What should you think about every time you brainstorm show titles?
Every good show has to have a memorable name. It has to be the kind of name that generates instant recognition. I bet that if you start naming shows off the top of your head right now, you could reach over 100 of them. Some of them are going to pop into your mind as you go, even though you haven’t watched or even thought of those particular shows in years. It’s uncanny. More impressively, not one of them is going to feel out of place. Every title fits. You never question why that show has its particular title. It just does and it just fits.
How come M.A.S.H. is just as good of a title for a show as something like Godless, The West Wing, or Curb Your Enthusiasm? How many people even know what M.A.S.H. stands for? Why does a western show like Godless have such a provoking but obscure name while a show about the West Wing is literally called The West Wing? How can these diametrically opposed approaches both work?
Naming a show is all about generating interest. You have to make people ask themselves, “hmm, what’s that about?” without giving everything away and all of these titles do that in one way or another. It’s a tricky business and every show is different. However, when I provide input on show titles for PragerU the following principles help me gauge the quality of different options.
A good title rolls off the tongue
Everyone should be able to say the name of your show easily, and it’s best if the title is fun to say. Mouth rhythm is a big part of this. If your show’s title is only one syllable then it needs to be an expressive name with a verbal punch. If it is longer than one syllable, then it needs to have a cadence that can be followed without stumbling.
Alliteration is a great device to employ in the name of a show because it establishes a vocal pattern. The West Wing and Sesame Street benefit from this technique. However, you need to be cautious because alliteration of certain sounds, such as over-using “s” sounds, makes the title harder to say.
When possible, anagram titles can save an otherwise taxing title. CSI is a great example. Nobody wants to repeat “Crime Scene Investigation” over and over! Plus, “CSI” rolls off the tongue a bit like “siesta.” How refreshing. NCIS failed to achieve the same effect, not only because everyone invariably thinks it is called NCSI, but also because the “N” ruins all of the mouth rhythm in the name.
Rhythm is essential in multi-word titles. You might notice that titles are often 3 words or less. That’s because a three-word title allows for an easy up-down-up cadence. Titles like Game of Thrones and House of Cards follow a standard noun-article-noun format. The first word often employs soft consonants, followed by a slight dip with the article. The last word makes a statement with hard consonants like “C,” “K,” and “R.” This combination ensures a title that is easy to start saying, with a note of finality at the end.
A good title will be mysterious.
Your title should NEVER give away the whole game. It should be like a cocktail dress that hugs the hips, shows some leg, and seems like it could almost slip right off — but doesn’t. Everyone stares at the woman wearing that dress. She teases with enough to make you want more. If your title isn’t alluring, then it’s nothing. It should go without saying, but titles that outright tell people what your show is are like a sign saying “come inside, it smells bad.”
Whenever it’s time to come up with the name for a new show, people tend to shy away from the ambiguous titles. When we launched PragerU’s Guess or Mess, it was nearly named “The PragerU Game Show.” I pushed back on this at every turn because it had no excitement. Guess or Mess tells you just enough: There’s some form of trivia and the penalty is something gross. We don’t need to scream “game show” for people to infer that it’s a game show. The ambiguity is the sauce that makes a show title work.
Some people will even say that the title has to make sense — but I think that if you have made a title mysterious enough then it doesn’t need to. Look at all the famous books and movies which have metaphorical names that make no sense until you have experienced the full product: Sleepless in Seattle, The Grapes of Wrath, The Screwtape Letters, Lord of the Flies, The Shawshank Redemption, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, etc. If titles really needed to make sense these would be called: Widower Finds Love Over the Radio, Dust Bowl Immigrants Move to California, Demon Seduces Guy, Kids On An Island Kill Each Other, Innocent Dude Escapes Prison, A Southern Girl Survives the Civil War, and How to fight Nazis in Morocco. Not interesting.
When in doubt, it’s better to land on an interesting but mysterious title than a straightforward one. People will see the latter and move on thinking “ok, I know what that’s about.” The same people will stop at the former, and watch in order to find the answer to the title’s meaning.
A good title has multiple meanings.
The best alternative to a title that has an uncertain meaning is one that has multiple meanings. This brings an element of delight to your audience because you’ve engaged them in a secret. I know it’s dumb, but every person gets a little excited when they realize they have discovered a hidden double-meaning to something. Even if it’s relatively obvious, it makes them feel brilliant for a moment. We’ve all experienced the moment of conviction that we were the first to figure it out.
Couple this with the deeper allure of a mysterious title and you have a killer combo. Why? Because you’ve shown the audience that there is yet more excitement to be had by digging in deeper. Oh sure, you got the small victory by figuring out the double meaning, but that’s just the surface my friend. Now don’t you want to know why there was a double meaning? People like to go down the rabbit hole. Sometimes you just need to give them a nudge.
It’s better NOT to depend on a host’s name for your title.
Whenever possible, if your show has a big name host, try not to take the easy way out by making their name the core of the show title. It’s almost always better to create a compelling title and tack on “with host name” or “hosted by name.” Why is this? It seems to fly in the face of common sense. After all, the big name is recognizable and should therefore be a big draw. There are several flaws in this reasoning:
First, if you have a big name host then you will get the big-name bonus whether or not you name drop them in your title. “Crossover with Candace Owens” was a better show name than “The Candace Owens Show.” Either way, every advertisement was going to highlight Candace, but the latter title added nothing else to the mix. This was the exact thinking behind PragerU’s new show with Amala Ekpunobi. Rather than “The Amala Ekpunobi Show” we chose “Unapologetic with Amala” because it added a bit of intrigue and attitude.
Second, if your audience has preconceived notions about your host then the show title will do nothing to excite them. The die-hards will show up expecting the same old thing and be disappointed if your show deviates from their expectations. Non-fans of the host will avoid it for the same reason that they assume it will be more of the same from that personality. Only by adding the allure of a strong title can you shake up these expectations — exciting both groups at the prospect of something they haven’t seen before.
Third, if your show has a real concept behind it, then you don’t want to be tied down to a single host. If the show is named after them, their personality will come to infect it and they’ll feel entitled to call all the shots. The power dynamic favors the success of the host rather than the show. If they ever leave, your show is dead. Keep a degree of independence instead: Here is the show, and it’s currently hosted by this person. Tomorrow it can be the same show, hosted by another. Develop a fan-base for the show rather than the host. A show should not live and die with its host, but if it has their name its fate is in their hands.
Fourth, your host might actually prefer some separation. This is especially true when they are involved in multiple productions. No gregarious personality wants to be reduced to “oh you’re that guy from that one show!” Always pitch to big-namers the benefit of independence and opportunity to do more by retaining their name. This benefits everyone.
But what if you have to meet halfway? Then the best thing to do is to put a unique spin on the host’s name. The O’Reilly Report, The Rubin Report, and Watters’ World are great examples. You can even feature the host’s full name as long as it is coupled with a unique additional word. The Joe Rogan Experience and Tucker Carlson Tonight highlight this approach. The benefit here is that you can lean on the host’s big name, but set a unique tone that is independent from their existing portfolio of work. The downside is that when they are done, the show is still done.
However, if a concrete objective of your show is to create a name for your host or to boost their public image, then in this one case where you absolutely must put their name into the title. When doing this, always shun options that make a pun out of the host’s name. There’s never a good reason to make light of your star’s public image.
A good title will be one that your host likes to say.
Often, your show host is the biggest obstacle to finding a great name. Even if you’ve checked every box and you’ve got the most banger title ever, the host really needs to like saying it. If they don’t it’s going to come through in their performance. That could ruin your show completely. No matter how good the title is it will never make up for an unenthusiastic personality.
This is why you should always involve the host in the title selection process. Steer them toward options that have a lot of merit. Sometimes the host has a title in mind that they’ve fallen in love with. If it’s not a great title then your job is to find out why they like it and convince them to choose another that satisfies that itch while doing a service to the whole product.
It may be that your host actually cares only a little about the name, but this ‘favorite’ option is their way to be involved in the process. Include the host and make them feel heard by weighing their title fairly against other options. You might find that’s all they wanted in the first place. A good exercise is to allow your host to make the final selection between three or four final titles. Ensure that these are titles you know will be good for the show, and no matter which they pick, you can’t lose. This exercise offers your host the chance to own the title and they will certainly fall in love with it over time. They might even think it was their idea all along!
Always come up with at least 10 title ideas.
It should be obvious that you can’t follow any of the previous advice if you haven’t explored options. Most people will say that you should brainstorm a couple of titles that you like. They stop at maybe three titles. That’s far too few, and will not get you outside of your comfort zone. I say that you should go with at least ten — and not just ten loose ideas. All ten should be titles you think will work and you’d have no problem with being the final selection.
Let’s be honest: you don’t have ten great ideas for a show name hovering in the back of your mind. You might be able to rattle off 3 before running out of steam. At best you get to 5. The good titles are never the first ones that pop into your head. The only way to find them is to set a hard goal. Ten titles take work so earn them.
Most shows are born out of several overlapping objectives. They have multiple disparate themes or elements that need to be mushed together. By aiming for ten titles, you virtually guarantee that all of these themes will be explored.
Developing 10 titles will prevent you from falling in love with your own favorite. It’s frustrating when the host does this, but it’s actually unprofessional for a show designer to do it. If you are so convinced that you’ve got one title that is perfect, then there should be no issue making it compete against nine more good options.
If you want to be the one responsible for the creative lifting, you need to understand that everyone else thinks they are just as creative as you are. No matter how many options you bring to the table, they will always want to add one of their own. Ten titles lets you drown out their bad additions, tends to showcase a better version of their additions, and leaves nobody in doubt that you’ve explored all the avenues.
Always research competitor shows and avoid similar titles.
Let’s close this one out with a simple task: be original! If your show is going to be something new and unique, then its title needs to reflect that. Research the shows that are targeting the audience that you want to reach. Inspect the shows that are covering similar topics. You might notice that a lot of them have similar titles and aesthetics. Stand out from that heard by going in a different direction. Don’t worry that you’re delivering something unexpected. People like the unexpected, especially if the field is saturated with the same-old-same-old. You can’t be original if you don’t know what all your competitors are doing.