Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Born to pun: Is the advent of digital precipitating the death of creative titling?

If once is an accident, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend, then I've noticed a trend over the last few weeks concerning the impact of digital on the titling of media content.

First up was a fleeting discussion in the 'Democratising content in the user-in-control era' session at last month's MediaGuardian Changing Media Summit about the impact of online search on headline writers (predominantly journalists and bloggers). Ben Hammersley suggested that the best headlines as far as search engines are concerned are those which adopt the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin approach (e.g. Scottish Cup result: Caledonian Thistle beat Celtic), which runs counter to the puntastic tradition of tabloid journalism in the UK which has given us, amongst other gems, the oft-quoted Sun headline 'SUPER CALEY GO BALLISTIC CELTIC ARE ATROCIOUS'. Not what you'd call Google-friendly.

Next came my girlfriend's reaction to my suggestion that we give BBC flagship Sci-Fi drama Life on Mars a go, which was along the lines of 'I don't much fancy a drama set in space' (its actually about a time-travelling policeman). The arrival of multi-channel, on-demand television (plus countless other media options) presents us with so many choices that we don't have time to thoroughly research each one. Instead, we must increasingly decide on the basis of title alone. This was confirmed to me by a piece of audience research on another BBC drama series, Spooks, in which a respondent claimed they'd previously avoided the series on the basis that they'd assumed it was about ghosts (the series was retitled MI5 when it was shown in the States).

Finally came a presentation from Leigh Aspin, Interactive Editor for BBC Radio 4 at an internal BBC event, in which he explained how the "clever, sometimes cryptic" titles of some of the station's programming were making it difficult for listeners to find the content of interest to them in an increasingly crowded on-demand media space. The example he used was a programme called 'Out of the Ashes' which the audience sportingly volunteered would most likely have been about cricket. The programme's original title was in fact 'Foot and Mouth: Five Years on'.

So are we destined to endure a mediascape dominated by channel Five-style Ronseal programme titles such as When Pilots Eject, The Woman Who Lost 30 Stone or Selling Houses Abroad (that last one's actually a Channel 4 programme, shame on them) or, to borrow a phrase from NatWest, is there another way?

I believe there is another way, but its not a quick fix. Part of the solution was outlined by Leigh in the remainder of his presentation, which focused on how richer search and navigation can be facilitated by term extraction run on programme descriptions. In other words, your programme can still be called 'Out of the Ashes' if the keywords pulled out of the programme description and flagged to you (and search engines) include 'cattle' and 'foot and mouth'. Similarly, your punning tabloid headline need not change if the correct metadata can be extracted from the article and supplementary contextual information.

Another weapon in the fight against tedious titling is the power of social software. The title of a YouTube video clip or a Flickr photo can be as inventive as its author's creativity allows as my main routes into the content will be via recommendation or tags, not by title.

These are baby steps that we need to start taking towards equipping our content for the digital age. The giant leap is the semantic web, which promises to deliver a greater understanding of the content of digital media, without getting tripped up by the idiosyncrasies of language. If and when the semantic web can start delivering on this bold promise remains to be seen. In the meantime we may well see a shift in media titling away from the cryptic and the punning towards the more functional and descriptive.


steverobbo said...

TV programmes from years a go seemed simple, especially in the seventies. Programmes like the Professionals and the Sweeney were simple, and had a ring to them.
Some programmes were slow-burners, possibly down to the titles. I can recall Auf Wiedersehen Pet taking a few weeks to build up an audience, and Only fools and Horses took a while. The titles did not state what the programme was about.
Life on Mars was an original name for a TV show, but I also suspect currently these more sublime titles are the exception rather than the rule.

Amelia said...

Your post got me thinking about the quality of British headline writing. My dad being a jounrno has always gone about about this!
Anyway, it started some interesting discussions.
All best

Anonymous said...

Similar to your comment about the "Life on Mars" program title, there was a short-lived show in the US called "Sports Night". It was a tightly-scripted show that didn't hit it's target demographic (and suffered because of it).

One of its problems, it seems to me, was that it was really a light dramatic comedy that happened to be set in the context of a nightly sports news show. The producers bifurcated the audience by alienating the male viewers who tried it (lured in by "Sports" in the title), and the potential female audience didn't give it a try (thinking it was a sports show). Unfortunately, it didn't have enough time to overcome this setback to build a "word of mouth" audience.

Back to the meat of your post, what would you say to a common way to display to users what elements a specific piece of content contained? In this way a title could be as colorful as the author wanted to be, but then displaying some sort of visual cues illustrating the actual content.

Using "Sports Night" as an example, a TV guide web site could display the compact visual cue identifying a high concentration of "comedy", a moderately high value in "drama", and only a moderate value in "sports".

Taking it one step further, perhaps a microformat could be developed that doesn't rely on a visual indicator, but something like a Firefox add-in could be used to read them. In this way the content cues could be seen by a user when hovering over a tagged link.

These ideas are, of course, only half-baked. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

Interesting things going on with band name 'creative titling' at the moment though (interesting piece about this in the Guardian recently:,,2045453,00.html

where digital is maybe leading to more idiosyncratic titling, not less?

Unknown said...

Radio 4 this lunchtime on the links between music and Sherlock Holmes...

The Sound of the Baskervilles