The birth of the television theme song is tied to the creation of the medium itself. Many of TV’s earliest programs were adapted from popular radio programs and the same music that played a part in the radio programs became part of the transition to television. Over the next seventy years, these 30- to 90-second spots acquainted viewers with a series’ premise or character, or simply served to reintegrate viewers into the essence of a particular program.
That all ended with one man. This man: Ted Harbert.
As head of programming for ABC in the early 1990s, Harbert demanded that all network shows drop their theme songs and embed the opening credits into the first few minutes of screen time. He argued this allowed viewers “to get into the story right away” and kept them from “zapping around the dial looking for other programming while themes and titles are being offered.” Plus, the move would also allow the network to squeeze in even more commercials. After the other networks began following ABC’s lead and phasing out theme songs, the TV opening theme saw its decline start.
The theme song wouldn’t go silently into the night, though. Many lamented the loss of the theme song, including some from the television industry itself. From Jack Elliot, composer of the themes for Charlies Angels and Barney Miller: “People don’t whistle the plots,” and Bruce Miller, the composer of the Fraiser theme: “Getting rid of a theme song is like doing away with the overture of a Broadway show,” to actor James Garner: “Maybe they ought to eliminate some of the TV executives,” to Jim McKairnes, a vice president at CBS, who described theme songs as “little bits and pieces of history” and “the soundtrack of our lives.”
And while the art form could have experienced a renaissance through digital providers, even Netflix seems to be hell-bent on eliminating the theme song, giving viewers of multiple episodes of a show (both Netflix originals and programming acquired by the company) a “Skip Intro” option that eliminates the title sequence completely.
Today, while the television theme song isn’t extinct, it’s definitely on the endangered list.
In an effort to preserve our television heritage, each entry in this series will examine five TV theme songs.
Magnum, P.I. (CBS, 1980-1988)
Set on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Hawaii, Magnum, P.I. follows the investigations of suave Thomas Magnum, who solves crimes while living on the estate of the well-known, but never seen, Robin Masters and trading insults with estate manager Higgins, who Magnum suspects was really Masters living incognito. The show’s adventure-inspiring instrumental theme was composed by Mike Post and Peter Carpenter.
The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-1964)
The Twilight Zone was an anthology series that blended elements of science fiction, horror, and suspense, with the touches of the surreal. While Bernard Herrmann, a composer famous for his film scores for Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, wrote a lush instrumental for the series, it was replaced at the end of the first season by the now-iconic guitar-driven theme by Marius Constant. Rod Serling welcomed viewers over Constant’s opening track, which he created by splicing two the program’s popular incidental music cues together. The new theme would become one of television’s most iconic themes.
CHiPs (NBC, 1977-1983)
Focusing on the high-speed, crime-fighting adventures of motorcycle officers Frank Poncherello and Jon Baker of the California Highway Patrol, CHiPs had a high-energy instrumental theme composed by John Parker entitled, interestingly enough, “The CHiPs Theme.”
Full House (ABC, 1987-1995)
For many years, Full House served as the cornerstone of ABC’s TGIF Friday night lineup. The show focused on Danny Tanner who, after the death of his wife, recruits his brother-in-law (Jesse) and best friend (Joey) into his home to help raise his three young daughters. “Everywhere You Look,” the series’ catchy theme song, played over scenes introducing the large family throughout the city of San Francisco, where the show was based. The song was written by Jesse Frederick, Bennett Salvay, and Jeff Franklin, and performed by Frederick.
The Flintstones (ABC, 1960-1966)
Long before The Simpsons, the Flintstone family was ruling the primetime airwaves. Based on the classic television series The Honeymooners, The Flintstones featured Stone Age husband-and-wife Fred and Wilma Flintstone, along with their neighbors/best friends Barney and Betty Rubble, who lived in the prehistoric town of Bedrock. The opening theme, “Meet the Flintstones,” was a lively, narrative tune written by Hoyt Curtin and performed by a studio chorus. Like The Twilight Zone, the most iconic theme of the series was not the only song to be used over the opening credits. The first two seasons featured an instrumental opening song, also by Curtin, called “Rise and Shine,” which would later be used occasionally as backing music in the series.
Remember, every time you listen to a television theme song, you’re preserving our television heritage. It may seem like an inconsequential act, but not all heroes wear capes. Long after a show’s story has faded from our memory, the music stays with us. For the great theme songs of television shows past live within us all. It only takes a moment to hum a few bars or sing a few lines for them never to be forgotten.