Vintage TV: Hummable television news themes

Did you know that all over the country, local TV news viewership is down?

It’s way down in every demographic except people older than 60. The older crowd remains stalwart: they watch local TV news. Trouble is, advertisers don’t care about you after you turn 40. If you’re a senior citizen, you’re not making your local TV station any money. And making money is what it’s all about.

I think I know what TV news’s trouble is.

It’s not that the stories they cover are long on drama and short on substance.

It’s not that stations got rid of all the older, experienced reporters and replaced them with fresh college grads (at a third the salary). Beauty pageant winners especially welcome!

It’s not that stations cover Dancing With the Stars and American Idol as if these shows were actual news.

It’s not that if a single snowflake is sighted anywhere in the metropolitan area, the station goes wall-to-wall weather, pre-empting your favorite prime-time shows.

It’s not that they go live to the scene even when whatever happened there happened six hours ago (and they probably slap a Breaking News banner across the screen, too).

It’s not that it’s so much easier to just get your news on the Internet.

No, I think the real problem with local television news today – the real reason viewership is in the toilet – is the theme music. Seriously. If you still actually watch TV news, quick: can you hum your favorite news program’s current theme? Of course you can’t. Not only have news themes been squeezed out in favor of more commercials, the tiny bits of music that remain are throbbing, stabbing sturm und drang designed to make you think something Really, Really Important Is Happening Right Now So Whatever You Do Don’t Change the Channel!!!!!!!!!!! It’s exhausting! Nobody likes it!

So. TV stations everywhere, I’m taking you to school. You want your ratings to improve? Take a lesson from these stations and their melodious, catchy, hummable news themes from the 1970s and 1980s. People heard this music and they immediately thought of your station. They were drawn in, like the rats following the Pied Piper. With the right theme music, it doesn’t matter what you cover!

(Did you notice how many of these shows were called Eyewitness News? It was probably the most popular name for local news shows in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Seriously now: TV news themes have been serious business since about the early 1970s. All but two of the themes in that video were composed and orchestrated by companies whose business is to make themes for television. (The WJW theme was cribbed from a recording of MacArthur Park by Hugo Montenegro, and the KABC theme is from the famous tar sequence in the film Cool Hand Luke.) Several of those companies are still at it today.

If news music interests you, go right away to the SouthernMedia News Music Search Archive, which is cataloging the news music used on every station everywhere for all time, complete with audio clips.


16 responses to “Vintage TV: Hummable television news themes”

  1. Dani Avatar

    By Jove, I think you may have something there.

    1. Jim Avatar

      You doubted me? Harrumph!

  2. Jennifer S Avatar

    Completely on target.

    I can’t tell you how many times during my reporting career the overhauls involved changes to music, set, logo, graphics or open. When all else failed, they’d replace the weather guy.

    Everybody seemed to think there was a mysterious visual/audio formula that would instantly make people switch over to our station… like magic! It now seems a lot of that energy goes into promos. We’ve got really catchy jingles devoted especially to our meteorologist (“Count on Chris!”) and our morning news crew.

    But I would be thrilled with a return to the impressive news music of the past. Great post, loved it!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Jennifer, I used to be a staunch watcher of the 6 o’clock news. Staunch! I knew it had shortcomings, the most prominent of which was that if the story didn’t lend itself to good pictures it wouldn’t get reported. But even ten years ago it was still a decent summary of the day. But anymore it’s gone sideways, desperate to capture eyeballs, doing whatever it thinks it must not to lose another viewer. And it’s trying to grow viewership while reducing cost, meaning fewer and less-experienced people to go get the news.

      I was in South Bend not long ago on a day Notre Dame, which is having a tremendous football season, won yet another game. When I was a kid, the lead story on 22 Eyewitness News would have been a toss straight to the sports anchor with a highlights reel. The sports anchor may even have expressed some jubilation. That day, the lead story on (the since thrice rebranded) WSBT News was how the ND victory meant so much to a disabled woman who got to go to the stadium that day for her first ever home game. Are you bleeping kidding me? I’m glad for the woman, but good lord, that wasn’t the day’s top story!

      I see what you mean about the increased marketing. Shame that’s the focus rather than fixing the content. But I do seem to recall several years ago that WMAQ in Chicago tried an experiment, letting anchor Carol Marin do a more substantive news program, albeit (if I remember right) at a slightly off time, like 7 pm or something. Viewers stayed away in droves.

      Argh. I could write a whole long blog post about why I’ve pretty much stopped watching local TV news.

      1. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        Do it, Jim!

  3. ryoko861 Avatar

    It was SO dramatic! Love that Classical Gas post! Yeah, NYC had Eyewitness News New York with Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel. Remember it fondly. I haven’t a clue today who is who. I don’t watch the news. I get what I need off the internet and even then I have to take that with a grain of salt. Great post Jim!

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’m Roger Grimsby, here now the news.
      I also like his counterpart at KABC in Los Angeles, Jerry Dunphy, who I showed in the clip: From the desert to the sea to all of southern California, a good evening.

      1. ryoko861 Avatar

        Yep, that was him!

  4. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    “The black sheep of the Royal Family” was local news in Cleveland, Ohio 30 years ago? Wow, Princess Margaret really got around. :) With regard to “Eyewitness News”, now, correct me if I’m wrong as someone watching from across the border, but I was always under the impression that that was a trademark of ABC News. Every time I heard it, I assumed the station I’d tuned into was an ABC affiliate.

    This is just my musings, but… it seems to me what happened to local news was the cable news channels. I think most people tuned in to the “local” news to hear the big stories and the sports news, and probably what the weather was going to be doing tomorrow, and along the way they were also treated to local tidbits about who got stabbed on what street and whether city council was on top of the garbage strike or not. Things like CNN came along in the mid-80s and subsumed a big chunk of that. I can’t remember the last time I swung by a local news report… I tend to pick that up from the radio on the way to and from work these days. “News” for me is BBC World News for the big picture, and The National on CBC Newsworld for the stuff about Canada (which, by the way, had the absolutely coolest opening when I was a kid… still gives me goosebumps. It was like having the news beamed in from the future, oooooo! :) Here it is, or was: ).

    This is the music that gives me goosebumps these days. When I hear this on TV, then I know I’m plugged in, and I can’t think of any local news broadcast I can ever remember with this kind of power or the implication “you’re gonna get the goods now”:

    1. Jim Avatar

      I remember in the 70s and into the 80s that local news shows frequently did national stories. I think you have a point there about there being fewer outlets, so the local programs needed to do more. But I think that local news has simply failed to adapt to a changing world. As Jennifer above said, their response has been to change the curtains, not to reimagine the product and then deliver solid work.

      Is it just me, or did that title from The National really look like Tke National? And every time I listen to BBC World News on the radio I’m all, “Holy cow, I actually learned something about what’s going on in the world.”

      1. Lone Primate Avatar
        Lone Primate

        It’s that crazy computer font from the 60s… what was it called; OCR A or something? Actually designed to make it possible for computers to read scanned text, if the lore I learned is true. You know, so up to the 80s it was the font OF THE FUTUUUUURE…!!

        I really think BBC World News has the professional edge on everyone else in the English-speaking world. Like you said, you feel like you learned something about what’s going on. It’s not like “30,000 people died in a tsunami in Borneo today, so we take you live now to a police chase in Orange County…” The one good thing that came out of the British Empire was a news organization on the ground when the whole “empire” bit around it dried up and blew away. :)

    2. Jim Avatar

      PS. The name Eyewitness News was most often used by ABC affiliates – especially ABC owned and operated stations. However there was no trademark on it, and stations of any network could and did use it – one to a market anyway.

  5. Toni Avatar

    Where’s the story about your visit to your grandparents house the summer of 78 ?

    I love that story…….lol…oops every

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You have a good memory. It’s the post about the CBS Late Movie.

  6. David Schifter Avatar

    I worked 15-years at stations around the country as a reporter then News Director and to this day my faverite theme was WNBC News 4 New York from 1980-1987. I am searching for a complete package of the music. I have some clean cuts but still looking after all these years. Please let me know if anyone has them.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Have you tried the Museum of Television Production Music? There’s a subscription fee to get in but they have all kinds of great stuff.

      Also: try and

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: