Titles in TV

4 Nov

One particular change made in the adaptation of David Simon’s The Corner, an HBO miniseries, from The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, was that of the title. Omitting the latter, more descriptive portion, The Corner is shorter, simpler, and easier to remember. So, what’s in a name?

A television series’ title is almost always the first impression a potential viewer will have of the show; oftentimes the title will be the most amount of information the potential viewer will have about the show (due to TV guides, or word of mouth). Therefore, it is extremely important to assign meaning to that short, but well organized word or phrase. A sizeable proportion of pilots up for consideration by major networks are still untitled; oftentimes focus groups and consultants are brought in to aid writers and creative executives in choosing the right name.

The Hollywood Reporter describes nine “dos and don’ts” in assigning a name to a show; I listed them below, as it was a relatively inclusive list of the highlights.

(1)    DON’T be too witty

Such as Better Off Ted

(2)    DON’T be too generic

Such as Housewives instead of Desperate Housewives

(3)    DON’T be too long

Such as The New Adventures of Old Christine, shortened to just Old Christine

(4)    DON’T be lazy

Such as That 80’s Show as a follow up of That 70’s Show

(5)    DON’T be too vague

Such as Traffic Light, The River, or Up All Night – What are these about?

(6)    DO keep it simple

Such as, Friends, Seinfeld, Cheers, or ER

(7)    DO be specific

Such as, Desperate Housewives or Modern Family

(8)    DO be timely

Such as, The Good Wife airing in light of political scandals

(9)    DO use humor

Such as, Grey’s Anatomy or Curb Your Enthusiasm

It is difficult to claim that a title has a huge help in the overall success of the show; usually it is the quality of the show itself that carries it to good ratings. What a name does is bring in the initial viewers, similar to the book cover effect. Friends is hailed as being an excellent name; it is simple, descriptive, and inviting. However, it might be safe to assume that the show could have found success under its original name, These Friends of Mine. A terrible name, however, usually has much more influence in the failure of a show. For example, Dweebs, a canceled 1995 show, was told that nobody over the age of 16 would watch it.

Would The Corner be any different if it had been listed as The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood? Or, a totally new name more descriptive than the result but shorter than the original? As somebody that has already seen the series, I feel as though The Corner is a wonderful name; it is concise and encompasses the entire meaning and content of the show. The characters’ entire lives revolve around the corner. The name is short and sparks curiosity. However, as somebody who had absolutely no prior knowledge of the show, The Corner does not necessarily specify much; I remember envisioning a much more pleasant type of corner going off the title on the course syllabus alone.

The decision to shorten the show’s name to The Corner was certainly an easy decision, but illuminates the power that a name has in determining the fate of a show. However, despite the nine do’s/don’t’s spelled out, among other considerations, I’m not sure if there is a specific  rhyme or reason to the naming of shows (otherwise it would be much easier to “get right”).


(1) Hollywood Reporter: “The Art of Picking TV Titles: 9 Do’s and Don’ts”

(2) The Chicago Tribune: “Right Title Can Make or Break a TV Program”

6 Responses to “Titles in TV”

  1. Kirsten Madsen November 4, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    I totally identify with number 5. Traffic Light, Up all Night, and Happy Endings are basically the same show in my mind. It’s a real problem.

    I think going with the straight book title would have had an interesting effect on the series. “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood” seems like the title of a documentary style show, the kind Charles Dutton introduces us to in the series introduction. But the show that unfolds before us is “The Corner” through and through. The multiple definitions of and references to “The Corner” within the series allow us to create our :____ endings to the title as they appear. The topic of show is not just what it is to live in the “inner city”. It is drug addiction, race, police brutality, violence, teen pregnancy…a rotating cast of tough issues. Leaving us with just “The Corner” and having various definitions throughout the series allows us to recast the meaning of the show as we watch.

  2. kebullock November 4, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    I agree that “The Corner” is a fairly vague title but given the context of HBO, I think it serves its purpose well. HBO has spent its entire lifetime seasoning its viewers to interact with quality television as if it were art. Art itself implies a certain level of engagement between art, artist, and viewer. Given the many meanings that the corner itself takes in the narrative (both literal and metaphorical), I see the title as being another level on which the audience can interact with the show as a form of art. Given the intentionally vague title, we as viewers are called to impose our own meaning on the phrase, helping us figure out what themes we found significant in the show and carry that with us even after the show is over.

  3. Keegan Hankes November 4, 2012 at 9:02 pm #

    It might also be useful to think specifically about titling television shows that are adaptations, like “The Corner.” The mini series is significantly different than the novel in terms of plot and formal features. I’d argue that in this specific case the title “The Corner,” as opposed to “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood,” could be seen as a marker for these types of departures. HBO strikes me as an organization that is more than likely hyper-conscious of these elements of its programming – given the painstaking construction of their own legacy.

    But then if that’s true, what about a show like “The Walking Dead” that holds the same title as the graphic novel that it’s based while making huge departures in terms of content? Surely AMC is similarly conscious of these types of production decisions, yet they stuck with the name of the graphic novel.

    I’m inclined to agree with Hannah that a title can be useful when trying to establish an early following, but ultimately takes backseat to the quality of a program.

  4. ambailey9113 November 4, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    As someone has noted above, this subtitle suggests that the miniseries is primarily a documentary, rather than a dramatized work. An more important point, however, is that HBO has to appeal to all of its viewers when marketing a miniseries or show. While The Corner was critically acclaimed, its subject matter, people living in an impoverished area of Baltimore (“an Intercity Neighborhood”), probably is not something that appeals or is relatable to HBO’s core demographic. The book, on the other hand, probably had an audience that was predisposed to or particularly interested in the issues it addressed, making the subtitle a key means of communicating that. Secondly, the book The Corner also makes an important point that the issues affecting West Baltimore and contributing to the drug trade there are international and not restricted to the urban “ghetto.” The form and length of the book allow these issues to be explored more fully. However, given the structure of the miniseries, namely the lack of an expository or edifying narrative voice, much of this rhetoric is lost. One way to restore this, then, is in the title. In eliminating the subtitle, the producers succinctly signal that the corner is not restricted to “an Intercity Neighborhood” but that it is everywhere.

    • leemac113 November 4, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

      While I don’t buy that there are standardizable rules of right and wrong ways to title a television series, a novel, a film, or any other type of artistic expression, I definitely think The Corner was aptly named because it concisely captures the importance of “the corner” in West Baltimore. In this poverty-stricken and drug-riddled world which this representation depicts, there is one location which serves as both the locus of life and the end of life all at once, and this is the corner. The question for me lies less in whether the miniseries was aptly named and more in whether the book was, although I don’t think either version of the title takes away from the power of the story and the exposure of this atmosphere which most of us are completely unfamiliar with.

  5. elisabethsanders November 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    The point you make about good titles ultimately losing out to overall quality in terms of drawing a viewership (other than whatever initial bump it might provide) I think is a good one, as well as the corollary that a bad title can have a much worse effect. Think of Cougar Town, the lackluster performance of which has been often attributed in part to its horrible (and misleading) title, or Don’t Trust The B In Apartment 23, which I cannot for the life of me convince a single friend to watch.
    An interesting aspect of this to consider, I think, is the extent to which the negative effect that titles can have on series performance is caused not just by titles creating an unattractive initial impression that discourages viewership, but also through its relation to television as a social activity—maybe not in terms of watching shows together, but certainly talking about them. There’s an extent to which no one wants to say that they watch something called “Cougar Town” because they feel dumb saying it, so even if they watch and like it, they never tell anyone they watch it, preventing the show from gathering any kind of word-of-mouth visibility. Even if people want to watch the show, no one wants to talk about it, and the show suffers as a result—which sheds an interesting light on the power that social networks have over viewership. (How many of the shows we watch did we begin simply because a bunch of our friends kept talking about them?)

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