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What’s In A Name?

If you want to know what your audience thinks of a title, ask them. It's better to go straight to channel flickers themselves to find out which one works than hope your production team chooses correctly. 'In this day and age when we've got about eight billion stimuli thrown at us every day, and five new tv shows premiering every week, any advantage you have to break through the clutter with a title that is distinct or interesting is really important,' says Bruce Friend, evp and md of media and entertainment insights at us-based marketing and advertising research company otx. Conducting title surveys with viewers will show which titles make a bang, and which merely whisper.
March 1, 2006

If you want to know what your audience thinks of a title, ask them. It’s better to go straight to channel flickers themselves to find out which one works than hope your production team chooses correctly. ‘In this day and age when we’ve got about eight billion stimuli thrown at us every day, and five new tv shows premiering every week, any advantage you have to break through the clutter with a title that is distinct or interesting is really important,’ says Bruce Friend, EVP and MD of media and entertainment insights at US-based marketing and advertising research company OTX. Conducting title surveys with viewers will show which titles make a bang, and which merely whisper.

Friend has done research for 10 broadcasters and four movie studios, and starts by giving specific target groups (e.g., families, teens) a title and asking them to rank it. Respondents, who receive a small monetary reward for their input, are then given a description of the project and asked if it’s something they’re interested in seeing, and whether the title increases or decreases their interest. They may also be shown a trailer or TV promo to give them a better sense of the film, or asked what they’d name it if they could, says Friend.

OTX also randomizes the order of the titles in its surveys because by the time respondents see the second and third names they have preconceived notions from the previous ones – a concept researchers call ‘order bias.’

Responses vary by age and gender. Friend notes that when a recent show featuring the name of a blonde female celebrity changed its title to something more generic, women were more interested and men became less so. For younger respondents, titles using contemporary slang can be a pull, but it’s often a turnoff for older ones.

Prices for OTX title studies range from US$6,000 to roughly $10,000, and ordinarily poll 500 to 1,200 respondents culled from online communities.

When a program team at BBC2 couldn’t agree on a title for a new environmental show, research manager David Bunker was enlisted to poll viewers. Using an online titling survey that’s still in the experimental phase, Bunker presented 15 title suggestions to 1,000 viewers to get their input.

Representing a cross-section of BBC2 viewers, the respondents went through questions similar to ones OTX asks, and were given a synopsis of the program along the lines of ‘a father tries to build an eco-friendly house with his family.’ In this case, the show tended to appeal to the over-35 group.

While the results aren’t especially surprising (men preferred titles involving construction; women favored those that illustrate a utopian lifestyle or family), they reinforced the fact that if a show is to attract female viewers, its title should emphasize the right aspects. ‘It sounds obvious,’ says Bunker, ‘but how many times do we use program titles that are obscure? In the digital, massive-choice world, we have to be much more upfront about selling the program to viewers in every way, and titles are crucial.’

He admits ‘the BBC, as a culture, tends to be more clever and subtle [with its titles], maybe alluding to some literary reference the program-maker finds appropriate, but half the audience says, ‘What’s that about?”

Bunker’s ultimate goal is to eradicate that head scratching, and he plans to standardize the way surveys are done within the next six months. By developing norms, Bunker will be able to pinpoint what percentage of favorable responses have to be reached to represent a solid title, and which are in the top or bottom 10% of appeal.

When more data is collected, it will also show which titles have resonated with specific demos in the past, such as middle-class females, aged 18 to 49. At this point Bunker should be able to forecast the most appropriate title amongst the demo most likely to watch.

The global name game

A title that works for one country won’t necessarily work for the next. Fabrice Estève, a producer who used to work for Paris-based prodco/distributor Ampersand (he’s now with Gedeon Programmes) tells the story of a show he pitched to Discovery Canada that was called, in French, The Seventh Heaven of Gray Sharks. Along the way, someone translated the title to Shark’s Heaven, but no one understood what that meant. ‘One day [Discovery Canada president and GM] Paul Lewis put a red cross through the title and said ‘You have to market this as Shark Sex and everyone will buy it,” recalls Estève. Lewis’ titillating title hit the right chords: the program sold to several international broadcasters, including RAI Uno in Italy, SBS in Australia and Slovak TV. Estève says the French would have thought Shark Sex was too bold and obvious.

Edwina Thring, head of programs at Nat Geo Television International, had to consider the difference between the US and international markets for a show titled Ultimate Survivor in the States. There, Survivor is a strong brand, but it hasn’t been as successful elsewhere, so the show was renamed Last Man Standing: The Human Race for international sales. ‘Ultimate Survivor could be about anything,’ says Thring. ‘We wanted to point it back to the evolutionary process, so we latched on The Human Race to show it was about mans’ evolution.’

She also remarks on the differences between Europe and the UK when it comes to naming wildlife. In France and Italy, where it tends to be a family-viewed slot, Predators at War was off-putting because ‘it sounded too gory,’ says Thring. The UK, however, didn’t have an issue with it. ‘Going forward, we won’t have a title that doesn’t work across markets,’ she says.

Despite research, much of titling remains opinion. Rive Gauche COO Mark Rafalowski says his company was built on the ‘world’s most’ and ‘world’s wildest’ grouping (e.g., World’s Wildest Police Chases) – ‘things that were easy for the audience to associate with.’ But Susanna Dinnage, schedules and planning director at Channel 5, believes the approach ‘was pushed so far that people got exhausted and it became devalued as a title.’

Similarly, Breakthrough Entertainment EP Jim Erickson says he avoids overused terms such as ’911.’ Yet, the Life Network in Canada has acquired Nanny 911, and Life’s VP of content Vanessa Case says the title is illustrative. ‘In a very short and sweet statement, it jumps out and you get it.’

The value of titles is undeniable. ‘If you think about it,’ says OTX’s Friend, ‘titles are the first piece of marketing material consumers see. A good title can help you get your message out and help people understand, whereas if a title doesn’t mean anything, you’ve got to spend a lot of money to explain what it means.’ And we all know filmmakers could find better ways to spend the extra cash.

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