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What a linguist found when she analyzed the opening credits to 50 TV shows

The best TV title sequence.
The best TV title sequence.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

People get really passionate about TV opening credits. Seemingly every website that writes even a little about television has put a list of their favorites, a whole publication (the excellent Art of the Title) is devoted to them and their counterparts in film and video games, and YouTube is awash in fan homages to beloved title sequences. Here, for example, is the Parks and Recreation title sequence remade to be about Jabba the Hut:

So it's fitting that someone has finally given the form the hard, quantitative look it deserves. University of Sydney linguist Monika Bednarek, writing in the May issue of Visual Communicationcompiled a dataset of 50 separate shows from the '00s, including data on title sequence length, style, music and sound, and more. She focused only on scripted and primetime series, so there are no reality shows or daytime soaps here, but given that, the sample is pretty broad and representative:

24, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, The Big Bang Theory, Birds of Prey, Bones, Breaking Bad, Californication, Castle, Community, Deadwood, Desperate Housewives, Dexter, Dollhouse, Entourage, Friday Night Lights, Fringe, Glee, The Good Wife, Gossip Girl, Grey's Anatomy, House, How I Met Your Mother, Human Target, In Treatment, Jericho, Legend of the Seeker, Lost, Mad Men, Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family, Monk, My Name is Earl, NCIS, The Office, Prison Break, Pushing Daisies, Rescue Me, Rome, The Shield, Smallville, Southland, Stargate Atlantis, Supernatural, Tru Calling, True Blood, United States of Tara, The Vampire Diaries, Weeds, The Wire

Here's what Bednarek found.

Most title sequences are pretty short

Some of the premium cable shows Bednarek analyzed — like Rome, The Wire, True Blood, or Dexter — featured title sequences of 90 seconds or more:

But even more shows, typically on network TV, featured title sequences that don't even include credits and merely present the title of the show with some sound or music behind it. The Vampire Diaries is a particularly extreme example:

Overall, shows lean more toward the shorter extreme, though there are a fair number of shows in middle, with credits of 21-60 seconds as opposed to Vampire Diaries-style blink-and-you'll-miss-em title flashes. Interestingly, no shows fell in the 61-90 second range:


Why the preference for shorter credits? It's hard to find a good answer, but Macleans' Jaime Weinman makes a good argument that major networks, at least, want to keep the credits short. When FOX briefly shortened commercial breaks and allowed longer episode running times in 2008 and 2009, Weinman notes, they didn't use any of that increased running time to punch up credit sequences. The preference for short sequences, he argues, comes down to two factors: ads, and the danger of viewers flipping away. "A show like Cheers could afford a minute for its famous titles…because it had five minutes of ads, as opposed to nine minutes for a half-hour show today," Weinman writes. "And it’s not just time that networks are worried about: now that TV viewers have hundreds of choices, a long title sequence can give them an excuse to change the channel."

It's worth noting, though, that even commercial-free premium cable shows, which don't need to make room for advertisers and have more time to play with, have gotten in on the short credit game. Many of HBO's recent comedies, notably Girls but also Looking and Veep, feature very fleeting openers:

"Opening credits" is kind of a misnomer

29 of the 50 shows Bednarek investigated included full credits at the beginning, while 19 did not feature credits, though some of those 19 featured a brief "created by" for the show's creator. Two shows, Glee and The Shield, did not really feature a credit sequence at all. Glee often opens with a recap of past episodes but no ensuing dedicated title or credit sequence, and The Shield intersperses its credits with the opening shots of the episode rather than carving out a separate space for them, and then culminates with this:

In any case, it's striking that only 58 percent of "opening credits" are actually, you know, credits.

Most of the backing music is instrumental

Some of the most memorable title sequences feature songs with lyrics, with perhaps the best example being The Sopranos' use of Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning."

But Bednarek finds that shows use songs with lyrics about half as much as they do instrumental tracks, like the "Blood Theme" during Dexter's title sequence:

65 percent of shows go the instrumental route, with only 31 percent including lyrics:

Only one show out of the 48 Bednarek included in this analysis had sound but no music in its sequence, and only one had spoken language but no music, but some of the musical sequences did include spoken language or sounds on top of music, à la the Gossip Girl intro:

Most credits don't involve the main characters

Bednarek found that only 22 out of the 48 title sequences focused on shows's main characters, like you see in the Flight of the Conchords opening credits:

Of the remaining 26, 12 were title flashes à la Gossip Girl or The Vampire Diaries, and 14 either focused on the show's setting and themes (the shots of Baltimore in The Wire's title sequences, views of suburbia in that of Weeds) or relied on non-realistic, often drawn or animated, representations of the characters. The most famous example of the latter kind of sequence is probably Mad Men, but Desperate Housewives did it first:

Correction: This article previously stated that 18 shows in the sample did not feature full credits; the actual number is 19. The previous figure comes from a typo in the journal article.