Where Have All the Good Themes Gone?
The traditional title sequence has been shortened significantly over the decades. In today’s binge-watch, gotta-have-it-now culture, it’s hard to imagine a time when families gathered around tube television sets equipped with antennas and a whopping four channels to choose from, but that’s how things were in the not-so-distant past. Believe it or not, part of the appeal of some of the highest-rated programs in television history can be partially attributed to the presentation of the product and included in that promotional package was the title sequence and music.
This article isn’t necessarily intended to be a scathing indictment on the perceived ADD nature of the marketing tactics employed by film and television producers today to lure modern viewers, but it does beg the question–whatever happened to the epic TV introduction song and why can’t we have it back?
Theme music is a motif as old as motion pictures itself. Silent picture theaters of the ’20s would screen to audiences as a piano player provided music in the actual theater. Throughout the history of film and television, theme music has been used to establish the mood for a film or show. Theme music also provides necessary exposition of the plot of the program for those who haven’t seen the show before. Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies fall into this category–each utilizing theme lyrics as a way to provide the annotated version of the show’s premise to unfamiliar viewers.
Commercials Interrupted by Programming
Modern pop-culture journalists have noted the change in recent years, including CBC Music writer, Dave Shumka in his article “The Death of the TV Theme Song” in 2014. As he notes in the article, title sequence usage has steadily declined in the past three decades. Modern shows that have amassed critical acclaim in recent years such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men give you roughly 20-30 seconds of instrumental music. Are they memorable? Certainly. Do people like the music? If the amount of theme remixes on YouTube is any indication, viewers long for longer when it comes to their beloved TV show’s music. I’m not fully convinced by his thesis that the death of theme music can be attributed to a smarter audience. I’d say a more distracted audience, if not chronically bored.
The likely cause for the shortened (or absent) theme song in TV today is possibly attributed to a combination of factors. The constant connection that people keep with the internet through their PC, tablet and cell-phone has cut out the need for expository novelty music in their media choices simply because taking time out of the day to enjoy media is no longer the exception, it’s the rule.
Taking into account the fall-out of over a decade of illegal file-sharing and its adverse affects on the music industry, the majority of media consumers view most of it as purely disposable with little worth–it’s not worth the effort to take it seriously for a prolonged period of time, let alone spend money on it.
Money is another cause for the shortened intro package. The longer intro credits run, the less amount of time advertisers have to generate profit through commercial time. Older shows in syndication are sped up to allow extra time for marketers, adding credence to a commonly used phrase to describe TV today: advertisements interrupted by programming.
A Look Back at TV Themes of the Past
Sometimes theme music becomes so popular that it becomes a touchstone of the cultural identity. Can you imagine how much shorter the song-list of your high schools marching band would be if they couldn’t throw in a recognizable TV show theme? How many beginner guitar players would have lost interest if they couldn’t learn to play the theme from The Munsters or Bonanza, surf-guitar style? Here’s a look at some of my favorite TV theme songs of the past. Check these titles out on Netflix, where you can rent the DVDs of the seasons or stream them through their monthly rental service.
Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)
The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985)
The A-Team (1983-1987)
Miami Vice (1984-1990)
and the greatest TV title sequence of all time…
Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980)