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Fifteen seconds to set a TV show's perfect tone

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"It's in another time and space," says Yu. He adds that the title sequence is a way to prepare the audience to leave everyday reality and enter this heightened, dramatic, and occasionally comic world of these women.

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Yu drew inspiration from earlier TV animators, such as Terry Gilliam and Monty Python and the Flying Circus, both pioneers in the art of using two-dimensional graphic elements to tell a story.

"Even back then, they had a sort of retro but also contemporary look," says Yu, who says this combination fit perfectly with the tone of "Desperate Housewives." "The show is surreal, and retro in a way, but also very postmodern and we needed to find a visual way to include all that."

Once the visuals were complete, composer Danny Elfman was brought in to finish the project with his signature brand of music.

Budgets, audience retention, and artistic vision all play a role in whether or not a show gets a snappy title sequence. News divisions led the way, emphasizing the cold open to draw audiences in, says Lori Pate, executive producer at Lee Hunt, a TV strategy firm. "It's all about the immediacy of a story," says Ms. Pate, "rather than building anticipation for an upcoming narrative."

Title sequences can cost more than $60,000 and take weeks to create. Even if an artsy sequence is located after a cold open, as seen on many shows, producers fear audiences will still flip around the dial when it comes on. "There are no rules any more," says Pate. "It's all about audience management and flow."

Indeed, these defining vignettes have morphed significantly as the technology and audience consumption habits have changed. Back in the days of few networks and no remote controls, shows could afford the luxury of lengthy openings with original lyrics and music. Besides setting the tone, these opens served another important purpose, points out Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

"They told entire back stories for the show," he says. "Everything you needed to know about Eddie Albert, or Gilligan, or Jethro and Ellie Mae was in that song and minimovie."

Which meant, adds Mr. Thompson, that each episode could then stand alone with no obligation to fill viewers in on the characters' past. The familiar, "previously on ..." montage now fills that function, says Thompson. Modern shows typically use songs with "appropriate" lyrics – think of all the CSI shows – rather than composing original themes.

All of this has allowed the more ambitious title sequences such as those now seen on a number of cable shows – think "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under," "Rome," and "The Sopranos" – to become small, metaphoric works of art.

"The greatest of all time for me is 'The Sopranos,' " says Thompson. "It's brilliant in the way it tells the entire American immigrant story from Ellis Island to a mansion in the suburbs in one 60-second open."