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TV Trends: Big White Text

Simon Pitt | Television | Saturday 21st April 2012

We all know we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but what about TV programmes. Are we allowed to judge them by their title sequences?

At one point, a key part of creating a new television show was the title sequence. Look at the hand drawn pictures made for Hancock's Half Hour:

Hancock Titles

Some programmes, like Doctor Who, for example, went through title sequences changes every few years, innovating as the technology allowed. The CGI TARDIS in 1987 was truly exciting at the time. But now it looks like it was drawn in MS Paint.

A good title sequence reflects the values of the programme it bookends. Take The Day Today, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris's painfully funny news parody. The title sequence is itself part of the programme, spoofing the trend for over dramatic news titles.

Over the last few years though we've seen titles dwindle down until they're little more than Times New Roman typed over the video. I mean, look at the titles for Iannucci's laugh-fest The Thick Of It:

The Thick Of It

I could create those in Powerpoint in about ten seconds. Compare these to the titles for Yes Minister, the comedy from 1986 to which The Thick of It is most often compared. Like with Hancock's Half Hour. We have a beautifully illustrated background image with stylised titles on them.

Yes Minister

Of course, the titles for The Thick of It are intentionally underplayed to give the programme the air of authenticity. It's something that began with the UK's series of The Office; the bland Arial Black titles here are intentionally downplayed to match with the mundane nature of the day to day goings on in "an office".

The Office UK

This has been a traditionally UK phenomenon. When The Office had a US makeover, the titles were replaced with the more stylised version of a toilet door.

The Office US

Over the last few years, though, we've seen an increase in "downplayed titles". Generally, this takes the form of white text on black titles along the lines of The Thick of It.

Recently, though, a variation on the trend has developed, starting with the American Comedy Series Up All Night.

Now, as I've said before, I love the title sequence to Up All Night. It says so much with such an economy of storytelling. What struck me about it recently, though, was the size of the text . The titles aren't just white text on black, they're massive white text on black. Hugely oversized white text on black.

Up All Night

It's an interesting idea, and something that the website If This Then That has done recently with its hugely oversized text.

HBO's new coming of age comedy Girls has used a similar tactic for its titles.


Now, I'm not sure that this screenshot demonstrates just how massive this text is, so I've taken a photograph of it playing on my television.

Girls on TV

The text is massive. If you had a 42-inch television, each letter would probably be as big as your torso. They'd tower over your living room like some sort of malevolent God of the TV.

In the case of The Thick of It and The Office, the plainness of the text had a meaning. But as understated titles have become more widely adopted, programme makers have needed a way to stand apart. The titles of Girls and Up All Night are a reaction to this, but there's no meaning to the big white text of the titles. They're "big white text" because "small white text" has been done before.

At one time, titles were mini works of art, beautifully crafted to draw you in and set the tone. Now, they're almost an afterthought, the most creative decision being to put them in size 72 point, rather than 14.



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