Do you have that TV show with a memorable theme song that single-handedly keeps you wanting more? I’ve got lots. The shows might be good on their own, but it’s listening to the theme song that excites me for what’s about to occur. It’s what tempts me to binge-watch on a rainy Sunday. Television intros have been staples of American and pop culture for decades — nevertheless, they've changed over the years, and not always for the better.
TV shows are at our fingertips anytime we want. With streaming services like Netflix or Hulu, we can watch thousands of shows at the click of a button. According to CNBC, “Year-over-year, pay-tv viewership was down 12.5%, while broadcast was down 5.4%.” We can pop in our AirPods and watch at the coffee shop or as we walk to class, and the algorithm curates our content just for us.
But not long ago, families would sit together and engage in a weekly program they all enjoyed. Friends would get together weekly to watch the latest episode of their favorite comedy or drama. Channels like NBC marketed their show lineups with blocks like Thursday night’s “Must See TV.” And everyone knew the theme song of their favorite show.
Previously, TV songs even reached the top spots on the Billboard Charts. Johnny Rivers’s song “Secret Agent Man” for the 1960s TV show “Danger Man” reached number three. The “Friends” theme song, “I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts, made it to number 17 on the same chart. Nothing gets you ready to watch a show more than a banger song.
Shows like “Cheers,” “The Brady Bunch” and “The Simpsons” have recognizable theme songs that we all know, even if we have never watched them. There are entire Spotify playlists devoted to theme songs from previous eras. They are fun to sing along to and they take you back in time to the shows you used to love.
The trend toward shorter musical intros, or sometimes no theme, emerged in the 1980s. One example of a short theme is from a show I’m currently watching, “Lost,” which starts with a short, anxiety-producing sound. But this is not the only recent show with a theme song that is completely skippable. “Glee” is a show with an abundance of musical numbers but leaves much to be desired with its lame theme song. The show “Two and a Half Men” simply chants men repeatedly. According to The Kennedy Center, the trend of shorter theme songs can be tied to TV remote controls. “The people who made the shows started to worry: If we spend all that time on a theme song, people will check out what else is on,” the study concludes. “And maybe they’ll never come back.”
Another reason shows began to cut down the theme song was commercialization. A growing number of commercial advertisers during TV shows left less time for catchy tunes. Programs started cutting down on the length of their theme songs to allow for more ad time. In 2019, ABC spent over 17 minutes on advertisements over a one-hour time block. This is a trend that started in the 1980s. Streaming services also contributed to the shorter intro. There isn’t much reason to invest in a long theme song if most people hit “skip intro.”
Theme songs were meant to set the premise of the show. In one short tune, we understand the backstory of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” But as Looper explains, this is no longer as necessary because audiences “are much more likely to seek out and watch them [shows] from the beginning, and if they want to know more about what they're getting into, it's super easy to get all the information they need with the devices we carry around in our pockets every day.”
Recently, some shows have returned to the longer-form style. A famous example of this is “Game of Thrones,” where the entire intro song is approximately two minutes long. And it does precisely what a strong theme should do: set the tone for what comes next.
We’re undoubtedly living in a golden age of TV. Almost everything about TV now is better than it used to be: we have incredible effects, costume design, actors and writers. The one thing currently missing is the music. It’s time to bring back theme intros that hook us from the beginning and hang around in our heads for the rest of the day.
Jack Davis (he/him) is a freshman majoring in journalism.