above most people’s heads.

Laura Lancaster, NBC Entertainment/Universal Media Studios’ exec VP for drama, says networks spend a good deal of time brainstorming titles. “Sometimes it can make a big difference,” she says.

Barrie and Lancaster agree that focus groups are integral in seeing what jibes with the public, and, more important, what doesn’t.

“You want to have folks out there understand what the show is. (Feedback is) helpful (in cases when) we’re way off, especially when you get information back you didn’t expect at all,” Lancaster explains, adding that it’s good to have outsiders chime in with a different perspective than the network.

And on whether there’s often head-scratching in NBC’s exec suites when a show fails to connect, Lancaster says, “It’s always easier to second-guess titles of shows that didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean a different title would’ve made a difference.”

There were many theories why Fox’s “Lone Star” didn’t succeed — bad timeslot, unappealing concept, poor casting. But, according to Earley, the title did the con-man show no favors.

“I believe there was title confusion,” Earley says. “Originally (the show) was called ‘Midland’ — not that that was any better.”

Of course “Two-timing Texas bigamist” might have been a bit too on-the-nose.

And it’s more than one word.