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The Incredible Disappearing TV Theme Song

Sit right back and you'll hear the tale — of the long-lost television-show theme song.

If you're a TV viewer of a certain age, you can probably sing a few lines from at least a dozen theme songs, from Gilligan's Island to The Brady Bunch. But as memorable as classic TV themes seem to be, few of today's programs open with one.

Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, says that while TV themes still exist, most are no longer as memorable as themes once were. For example, he notes that the theme to Friends was a radio hit, and that many can sing along to the Gilligan's Island theme.

"You could go on and on and on naming theme songs that were either memorable because they were great songs, or memorable because they reminded you of really great shows, or memorable because they reminded you about wonderful things in your life that were going on at the time," he says.

Deggans surmises that both valuable advertising space and the growing popularity of cutting quickly to the action have caused the shift. He cites Frasier, where the theme comes in at the end of the show, and ER, where the departure of original cast members rendered the opening montage useless, as examples.

Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the legendary songwriting duo who crafted opening themes for shows like Good Times, Maude, and Alice, have a distinctive approach to songwriting within the constraints of a TV theme.

"We most of the time viewed these songs as kind of writing entrances for these characters," Marilyn Bergman says. "Maude, for example. We wrote that as an entrance for the Bea Arthur character, Maude. And why did we write it? We thought the show was terrific.

"Norman Lear called us and asked us if we would write it. We looked at a couple of the shows, the pilot, we loved them, and thought this was a great way to write a Hello Dolly for a television show that people might want to listen to week after week and not get bored hearing it."

Copyright 2008 WNYC Radio

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