Once again, the press is declaring the death of tv themes.
Despite such attempts at revival, the theme song is dying. Once a siren’s call
that heralded the beginning of a show and drew people to the TV set from all
over the house, the theme song is fast going the way of Harbert’s cassette
Network executives point to several causes of death: There are
more commercials per half hour of TV, leaving less time for programs. The first
thing to go is often the theme song. It’s costly to hire a good composer to
write a song and pay the residuals due with each airing. Viewers have shorter
attention spans and won’t sit through theme songs. And they can seem
unsophisticated in this era of savvy audiences.
But the loss is
significant. Anyone who has clapped along to the "Friends" theme or sat through
a middle school music class rendition of "The Greatest American Hero" song can
feel it. Good TV shows are made better by good theme songs and remembered more
fondly for them. Think of "Cheers" with its "Where Everybody Knows Your Name."
Or "The Golden Girls" and "Thank You for Being a Friend." Or the jazzy themes of
"Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law."
What I really think they mean is the death of TV theme songs, but even that isn’t true.
I’m a big TV theme fan and, while there are fewer memorable themes these days, there are certainly no shortage of instrumental or vocal themes… just not as many as in days past, and not as many that are catchy enough to remember.
Recent shows with vocal themes include Nip/Tuck, The Sopranos, Missing, Monk, Wild Card, The O.C. and Star Trek Enterprise. (And that doesn’t include shows using pop songs for their themes, like the three CSI shows). Recent shows with memorable instrumental themes include Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The West Wing, and, dare I say it, Survivor.
I think networks and studios are making a mistake not recognizing the importance of a strong theme tune/song. All it takes is a few notes of a memorable theme to create an immediate, emotional reaction in viewers, immediately evoking their affection for the show and its characters.
There’s a story, I don’t know if it’s true, that Scott Rudin wanted to ditch the finger-snapping Addams Family theme from the movie and its trailers. But when he saw the immediate reaction the first few notes had with preview audiences, he changed his mind. A strong theme is instant brand recognition…forever.
What makes the Mission Impossible movies, well, Mission Impossible is that classic Lalo Schifrin theme and the incidental score (which was also used in the film). Addams Family, Star Trek, Friends, Hawaii Five-O, Cheers, X-Files, Seinfeld, Law & Order… those are just a few of many, many TV themes that have become part of our shared culture, whether you’re a regular viewer of those shows or not.
When studios buy the remake rights to old TV series, I would argue what they are really buying is the format and theme music/song. What would Hawaii Five-O be without the Morton Stevens theme? What’s The Brady Bunch without the opening song and the incidental score?
The importance of the theme music/song also extends to most movie franchises. A James Bond movie simply isn’t a 007 film without the James Bond theme (what Bond fan didn’t long for it in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN?). What would the Man With No Name be without Ennio Morricone’s haunting score? What people remember most about Shaft isn’t the movie… it’s Isaac Hayes theme song.
The TV theme isn’t dead…it’s just not as appreciated as it should be by the very people, the networks and studios, who have the most to gain by supporting it. The problem is, the gains aren’t as immediately tangible as using the money that would have gone into the music budget on designer wardrobe, big-name guest stars, or a more elaborate action sequences…