Original TV theme songs a dying breed

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Popular TV theme songs have slowly disappeared from the landscape, leaving a world of “cold opens” -- plunging viewers straight into the action without an introductory tune -- and the licensed use of existing songs.

“The ponderous question is always ‘Why?’,” says Doreen Ringer Ross, vice president of film/TV relations at music publishing organization BMI, which represents songwriters and composers whose music is used for themes. “The answer is money,” she says, referring to the less-expensive option of licensing existing music.

Ringer points to mid-‘90s teen soap “Dawson’s Creek” as having kick-started the trend of forgoing an opening theme song and instead licensing a track. “Dawson’s Creek” used Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” as its opening theme. Today such shows as “CSI” use the Who, “Scrubs” employs Lazlo Bane’s “Superman” and “The O.C.” used Phantom Planet’s “California” during its run.

Not that the original theme song is completely dead, but now it more frequently takes the form of a composed score. Thomas Newman did the haunting music that opened HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” and Danny Elfman composed the sprightly music to ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.” But unlike their predecessors, those compositions have not moved beyond their intended audience to become part of the pop culture landscape. In part that’s because orchestral scores rarely sell well unless they are included on a soundtrack with songs.

Billboard’s Top 10 Original Television Theme Songs, which measures all-time sales of television themes on the singles chart, bears this out. The most recent entry is the theme to 1992’s “The Heights,” a short-lived drama about a band of the same name.

Mike Post’s music appears on the Top 10 list three times: “Theme from ‘Hill Street Blues’” and “The Rockford Files” -- both of which he wrote and performed -- and “Theme From ‘Greatest American Hero,’” which he co-wrote.

Post, whose most current work includes scoring all three “Law & Orders,” is sanguine about the decline of the original TV theme. “With the reduction of main titles, in some cases to nothing, some genuine songs have less time to get traction,” he says.

One song surprisingly not on the list is the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You,” better known as the theme to NBC’s “Friends.” Co-written by Allee Willis, the song initially was shorter because it was written specifically as a TV theme. After a DJ in Tennessee recorded the show’s opening and began airing the track, the group recorded a full-length version and released it on its 1995 album “LP” and as the B-side to the group’s single “This House Is Not a Home.” It peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 after spending eight weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart.

“Once someone cut (the length of) a theme song to where it merely served to intro the show as opposed to setting up the show and providing a mood, the market went out the window,” Willis says. “It’s not about engaging the audience.”

Billboard Top 10 Original TV Theme Songs:

1. The Heights, “How Do You Talk to An Angel,” 1992 (from “The Heights”)

2. MFSB, “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” 1974 (from “Soul Train”)

3. Jan Hammer, “Miami Vice Theme,” 1985 (from “Miami Vice”)

4. John Sebastian, “Welcome Back,” 1976 (from “Welcome Back, Kotter”)

5. Joey Scarbury, “Theme From ‘Greatest American Hero’,” 1981 (from “Greatest American Hero”)

6. Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man,” 1966 (from “Secret Agent”)

7. David Naughton, “Makin’ It,” 1979 (from “Makin’ It”)

8. Inner Circle, “Bad Boys,” 1993 (from “Cops”)

9. Mike Post, “The Theme From ‘Hill Street Blues’,” 1981 (from “Hill Street Blues”)

10. Mike Post, “The Rockford Files,” 1975 (from “The Rockford Files”)