Many writers, professional or not, will admit that titles are difficult. A good headline might cause a person to check out poor work while a bad headline might cause that same person to ignore good work. But choosing a good title is far from an exact science. Some TV show names go too far, some don’t go far enough, and some just don’t give a clue what the show is about.
Shakespeare asked what was in a name – and on TV the answer is a lot. Better Ted, Don’t trust the B in Apt. 23and The Knights of Prosperity are just a few of the solid sitcoms that have been strangled by titles that put off audiences. But a bad headline doesn’t always undermine a show’s prospects. Who would have thought that a sitcom called That 70s show would pass the first week, let alone have two spinoffs? Grey’s Anatomy was originally called surgeons before it became a big hit. It just depends on the audience a TV show is trying to cultivate.
Better Ted isn’t a dumber title than buffy the vampire slayer. Still buffy — movie, TV series and comics — existed in the world exaggerated and exaggerated titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which appealed to the young audience sought by these shows. Better Ted aimed squarely at adults. The title was too disposable, childish and meaningless to capture the attention of this audience. Another mistitled ABC show, Don’t trust the B in apartment 23, had a title that was both too long and sounded like the creators wanted to do a cable show but found themselves struggling with broadcast standards and practices. It suggested to the viewer that they were getting a watered down version, and it only lasted two seasons.
Several new series also have fewer big nicknames. Hulu’s To restart is a sitcom about a sitcom reboot, Apple TV+ has Life by Ella, in which a 13-year-old girl battles cancer and faces her fears. NBC is not a legal drama at all Lopez versus Lopez looks like a reboot of George Lopez’s ABC sitcom, but this time his real-life daughter plays his daughter on TV. Their generic titles don’t help when the content landscape is now so vast that their competition isn’t just limited to network, cable, and streaming, but also entities like Twitch, Instagram, and YouTube. Ninja has 23.8 million YouTube subscribers, more viewers than many TV shows.
People do judge a book by its cover, and they judge a TV series by its name. Some writers have a great title and start from there, but most TV creators use a working title to replace when the series is fleshed out, and of course said title requires network approval. The quest is to find something right – something that tells people what the show is about but isn’t so specific that it puts the show in a box. If it’s a sitcom, the title can have a little humor, but it’s best if the title is a descriptor that doesn’t leave the audience wondering before moving on to one of the many other options available.
Being simple and to the point while also being creative is a real skill, and while a series can overcome a bad title (like the long-running sitcom Cougarville), most end up in the dustbin of television history, never to see their cast applauded on stage at the Paley Center for Media. For every hugely popular sitcom like Friendsthere is also a Traffic light, which was a TV series but most people never knew about it.