Saga Sell (Openings)

“Space, the Final Frontier.  These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  It’s five-year mission:  to explore strange new worlds… to seek out new life, and new civilizations… to boldly go where no man has gone before!”
–The opening words to the original Star Trek series

Certain shows are just exciting to me.  Just the first two minutes prepared me for adventures, drama, laughter, and suspense.  I was excited just to start watching.  And those shows often become “destination television” for me, especially long before the existence of the DVR, let alone the VCR.  If you wanted to watch a certain program back in those days, you were either in front of the screen at the appropriate scheduled time, or you simply missed it completely.  And there was no Hulu, no internet, no DVD release where you might be able to catch up on the adventures of your favorite characters.  If you weren’t in front of the screen, you missed out.

People weren’t able to find out all the information they can now about upcoming programs, or even ones that have already been on the air for a while.  If your newspaper didn’t have a television critic, you pretty much didn’t know anything beyond the two-line description in TV Guide about what was going to be on until you actually watched the show.  Producers knew this and, as a result, they made certain there was a way to gently ease viewers into the experience, and that became known as the saga sell.

Although some also refer to it as the “saga CELL”, the saga sell is that bit of television during the opening credits that tell you EXACTLY what the premise of the show is.  It literally “sells” the audience on what’s about to happen.  A narrator would come on, providing a voice-over description of the star character and his usual predicament.  If you’d missed the pilot episode (which was usually an “origin” story, about how this all started up in the first place), the quick-and-dirty explanation gave the neophyte viewer enough information to get started on the adventures.

“Faster than a speeding bullet!  More powerful than a locomotive!  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!  It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s Superman!”
–radio opening to Superman

Many believe these openings came from radio, and the habit of making recognizable set pieces for the beginnings of various programs.  Since there was no visual available, the only method to announce a show was, literally, a description of the show.  So began some of the more famous openings, many of which made the transition along with the presentations from radio to television.

“Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear.  From out of the west with the speed of light and a hearty hi-yo Silver.  The Lone Ranger rides again!”

This opening was featured on radio, and became the clarion call for millions of viewers when The Lone Ranger made the move to our homes and a visual medium.  Accompanied by action shots of Clayton Moore riding his faithful Silver across the western plains, everyone watching was ready for the latest adventure to begin.

Shows in the ’60’s turned this into an art form, complete with music and specially filmed inserts to create memorable moments.  Theme songs on television reached their heyday in the next twenty years, with more than a few of them starting out with some variation on “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”.  These really were letting the viewers know the entire setup of the series, in catchy musical form.  From “Let me tell you all a story ’bout a man named Jed…” from The Beverly Hillbillies to “Here’s the story… of a lovely lady…” from The Brady Bunch, audiences everywhere learned these songs as they watched the shows associated with them.  (It was said once that more people could recite the theme to The Brady Bunch than could remember the Preamble to the US Constitution… but then, Schoolhouse Rock came along and set that to music too!)

“It’s a sea shanty with foreshadowing (“A three-hour tour”), suspense (“The Minnow would be lost”), a key change when they make it through the storm and a convenient way to introduce the characters…”
–Paste, about “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”, in their list of greatest TV themes

And, as in radio, that’s what many of these openings became:  more of a well-known clarion call for people to gather (especially when there was still only one TV in the house), because their familiar friends from television had arrived in their homes for the weekly visit.  Without pause buttons, it gave viewers time to get settled, knowing their favorites were about to begin.  Many of these sequences ran two minutes or more, allowing audiences necessary time and giving producers precious minutes that didn’t have to be filled with original (and expensive) programming each week.

In a business where time literally is money, shaving an extra minute or two off a produced episode means saving thousands of dollars, even as far back as the ’70’s or before.  This practice was mastered by legendary producer Stephen J. Cannell, whose action-adventure shows are some of the most remembered in the television business.  But Cannell knew it was a BUSINESS, not just an artistic venture, and some of his shows (The Greatest American Hero and The A-Team being the best examples) developed ways to fill time when episodes couldn’t.

The Greatest American Hero

Especially with action-adventure, it’s difficult to time scripts precisely.  There are methods to time out dialogue, to figure out how long a speech will likely run on film.  But stunts, various cut-aways, reaction shots for other characters, and special effects aren’t nearly so neat and tidy when it comes to length, and Cannell’s shows were heavy on these elements.  So opening and closing credits were adjusted to shorten and lengthen depending on the running time of the episode involved.  Cannell shows were famous for re-running clipped versions of scenes during closing credits, then having a “freeze-frame” with the actual credits on-screen.  While it may have been a fun reminder to the audience of the sequence of events they’d just watched, the business reason was simply to fill time (and save money) on a show that came in “short” of appropriate length.

While some of Cannell’s shows used the saga sell as a shortcut, others found it a necessary addition.  Some shows NEEDED beginning sequences, simply because the premise of the series threatened to be too complex for a viewer to simply be “thrown in” without warning.  My favorite of these is Quantum Leap, a show about time-travel, a hologram for an assistant, and a hero who appears as someone else to those in the story, but as himself to us.  Imagine not knowing these things and just tuning in… it’s very possible you’d be lost.  Fortunately there was a saga sell at the beginning of every episode to let us know how it worked:

“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished.

He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better.  His only guide on this journey is Al; an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.  And so, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap, will be the leap home.”

Four sentences, and the entire series premise in a nutshell.  And the saga sell for the show wasn’t just a tool to help viewers, because an earlier version actually got Quantum Leap on the air in the first place.  While Brandon Tartikoff, head of NBC at the time, was impressed by the pilot, he wouldn’t OK a series until he was sure the audience would “get” what was being portrayed quickly and easily.  He challenged series Creator Donald P. Bellisario to write a version of the saga cell, introducing Sam, Al, and the idea of “leaping”.  It had to be quick enough to not interfere with the episodes, and complete enough for someone with no background in the show to understand.  Tartikoff said he would approve the series if Bellisario could come up with a description that even his own 80-year old grandmother would understand…. Bellisario did, and the series ran five successful years.

style over substance

The “art” of opening credits also was used to create a certain tonality for a series.  Shows that didn’t use a narration or saga sell used musical themes as a way to “set the mood” for audiences.  Music writers like Mike Post and others were in high demand for their ability to present, quickly, the ideas and style of a series.  The idea of “MTV Cops” became “Miami Vice”, but it really was all encapsulated in the presentation from the outset, and the driving musical opening paired with the fast cuts and quick edits seen in music videos.  Credit sequences became more about flavor, more about tone, and the faster pace meant less opening and more actual show.

While at first networks didn’t think this affected anything, along came electronic monitoring of audience for ratings purposes to change their minds.  Once this ratings practice became standard in larger cities, the bean-counters at networks discovered something that alarmed them about the “opening credit” practice.  Viewers, now armed with “remotes” that previously didn’t exist, were using this time (and the time during the standard opening credits) to quickly and easily flip channels and see what else might catch their fancy.

“Back in the day, we used to have “remotes”.  We called them “kids”.”
–unknown comic

Combined with the spreading of the internet, the proliferation of cable, more programming choices, and the availability of more information about various shows, this all meant viewers knew what was out there, and what they wanted to see.  And programmers, selfish enough to want THEIR shows to be the ones chosen, were trying to find ways to keep people at home on their own channel.  So, why give them opportunities to switch?

Thus began the dreaded seven-second opening.  It’s almost de rigueur for television shows these days, especially on a network, to have as little opening as possible.  Saga sells may still exist, but actual credit sequences are little more than the name of the series, and a musical sting of some kind denoting the style or flavor of the show.  (Lost is the biggest example of this, with nothing more than the title shown in a mysterious ghostly form, the camera “floating” through the “O”, and ONE ominous chord played alongside.)  Instead of being a buffer to transport us into the world of the series, we are simply plunged into the adventure.  Most are used to it by now, but even seven-second openings can be changed as appropriate (as witnessed on Castle this past week, where the slightly jazzy opening was changed to a more somber one, without any usual brief animation, to reflect the tone set by the episode… which had already run for an act).

Viewers now no longer have the time to change channels during an opening without missing part of the actual show.  (Of course, many change during commercials, or even speed through the openings and ads with DVRs and such, even while other shows are recording… so the necessity of “seeing what else is on” is debatable.)  Cast and crew are noted on-screen during the next act of the episode, supposedly unobtrusively, but still occasionally distracting from the story being told.  But for some reason, opening credit sequences are now seen as unnecessary filler, something which gets in the way of the show rather than providing it a service.  Their lack also deprives a splintered audience of a uniting moment, a theme which can be used as a touchstone for those who watch.  Much like the idea of episode titles shown on-screen, theme songs and show openings have fallen by the wayside of modern television.

But all of television is cyclical, and when the need arises again for some catchy tune or necessary exposition, the saga sell and the theme song will return.  It will more likely be used as a marketing tool, a song available for download on iTunes along with the episode, but for those of us who celebrate the hits (and misses) of the past, television themes have always been our own shorthand to connect with others who share our passions.  And one has to wonder, how fans of various shows will feel with no clarion call, no explanation, no touchstone of their own for their favorites.  There’s a reason we remember some of these shows so well, and sometimes, it was for those first two minutes.

Just sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale….

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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