Season Preview: No Easy Task to Get Title Just Right

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Back in 1998 television studio Carsey-Werner had a late entry in the comedy pilot season with its untitled teen ’70s project. As the pilot was gearing for a series pickup, executives debated such potential monikers as “The Kids Are All Right” and “Teenage Wasteland.” Frustrated lower-level Fox staffers began referring to the project as “That ’70s Show.”

The name stuck.

Struggles over naming shows are nothing new for television-in 1994, the pilot “Six of One” also was renamed and ultimately became “Friends”-but in an era when more cable networks than ever are producing original programming and emerging media outlets are crowding the entertainment universe with their own distinct titles, coming up with a title that stands out is as tough a task as ever.

“There are so many shows on television now, it’s so important getting identification so early in the process,” a senior network executive said. The executive added that years ago, when broadcast television was just three networks, titles did not have to stand out as much as they do in a 500-channel universe where viewers might confuse a new show with a film, an Internet site, a graphic novel or a video game. Selecting a name that accurately depicts the show’s tone is key to helping viewers immediately identify a new show, the executive said.

“Look at ‘Lost,’ ‘Survivor’ and ‘Desperate Housewives,'” the executive said. “They say something right off the bat. In a field that is so crowded, it’s critical.”

For various reasons, at least three new projects coming on the air this fall faced high-profile name changes. In July UPN changed the name of its Tuesday drama “Sex, Lies & Secrets” to “Sex, Love & Secrets.” The drama pilot “Deviant Behavior” for Fox changed its name to the working title “The Gate” last spring before becoming “Killer Instinct” for its fall debut. And at NBC, the network’s high-profile science-fiction series “Fathom” was renamed “Surface” in June. NBC, Fox and UPN declined to comment for this article.

While the process varies show by show, studio by studio and network by network, the final say generally goes to the networks. For that reason, name changes rarely come as a surprise to the writers who create series, Catherine Pope, senior VP of drama series for NBC Universal Television Studio, said. NUTS is producing “Surface” for its corporate sister NBC.

“Most of the writers will probably tell you they hate picking titles,” Ms. Pope said. “They understand it’s ultimately not really their choice. It’s ultimately a network call. It’s what they feel they can promote.”

In the case of “Sex, Love & Secrets,” network staffers considered the word “Love” more universally appealing, while “Lies” was considered more negative, an insider said.

The change to “Sex, Love & Secrets” came about seven weeks after the show was introduced at the network’s upfront presentation but before UPN started to actively promote the series with viewers. Even if disagreements lingered among network executives over the title, UPN couldn’t wait any longer to come up with something different, because it would cut into the time needed to introduce the title to viewers.

Lost Promo Time

The longer you go without a title, the more stressful it gets for the network, since valuable promotion time is lost. “The need to promote earlier has never been greater,” the network executive said.

The pressure is in fact on. Networks put titles through a vetting process to make sure there are no other media properties with the same or similar names. In a world where using show titles to merchandise everything from T-shirts to coffee cups is a crucial part of the TV business model, making sure a trademark is available has become imperative, insiders said.

With those kinds of risks, creative executives sometimes spend months coming up with titles, only to have them rejected by network legal departments.

One firm that helps networks research potential names is Thomson CompuMark, which produces research reports that determine whether the same title is currently in use by another entertainment property. Depending on the complexity of a title, the company’s reports can be extensive, said Nate Hill, general manager of CompuMark’s Washington office.

“It’s all about risk mitigation, and the entertainment industry has historically been a conservative industry,” he said.

Titles cannot be copyrighted, but a network or production company can sue an entity using a similar title, claiming unfair competition and adverse impact on business.

“You might win,” Mr. Hill said of lawsuits over similar titles, “but was it worth the negative publicity?”

This forces networks to go with compromise titles that protect them from legal scrutiny but may not resonate with audiences. While networks and studios work hard to find optimal show titles, a poorly conceived show name is rarely the cause for a series’ demise, Ms. Pope said.

“There are people who claim their show failed because of a bad title,” she said. “That’s an easy excuse.”

To succeed, every show has to connect with audiences, regardless of its title, Ms. Pope said.

“It’s great to have a great title,” she said, “but I don’t think it hurts the show if you don’t.”