Guest Commentary: Main Titles Rapidly Becoming Endangered

Sep 30, 2007  •  Post A Comment

I enjoyed Marty Wall’s Guest Commentary about the importance of TV show main titles (“Cutting Main Title Short Shortchanges the Viewer,” TelevisionWeek, July 8).
Specifically, he said main titles were critical in “building up a relationship with the viewing audience — that they are the show’s introduction, an opening move, the curtain going up, the audience warm-up, the marquee, an invitation to watch.”
Unfortunately, in my opinion, TV show main titles are quickly becoming an endangered species. They already are nearly extinct. Think about hit shows like “Lost,” “24” or “Alias.” Those great shows didn’t even incorporate full-on main title opens — they offered only “logo reveals,” which are quick show logos seen in two blinks of the eye.
I fear that the days when main titles were, in and of themselves, wonderful pieces of introductory video art are quickly fading away.
As a recent example, our company pitched ABC TV to create and produce the main title open for new drama “Private Practice.” It was only after we delivered our pitch that we were informed the show would either feature a logo reveal or would incorporate no title open at all!
Ultimately, we then retained to design and produce a short logo reveal, which was seen when the show premiered last Wednesday.
And if the fact that main titles are rapidly disappearing isn’t bad enough, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for motion graphic design shops such as ours to continue producing them. These days, with TV show title pitches, the producers usually review 25 to 30 design company reels, and of those they will invite three or four design companies to pitch. However, there’s no “pitch money” available. (I’d say there is pitch money available on maybe one out of every 10 shows, but the amount is never more than perhaps $2,000.) These three or four top-notch design firms are all pitching against each other, they’re all equally good, and none of them is receiving any upfront money to develop the work they will be pitching.
In the “good ol’ days” of this main title industry (circa 1998-99,) a show open might have brought in to a design agency somewhere around $150,000, with the development of the pitch costing perhaps $10,000. Today, at best, a main title project might bring in between $20,000 and $50,000.
In order to win the pitch, companies like ours have to develop great concepts and present either storyboard visuals (which is most common) or 5- to 15-second motion clips, which require shooting, design, post, music, etc. These pitches themselves might wind up costing us $5,000 to $10,000 on a project that in total might bring in only $25,000 to $30,000. Obviously, very small profit margins, if any.
To make matters worse, most TV main title jobs are one-offs because the titles are used for at least the first three years of a show’s on-air run. Even a top hit show that lasts for 10 years on the air might only “refresh” or “renew” or “hip-ify” its main title open a couple of times during that period. Even in those circumstances, a refresh job might bring in only around $5,000.
Because show producers and design firms tend to bond, when the producers move on to a new show, they often bring their design company with them to the new endeavor. But really all that means is that we get to pitch again.
The greatest value for the design shop ultimately is the cachet — if the show is a hit.
While we still create TV main titles, we have realized that very few design companies today can survive economically on just producing show opens. The business has become brutal. For example, today most of our company’s work is in the area of online branding, marketing and promotion behind the release of big feature films from the movie studios.
As a longtime fan of TV show main titles, I’m not writing this piece to say, “The sky is falling.” I just wanted to point out to the television industry at large that main titles are, in and of themselves, highly creative and visually intriguing works that should be considered a crucial element of a program.
While they might not need to run as long as they have in the past, they are still a wonderful embellishment to any TV program, and something that should be protected and nourished — in both financial and creative terms — in the years ahead.
Rex Cook is executive creative director and founder of Tarzana, Calif.-based AvatarLabs.


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