One thing about Fox’s experiment with longer running times (and shorter commercial breaks) is that it’s given us a chance to see that the shortening of main title sequences is not just due to the ridiculously short running times: networks really don’t seem to want full-length title sequences. Even with 49-50 minutes to fill, Fringe has a main title that runs under 30 seconds. And while the main title of Dollhouse has not been completed yet, the screener DVD has a caption in the appropriate place that says “30 second title sequence” — meaning that the amount of time they’re planning to devote to the main title is less than the sequences for Buffy or Angel, which had much shorter running times to worth with. These shows have enough time to fill that a traditional main title, of a minute or more, would actually help save money and perhaps cut down on redundancy in the episodes themselves — Fringe episodes could stand to be a little tighter — but they don’t. Which suggests that the network genuinely prefers short title sequences, regardless of how much commercial time they need to sell.
If networks really do want short titles, the most obvious explanation is fear that viewers will change the channel during a long main title. (This is also one of the reasons why no show has the main title at the beginning followed by commercials, which used to be standard practice.) It’s short-sighted, though. You can get a good title sequence in a short space of time — The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s is only 20 seconds — but it’s harder, and it’s especially hard to develop a good theme song in that amount of time. A longer title sequence can do one of three things: it can give the show an epic, movie-like feel, the way HBO’s titles do; it can make the theme song a hit; or it can introduce the new viewer to the characters, actors and highlights from the show without the boredom of a “previously on…”. All this, and it saves some money on the amount of footage you have to shoot for the episode proper. If Fox continues its experiment, and I hope it does, I hope some producer talks them into giving him a minute’s worth of theme music and clips. It’s worth it.