What Happened to Television Theme Songs?

I woke up this morning singing, “Maybe the world is blind/or just a little unkind.” If that doesn’t seem familiar to you, then let me give you a little refresher.

Yes, it’s the theme song to Punky Brewster, the 1980s sitcom about the orphaned girl who finds a new and loving home with her foster father. I loved this show when I was a kid, not least because of its awesome theme song.

(Also, it had an episode in which Punky scores some tickets to a Cubs 1984 playoff game. Spoiler alert: she gets to the park, finds out the tickets are bogus, and by some twist of fate ends up sitting in the Cubs dugout!)

This happens to me every now and then. Out of the blue a television theme song will just pop into my head.

“Boy the way Glenn Miller played…” (All in the Family)

“Show me that smile again/Oooh, show me that smile…” (Growing Pains)

“They’re creepy and they’re kooky/Mysterious and spooky…” (The Addams Family)

“So no one told you life was gonna be this way…” (Friends)

You’ll notice that all of those shows originally aired between the 1970s and 1990s, which brings me to my point. What happened to the catchy television intro theme song?

Sitcoms used to always have theme songs, and from Gilligan’s Island to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, these songs were frequently catchy and people came to identify them with the show. The theme song sometimes seemed as important as any character on the show.

Often the songs told the story of the show. However, lyrics weren’t always necessary. I can close my eyes and still hear some of the instrumental songs. The ER theme alone gave me confidence in those doctors. All those people on 90210 seemed so damn cool, and their rhythmic theme song sure didn’t hurt.

Then at some point—probably in the past ten or fifteen years—the theme song virtually disappeared from network television. Most new shows don’t even bother with a theme song.

Modern Family made a half-hearted effort at a theme song, but really just has a musical ten second intro more than a song. Same with How I Met your Mother, Mike & Molly and 2 Broke Girls. Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock do marginally better.

So what happened? Why are networks so down on the theme song?

There are a few reasons.

First, by forgoing the theme song, the show has a little bit more time to develop the story. This seems like a valid point, but I’m not the first to point out that much of what is on television is plain crap. At least the folks who produced Family Matters realized that they could have a decent theme song and still have time to produce a crappy show.

Second, there are financial considerations. If the show gains some time by not having a theme song, and they don’t use that time to tell the story, then maybe they can squeeze in another commercial. The fabulous 1970s show, The Fall Guy, devoted a full 100 seconds to its memorable intro, yet somehow lasted for five years, so I doubt another Buick commercial is really going to make or break a show.

Third, producers are worried that if they delay the beginning of the show at all, viewers might turn to something else.

I see their point, but I think they’ve got it wrong. I don’t think people are going to surf away from a show, but in the age of the DVR, it’s more likely they’ll just fast forward through it.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. We now live in a time when we don’t even have to watch commercials. If we’re not going to watch the theme song, then why should a show have one?

Luckily, there are a few shows in recent years that haven’t given up on trying to make a musical impression off the bat. Rescue Me, Nip/Tuck, The Americans, and Downton Abbey all have memorable intros that I’ve made a point to watch, even in the age of DVR.

(Is it a coincidence that none of those shows are on regular networks?)

Still, most shows today don’t have theme songs, and I think they’re missing out on the chance to achieve greatness and immortality.

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Filed under: Music, Television

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