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Those News Themes

If you have ever listened to the evening news, you may have noticed the compelling theme music at the beginning. It typically has certain grandeur to it, an air of unmistakable importance, and a full orchestral arrangement. Some have tried edgier, more ‘modern’ sounds, but the big three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) have all decided that what has been working should keep working. Here I hope to explain quickly the basic rules of engagement in News Show theme music, give credit to the composers who have written perhaps the most recognizable orchestral music of our generation, and reflect on the nature of the music.

The story starts for me with the news channel I grew up with, NBC. From a very young age I became enamored with the full sound of the NBC news, and the power with which Tom Brokaw’s words seemed to be infused. It wasn’t for some time that I realized that his Nightly News theme had thematic elements in common with the Meet the Press theme. Furthermore, I felt the same compositional influence in the NBC Universal Olympics theme. How did they maintain this consistency in all of their music, which was of obvious orchestral quality and had very impressive layering? Because one very famous composer wrote them all.

Many people know John Williams from any of his manifold movie themes: Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and the list goes on. He has only won 5 Oscars for his compositions, but has accrued 49 nominations, most recently for Lincoln and The Book Thief. Compared to some of his closest peers (Hans Zimmer 1 in 9), James Horner (2 in 10, both for Titanic), and Howard Shore (3 in 4, all the wins for Lord of the Rings) he is far and away the most prolific, and he is second in Academy nominations to only Walt Disney.

NBC had begun nightly news in the 50s. Originally, as many shows did, they used an excerpt from a Classical Piece (the powerful but less well known Second Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony). In 1972 Ray Ellis had composed pieces for the network, including a jazzy bit for Nightly News which had a horn line that sounded less like NBC’s eventual signature progression and more like ABC’s later signature. (The NBC three-tone opening with a Major 6 is not used in any of their major orchestral works).

In the late 70s composer Henry Mancini (of Pink Panther fame) was commissioned to write the new Nightly News theme – Mancini thought news should be funky and wrote a fairly unpopular and now wildly period-sounding theme. This failed theme was followed by their worst ever – it sounded like a robot beeping the three-tone motif followed by various chugging motorized sounds and intonations. It was with this sound Tom Brokaw would make his debut, but within a few years he would be given a truly great orchestral Nightly News music.

When NBC commissioned John Williams in 1985 they wanted something that sounded important, that carried the weight of Williams’ wildly successful 1984 Los Angeles Olympics theme (he went on to compose the 1988, 1996, and 2002 Olympic themes as well – all very distinct, and mostly owned by NBC Universal who heavily favor the 1984 theme, followed by 1996). What they got was a tour de force called “The Mission”. It carried with it the immensity of a Beethovian masterpiece, the severity of Stravinsky, but the levity and open chords of the American Orchestral sound. It was triumphant, using driving ostinato with a strong horn line and a furious string part. The Mission is a four part suite, the first and last movements still being used for Nightly News and Meet the Press respectively (though Meet the Press has an alternate theme as well). After nearly 30 years they’ve only re-recorded once in 2004 at which time Williams added some new content, though of the same exact theme, to be used for possible new programming. One such piece was assigned to the Chris Matthews Show.

Other networks have tried to copy. CBS in the 80s decided music distracted viewers from the news and didn’t use any. When the success of Williams’ music was seen though, CBS scrambled and commissioned classically trained advertising campaign musicians to create their Evening News theme in 1987. The original theme was well-liked, but CBS had it altered in 1991 to make it fuller, more heroic and larger-than-life – a fully transcendent theme. This lasted until 2006 when Katie Couric took the helm of the CBS Evening News. For her, the network wanted a more regal sound and they commissioned composer James Horner (Titanic, Alien, Avatar) to make a new theme. Though imbued with much anticipatory and unresolved energy the theme (which sounded vaguely like a fugal variation of the original) and Katie ultimately fell flat. In 2011 the Network opted to return to their original, not-so-inflated 1987 theme.

ABC meanwhile had one theme composed by Score Productions in the late 70s. It was less than a minute, but they’d stayed true to it until 2012. It underwent heavy makeovers and modernizations but little actual change in the 1990s and 2000s, and they maintained a very familiar sound.  Nonetheless, ABC decided to jump ship completely in 2012 and have Hans Zimmer (Dark Knight Rises and Pirates of the Caribbean) create something new.  The piece lacks the magnitude of their old theme but has a stately sound that seems to suit Diane Sawyer.

The last place my mind wanders in this discussion is to the theme of the HBO series The Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin didn’t pick up the big Nightly News sound – instead he had Thomas Newman (from Deep Space 9, Erin Brokovich, The Green Mile, and Finding Nemo among many more) write a more thoughtful and pensive news theme. Internal composers altered (read: butchered) the theme for season 2. (like someone left it in a room with Phillip Glass or John Adams for 2 seconds…)  The original theme is a far subtler and more authentic sounding theme, and used with the graphics it evokes memories of Cronkite and the original newscasters of yesteryear. This was the sound CBS wanted in the ‘70s when they decided music shouldn’t be the focus. Of course the series is ending this year, and cable news scoring is a whole different ballgame (with sound effects, flashing colors and whooshing sounds, and a different audience dynamic) but I had to include the Newman composition for reasons of personal admiration.  It would likely work poorly as a news theme since it’s not amenable to being spoken over, or fading, or transition into a headline bumper – but it’s good!

To say nothing of morning news or other variety shows, that is how the three major networks came to compose their themes. It is also why, I believe, NBC has the most well-knit and cohesive musical package. Now if only the news these days weren’t so bleak you could all just start enjoying the music.

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