Music News & Reviews

Emmys might drop TV themes category

You are no longer loved, TV Theme Music, at least not by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which is threatening to decommission your category from its Emmy Awards.

In its place, more or less, will be a new prize for "music composition for a nonfiction program." As if you could ever hum that.

Many of us had forgotten, or never knew, that they were giving you an Emmy at all. Even before it was threatened with elimination, your category was shut out of the prime-time telecast.

The stated reasoning behind this possible change is the fact that fewer and fewer series are mounting a "traditional" TV theme, although just what "traditional" means is unclear, and fewer does not yet mean "none."

Certainly, you have grown shorter, TV Theme, at least on broadcast prime-time television, where credits are increasingly a thing to get through quickly in order to get straight to the crowd-pleasing action or to squeeze another 26 seconds of commercial time out of the hour.

Indeed, host Neil Patrick Harris joked about this very thing on last year's Emmys broadcast, comparing the rustling chord that introduces "Lost" to that of "Gilligan's Island": "The last time there were people on a desert island, there was a song about it and, dagnabbit, it was awesome."

Even you must admit that you are not what you were. Anyone whose memory reaches back even as far as the mid-'90s, when the theme to "Friends" gave the Rembrandts a brief career in real-world pop, knows that.

Recall the effervescent Latin pop of "I Love Lucy," the dark march of the "Dragnet" theme, the hopeful soft-rock of the theme to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Remember the reign of Mike Post, whose vast catalog of themes included "The Rockford Files" and "Hill Street Blues"? Try to forget, once heard, the premise-reiterating ballads of "Green Acres" and "The Beverly Hillbillies," and that awesome song about the seven stranded castaways, each of them individually mentioned.

Indeed, questions of time aside, it is nearly impossible now to write such a theme, unless drenched in irony or purposely old-fashioned. And do we really need to be told each week the reason those hillbillies were living in a mansion or just how those six kids, two adults and a housekeeper all became the Brady Bunch? Probably not.

But TV themes were once in a real dialogue with pop music at large. The best, or at least the catchiest, would even find their way into the mainstream of pop. The Who covered "Batman"; the Ventures hit with "Hawaii Five-0."

In 1976, the themes from "S.W.A.T." and "Welcome Back, Kotter" became No. 1 singles, with those from "Baretta," "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley" not that far behind.

That is less likely to be the case with the brief themes to "House" (an instrumental passage lifted from Massive Attack's "Teardrop") or "Fringe," which are more about setting a mood than planting a tune in your head, or even the jolly theme to "Modern Family," which is over almost before it starts.

In a way, it is easy to see the academy's point: Some of these pieces do seem too short to nominate, like giving out an acting award for best sigh or a screenwriting prize on the basis of a well-chosen adjective.

They can cut you from the honor roll, TV Theme Music, but television can't do without you. This will be made clear at the next Emmy Awards, when the winners in all the surviving categories make their way to the stage.

And what will be playing as they do? It will be you, TV Theme Music, recognizable yet unrecognized.