Monday, November 27, 2006

TV Theme Songs: The Inframarginal Customer's Lament

This month-old article from the L.A. Times reports the death of the TV show theme song. TV historian David Brooks estimates that fewer than 10% of shows have traditional opening themes anymore; the rest just flash the show title or logo for a few seconds, then move right along. Lost and Grey’s Anatomy are two leading examples. What’s driving the change? One possibility is that producers want that extra minute-or-so for actual show content; another is that TV execs want the time for more advertising. But the primary explanation seems to be competition for fickle viewers:
Clearly, brevity is key. No drawn-out intro or hokey theme. Networks don't have time for that – and neither, prevailing TV thinking goes, do the country’s couch potatoes.

“Producers feel, rightly or wrongly, that that interruption, if you will, is going to lose viewers,” Brooks said.

“I think one of the things that has squeezed themes out is this relentless kind of move toward tightening everything, making it go right from joke to joke, from action to action, from shootout to shootout, so that you won't press the dreaded remote control.”
I, too, lament the passing of the theme song. Many of my favorite shows had theme songs that set the tone, making me feel like I was really watching the show. Firefly, ER, and Angel were three of my theme-song favorites. Now I sometimes find myself wondering whether an episode has truly begun or if I’m still watching the teaser.

I’m not ready to call for government intervention, of course, but I think it’s worth noting that the languishing TV theme song is (if the explanation above is correct) a possible example of a little-known species of market failure. When products have malleable characteristics (as most do), suppliers will modify those characteristics to satisfy the preferences of the marginal customers: those on the cusp between buying and not buying the product. The marginal customers will be better served, but the inframarginal customers – those who would buy the product anyway – can have their utility increased or decreased by the alterations. If there is indeed a decrease in utility to inframarginal customers, and the loss in dollar value exceeds the gain to the marginal customers, then inefficiency results. In this case, the marginal customers are fickle viewers who are just barely willing to watch a show to begin with; skipping the theme song and credits hooks these viewers in. The inframarginal customers are those who would have watched the show anyway; if they are like me, their suffer a utility loss from the absence of a theme song.


Trent said...

Don't forget, of course, to weigh the inframarginal customers who don't like the theme songs.

Bob Hawkins said...

Another factor is that closing themes are going to get squelched so that Mr Over-Caffeinated Announcer Man can promo something else on the network. If viewers like the theme, that will irritate them. Since nothing can stop the promo, better to have no theme.

a porcupine said...

Perhaps if more theme songs were as awesome as Firefly's more people would look forward to watching them?

Amy Phillips said...

It's only a market failure if you assume that the utility lost by you and other theme-song-loving consumers is greater than the utility gained by those of us, marginal and otherwise, who hate theme songs and find them a huge waste of time. I'm especially skeptical of that assumption given that I think the groups of marginal consumers, both those who will refuse to watch shows that have theme songs and those who will only watch shows with theme songs, are very small, but I'd bet that the former group is larger than the latter.

I prefer to believe that the market is finally responding to the preferences of people like me who believe that for the vast majority of shows (I except Battlestar Gallactica, which actually makes use of its theme song to give viewers updated population numbers and show teasers), theme songs are wasted time. I hope they replace them with more show rather than more commercials, but either way, fewer theme songs means fewer sequences I have to fast forward through.

Glen Whitman said...

I thought I had thrown in enough qualifiers (a possible example, if the other inframarginal viewers are like me, etc.) to avoid being accused of saying there's definitely a market failure.

The inframarginal customers who don't like the theme songs also have to counted, of course. That's the main reason I wouldn't conclude there's definitely a market failure. Still, I like the themes, as do most people I've talked to about this.

Amy: "I think the groups of marginal consumers, both those who will refuse to watch shows that have theme songs and those who will only watch shows with theme songs, are very small, but I'd bet that the former group is larger than the latter."

I agree. The producers are definitely responding to the marginal customers, so the marginal theme-likers must outweigh the marginal theme-dislikers. Otherwise the producers would keep the themes. But the issue is whether the net gain to marginal viewers are outweighed by the net loss (if any) to inframarginal viewers. And that's not hard to imagine, because there are almost always a lot more inframarginal customers than marginal customers.