September 14, 2006
Horner, Williams TV Themes Debut
New Musical Signatures for CBS, NBC Are Distinctive by Jon Burlingame
TV news and sports themes used to be generic and anonymous. Not any more.
Katie Couric's debut last week as anchor of the CBS Evening News was heralded by a fanfare from Titanic composer James Horner, while the debut of NFL football on NBC merited a dramatic march from Star Wars composer John Williams.
Their arrival on the same week is coincidental. Williams, whose NBC News music has been on the air since 1985 and who has written four Olympic themes dating back to 1984, actually recorded his football music in June; Horner recorded his news music (his first work for TV in 14 years) just last month. Both used L.A. studio orchestras of 85 to 90 players.
Hiring Horner was CBS News creative director Bob Peterson's idea. He thought Horner's film sensibility might translate into a new sound for the evening newscast. "We didn't want it to be steely and hard; it had to be a little more regal," he said. Horner, who met with Couric before starting work, said CBS "didn't want it to sound like a Madison Avenue corporate logo" and that Couric sought a theme that was "more cinematic, sweeping, Americana-ish."
NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said Williams' long association with the network led his team to ask the composer for a theme for the new Sunday Night Football telecast. Williams actually delivered four, which will be parceled out among the NFL games and the studio show Football Night in America.
"The music has a sense of drama," Ebersol said. "It's some pretty breathtaking and powerful stuff." Williams, who has never attended a pro football game, said he tried to invoke "a gladiatorial spirit, but also identifiable as an American experience." He added that veteran sports anchor Al Michaels attended the recording session.
CBS News' musical tradition back in the days of Edward R. Murrow was Aaron Copland, whose Appalachian Spring opened CBS Reports. NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report closed with Beethoven's Ninth. Then the network turned to Henry Mancini, whose Nightly News signature didn't last long but whose patriotic "Decision '76" march introduced election-night coverage for 16 years.
ABC hasn't had a star composer for years, although it hired Marvin Hamlisch for the original Good Morning America theme in 1975, and Bill Conti for several news and sports themes including PrimeTime Live in the late '80s. For the most part the networks tend to hire lesser-known New York composers like Bob Israel (ABC's World News Tonight) and Edd Kalehoff (CBS's 48 Hours).
Network executives would not discuss what kind of money the composers were paid, but sources familiar with the process said that the up-front "creative fee" was probably small and that networks usually own the music outright. The big money is on the back end, as the composers collect "performance income" from multiple TV plays of their music over time.
Several sources said this amounts to millions over many years, with one suggesting that Williams has probably made $15–20 million on his news music alone. Said Horner: "I don't even know if I was paid a salary. It's like getting a classical commission: You don't think about the money, you think about the music."
(A condensed version of this article appeared in Weekly Variety Sept. 11, 2006.)©Variety 2006