TV's New Over-Obsession With Opening Credits

With 400 scripted series competing for attention, a slick credit sequence can make or break a show.

What do you do when you absolutely need to get your hands on archival photos of one the world's most notorious drug traffickers?

The answer, Tom O'Neill discovered, involves flying to Colombia, meeting a guy called "El Chino" in a tiny house in Medellin, and handing over a few bags of cash. In return, O'Neill got a trove of images taken by El Chino—who once served as a sort of corporate photographer to the trafficantes—showing Pablo Escobar at his hacienda in the 1970s and 1980s.

The rest of O'Neill's task was relatively easy: buying copious amounts of fake cocaine (read: baking soda), shooting take after stylized take, bringing to bear the latest techniques in computer graphics and traditional optical effects, and editing for many long nights.

The result would become the opening credits of Netflix's hit series, Narcos. It's 90 seconds of hypnotic video: an almost wistful cocktail of Technicolor photos and sweeping vistas mixed with more tenebrous stuff—news clips of drug busts, X-ed out faces, and, of course, many frames of Escobar, a bloated entrepreneur of the underworld surrounded by teenagers in campy t-shirts. 

In the four months it took O'Neill and his team to produce the opening montage, Netflix filmed five episodes of the show—half of its first season.

"We're a little bit obsessive," O'Neill said. "We want to add that filigree and detail and story."

None of the show's actors appeared in the sequence.

If the 1960s were the golden age of film noir and the 1990s were peak sitcom, we are living in the time of the television title sequence. They are becoming more intricate, expensive, and important than ever. Directors, producers, and showrunners are now handling the title sequence, once the throwaway garnish of the television entrée, with the care formerly reserved for lighting, editing, and casting.

"It's getting a more theatrical feel to it," said Garson Yu, whose YU+co, crafted the title sequences for The Walking Dead, The Leftovers, and Silicon Valley, among others. "It's its own art form."

In other words, a television show no longer just has to be good; it has to tell people it's good more overtly than ever

Back when TV was invented, the title sequence was meant to refresh the memories of viewers who hadn't seen an episode in a week or more. Characters were reintroduced, backstory was served up like boilerplate, and bright, tinny music kept everything moving along. Today, that's the stuff of satire

The title sequence is no longer utilitarian. Only about one-quarter of scripted shows these days come from traditional broadcast networks that still try—at least half-heartedly—to lure viewers to the screen at a certain time every week. About half are bankrolled by cable networks, with the remaining quarter coming from streaming services such as Netflix. In an on-demand world, the title sequence has to provide only a loose sense of setting and, more important, a mood. The opening credits are now about feelings, not facts.

Newman, the Narcos showrunner, calls it Pavlovian; when the familiar music starts, the viewer salivates a bit—at least, if the title sequence is good.

"It puts me in a mood to go there," Newman said. "It's a part of the ritual by which I watch."

The title sequence also functions as a palate cleanser for binge watchers. "These shows are designed to be watched this way, but each is an episode with names and themes," Newman said. "That's definitely something we try to protect."

Creatively, title artists are more liberated than they've ever been. Paul Matthaeus, founder of Digital Kitchen, one of the busiest title sequence studios, said the mindset began to shift in 2001, when HBO was expanding its catalogue of original programs. "Up to that point, it was mostly what I call turn-and-looks from the stars—just kind of aping the show in a montage kind of way," he said.

His breakthrough came in crafting the title sequence for Six Feet Under, a drama about a family of undertakers. "Our approach was to create a context of the show that made it more meaningful and powerful before people even see frame 1," he said. "It's almost like we set the table in a way that wasn't set otherwise." 

Watched today, the montage doesn't seem such a vanguard sequence, which speaks to the pace of the business. Sequences now tend to be more elaborate, drawing more heavily on graphic design and archival footage.

The opening video for Vinyl, which was up for an Emmy this year, feels like a drug-addled night at a club. As a magnified record needle falls into a groove, the music kicks off, various powders jump on the skin of a snare drum, and snippets of black-and-white video chop the whole thing up—clips of dancing and 1970s Manhattan, shot from kinetically shaking cameras. "They do tend to get intricate," Frankfurt said.

The ground-breaking, however, quickly becomes clichéd, according to Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. "I could imagine a world in which every opening sequence for every episode is unique and different," he said. "It may open up a whole, new cottage industry."

Television, like most things, functions on general economic principles—and at the moment, supply far outstrips demand. If dramas were diamonds, they would be almost worthless right now, even the most dazzling and carefully cut gems. There are simply too many shows.

Here's how the math breaks down. The U.S. television industry cranked out 400 scripted series last year, up from 352 in 2014. 

Meanwhile, Americans, on average, watch about 2.8 hours of television every day.  At that rate, they can digest about one in six of the scripted shows being produced, and that's assuming the viewer skips sports, news, reality programming, and all the Anthony Bourdain. To stay current on scripted television series alone, a person would have to watch television 24 hours a day for about 240 days a year

A number of factors are contributing to the glut, but the spendthrift heart of the show boom lies in streaming platforms buying their way into the production business. Amazon.com, Hulu, and Netflix are all building out catalogues of original shows—in some cases, to shore up other parts of their business models.

It's a way to signal to viewers: "Dancing With the Stars be damned, this show is worth your time"

When it comes to viewers, there's an arms race for attention, and there are no rules of engagement. Anyone can watch virtually anything at any time, thanks to streaming platforms and digital network feeds. In other words, a television show no longer just has to be good; it has to tell people it's good more overtly than ever.

There are a variety of ways to do that these days. A massive social media marketing budget is one. Hiring A-list directors and actors is another. (See: Woody Allen's upcoming Crisis in Six Scenes on Amazon.com and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in HBO's Ballers.) Paying staggering sums for film-quality special effects is a third. (The latest 10-episode season of Game of Thrones cost about $10 million per episode). 

But a carefully crafted title sequence has become an imperative and immediate way to stand out. It's a way to signal to viewers: "Dancing With the Stars be damned, this show is worth your time."

"It's really money well spent," said Newman, the Narcos producer.

Peter Frankfurt, co-owner of Imaginary Forces, has watched opening montages from his team push one hit show after another into "you-have-to-see-it" territory, most notably Mad Men, Manhattan, Boardwalk Empire, and The Pacific. "It helps to signify you're making A++ content," Frankfurt said. "It shows a respect to the audience."

Meanwhile, it gets ever more difficult to make that first impression. As a greater share of title sequences become really good, it takes that much more to make one incredible.

While television programming expands almost exponentially, there are still only a handful of studios that specialize in crafting title sequences. It's a small fraternity evident every year when the Emmy Awards release the nominations for "Outstanding Main Title Design." The list is dominated by the same names: Digital Kitchen, Elastic, Prologue, YU+co, and Imaginary Forces, which has garnered five nominations since 2014: Black Sails, Manhattan (which won), Bosch, and this year, Marvel's Jessica Jones and Vinyl.

Usually, the creative teams at these companies bump into each other in Hollywood waiting rooms when they are called to pitch opening-montage ideas for new projects. They are classic boardroom bake-offs, with mood boards and highly rehearsed presentations. Producers typically don't want to sit through more than four, so the same shops generally get the calls.

"The showrunners realize our industry has a very specific skill-set," Yu said. "HBO, for example, has a short list of companies that they will always go to."

For all these studios, however, title sequences are mostly a way to supplement more lucrative jobs producing ads, branding materials, and montages for awards shows, sports leagues, and video games. YU+co has LG, Old Navy, and Pepsi on its list of clients. "The budget is not horribly, horribly bad, but it's not a good business," Yu said.

Imaginary Forces, meanwhile, does commercials for McDonald's, the Honest Co., and Toyota. It's the title sequences, however, that employees clamor to work on.

"They are a passion for us," Frankfurt said. "You get to make this discrete film that's kind of abstract, that's formally different, that's not selling anything. It's an overture."