TV Shows Scale Back On Theme Songs

"Mad Men" is the winner of a third consecutive Emmy Award as best drama series. The freshman sitcom "Modern Family" won best comedy series award Sunday. This year's Emmy for main title music, went to "Nurse Jackie" on Showtime. That category was almost eliminated from the Emmys this year.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's get more now on the Emmy Awards last night, where the cable drama "Mad Men" was the big winner. In the comedy categories, all four acting awards went to first-time winners, including Jane Lynch for best supporting actress. She plays the high school cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester in "Glee," a breakout role for her in a breakout show.

(Soundbite of TV show, "2010 Prime-Time Emmy Awards")

Ms. JANE LYNCH (Actress): And I want to say to the cast, I love you. You're young, and you're wonderful. You're fresh-faced, and when I'm not seething with jealousy, I'm so proud of you.

INSKEEP: And although it was not part of the televised show, there was also an award handed out for best theme song. Over the years, theme songs have sometimes been the most memorable parts of a show, but they've been scaled back, and in some cases cut out. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the decline of the theme.

NEDA ULABY: Like the giant panda, the theme song is an endangered species.�

(Soundbite of "30 Rock" theme song)

ULABY: The Emmy-nominated theme song for "30 Rock" on NBC was written by Jeff Richmond. He says all shows face a time crunch. The shows want more story, but the networks want more ads. Producers have to ask themselves this...

Mr. JEFF RICHMOND (Composer): You know, do we want a theme song, or do we want to finish the arc we started, the story arc that we have on the show?

ULABY: Even being married to Tina Fey, who's "30 Rock's" creator and star, did not get Richmond any extra time for his theme song. He would have loved to have worked back in the golden era when theme songs told the entire story of a show.�

Mr. RICHMOND: They would really let you know. If you have not seen the show before, don't worry about it. You're going to be able to watch "Green Acres," because we're going to sing to you exactly everything you'd need to know about this absurd world.

(Soundbite of "Green Acres" theme song)

Mr. EDDIE ALBERT (Actor): (Singing) Green Acres is the place to be.

ULABY: "Green Acres," "Gilligan's Island," "Beverly Hillbillies," "The Brady Bunch."

Mr. RICHMOND: You've never seen the show before? Don't worry about it. Just listen to the theme song, and you'll be up to speed with everyone else.

ULABY: Now, even shows that sound like they have theme songs, don't.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Take "Glee," arguably the biggest show about music on television. It doesn't start with a theme song. And what about "Grey's Anatomy" or "Lost"? No theme song at all.�

(Soundbite of "Hawaii 5-0" theme song)

ULABY: Rare in this world of shrinking and vanishing theme songs is one for the brand-new "Hawaii 5-0," starting later next month on CBS. Oh, wait. It's not new.

(Soundbite of "Hawaii 5-0" theme song)

ULABY: Composer Brian Tyler is 38 - too young to have followed the original "Hawaii 5-0" when it first aired in the 1960s and '70s. Updating the original song was a thrill, he says, partly because it's a case in point of how a show's theme song can be one of the most important things about it.

Mr. BRIAN TYLER (Composer): On more shows you could name, you could sing the theme over even naming the main characters that were on the show.

ULABY: Right. I can sing...

(Singing "Mission Impossible" theme song)

ULABY: ...but I can't name a single "Mission Impossible" character. Same with "Green Acres." You'd think, in this age of branding, executives would embrace theme songs as mini commercials for their shows, instead of cutting and even eliminating them. Composer Brian Tyler says theme songs are like a TV show's soul.

Mr. TYLER: What a shame to get rid of. I mean, if you have an hour show and you feel that you can't spare 30 seconds to make a signature piece of music to identify your show, I just think it's ridiculous. I think it's a complete crime.

(Soundbite of "Nurse Jackie" theme song)

ULABY: This year's Emmy for main title music went to "Nurse Jackie" on Showtime. It was scored by the musicians best known as Wendy and Lisa, back when they worked with Prince. Now, their main gig is scoring TV shows.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.�

(Soundbite of "Nurse Jackie" theme song)

INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

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