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I've always been curious what decides if a credit is in the opening or closing credits. It seems loosely that cast (in order of today's "big name" significance), directors and financiers get the front spots, and everything else appears later. But lately I've been developing some specific curiosities about how cast members are credited on TV shows.

Opening credits seem to follow this rough outline:

Part of "opening credits" video segment

  1. (optional) Major Actors
  2. Show Title
  3. Core Cast Actors
  4. Directors
  5. Producers
  6. (optional) Episode Title
  7. Episode Writers

Subtitles over beginning of show, after opening video

  1. (Episode Title and Writers may appear here, instead)
  2. Special Guest Actors

I've probably missed a few things, and mis-ordered a few things. But, as I said, my main curiosity is about actor credits.

Typically, there is little indication of which characters the core cast actors play. Sometimes their name is edited to appear along with an image of the character as an indictator, but sometimes there is no indication. As I've never seen anyone credited in both the opening and closing credits, that leaves the potential for core actors to never be directly associated with their character. This seems potentially problematic; is there a reason for this? Are viewers expected to know who's who?

Guest actors sometimes are simply credited by name (and not being part of the opening video, this means they will never be associated with their character in credits). But often they are credited as "special guest as character name". This is quite helpful.

The thing I find really confusing is, sometimes the last few regular cast actors will get the guest actor treatment. I've seen opening video with "and actor as character" paired with an image of that character for an entire season. Why does this actor get special treatment?

Finally, sometimes guest actors will be credited at the front following the opening video, sometimes they'll be credited in the closing credits. Are there rules for deciding who get's credited early or late?

I've sometimes wondered if shows deliberately play with actor's name position to obfuscate plot arcs ("you won't think we're killing of this character if their actor is still in the opening credits", or "you won't expect this recurring guest if we place their name in the closing credits") and I've also wondered if there are thresholds for "people appearing in XX number or YY percentage of episodes get placed here." But it's difficult to build a good sampling base for this. And season 7 of Stargate SG-1 kinda took a shotgun to my guesses so far.

So... Are there rules?

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Thats a very interesting question. I have noticed that too. For example, in the US Office series, only a handful of characters are given opening credits (Carell - earlier, Wilson, Krasinski, Fischer and Novak) - even though Novak is not a regular in many episodes. Even in That 70s show, Tommy Chong was a guest for many seasons - but his name started appearing in the opening credits only from Season 7 onwards (I think) even though he wasn't there in some episodes. –  saurabhj May 11 '12 at 6:08
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Wikipedia's got an article too long to summarize on the topic of billing. –  Abby T. Miller May 28 '12 at 18:39
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@AbbyT.Miller Thank you, that was an interesting article. It seems the answer to this question may be "contractual machinations no sane person would want to understand," but the history is interesting. ^_^ –  Scivitri May 28 '12 at 21:54
    
@Scivitri sounds about right. I got WALL O' TEXTed and couldn't read the whole thing :) –  Abby T. Miller May 30 '12 at 14:55
    
All I can say is that I end up on imdb.com after almost every new tv show, since I'm always disappointed to see every "Janitor 2" listed in the closing credits and not the stars. –  user3744 Dec 30 '12 at 6:55
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4 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The rules for how the order of credits is produced is very long and convoluted. They also vary from show to show, so for any one "rule of thumb" it's almost guaranteed you can find an exception on the air right now on some channel.

The basic guidelines that most shows follow most of the time are drawn from the rules for the various industry guilds. In the case of actors, that would be SAG (the WGA and DGA would determine how/when a writer or director get credited.) The Wikipedia articles linked in a few comments/answers gives a basic rundown of all the guild rules that have to be followed in the "typical" credits sequence. Note that movies opening and closing credit sequences differ a lot from television ones (in particular, you rarely see the name of the production company in a TV show's opening credits.)

However, there's a lot of variation on the basic theme, because the placement and styling in the credits sequence is often part of an actor's individual contract with the studio. Studios will rearrange the credits or give certain actors special consideration in the credits as part of the negotiations.

The basic flow of credits is as you mentioned: core actors first, followed by guest actors, followed by a handful of top-level production staff. In TV, it's rare to have a full set of closing credits the way you have in movies, where the entire cast would appear with their character names, for simple time reasons: they would take a really long time that could instead be used for commercials. (In fact, many networks now show split-screen closing credits side by side with a promo for the upcoming program.) So those credits are usually limited to production-level people and companies, copyright/legal notices, and other minutia.

Why a particular actor gets a particular spot in the credits is mostly a matter of PR, and explains some of the variations you mention in your question:

  • Being billed before the title is "more prestigious" than after the title; usually only the one or two top-tier stars will get this billing, if at all. In ensemble shows it's rare to see this type of split billing.
  • Actors are generally billed in rough "order of importance" to the show.
  • Being billed last, however, is also considered a key position, as long as it is somehow differentiated from the rest of the cast. For example, in the Buffy TV show, Anthony Stewart Head (arguably the most "famous" cast member prior to the show) was billed as "and Anthony Stewart Head as Giles" -- the only cast member who's character was named.
  • Since the opening credits are pre-recorded, typically only season regulars make it into the "core" credits sequence (think "theme music") for shows that have them. Recurring guest stars are usually billed overtop of the opening scene, introduces with "Also Starring".
  • Single-episode guest stars go last; depending on how famous/important they are, they may also get the "as charactername" treatment.

In general, having a unique style of credit (e.g. being specifically associated with a character) is a bonus given out to special guest stars and particularly important actors that lets them stand out from the rest of the cast. This is something a well-known or highly-priced actor would negotiate as a condition of their appearance. They even negotiate down to the exact wording, which can include "guest" vs. "special guest", are they "starring" or "appearing", etc. (I have seen shows that had multiple guest stars, each billed slightly differently!)

Another key distinction to make is between series regulars and recurring guest stars. A series regular will still appear in the opening credits, and be given credit for the episode, even if they don't actually appear in the episode. The general idea here is that a series regular, even if they aren't in a particular episode, is contractually required to be available to appear in that episode. A recurring guest actor, on the other hand, is typically contracted to appear in only a specific number of episodes, and can usually skip a particular episode if they have prior commitments. A recurring guest star, with lower billing, may actually get more screen time than a series regular that gets top billing. This happened in House in seasons 4-6, where Olivia Wilde, Kal Penn and Peter Jacobson were given lower "Also Starring" billing, while rarely-appearing Jennifer Morrison and Jesse Spencer continued to be billed as series regulars. As always, this was entirely down to the contracts the latter two had with the show.

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This is a great synopsis of what I'd kinda come to feel the answer was: contract "rules" on a case by case (by case, by case, ...) basis, rather than industry rules or even guidelines. –  Scivitri Jul 5 '12 at 19:52
    
well, the SAG/WAG/DGA rules form the basis for most of this, but there's a lot of leeway for negotiations. –  Michael Edenfield Jul 5 '12 at 20:44
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It seems to be an amalgamation of agreements between the various guilds: the screen actors guilds, the screen writers guild, and directors guild. These aren't set in stone and there are many different variations to opening credits. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the subject.

Opening Credits on Wikipedia

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It is mostly a contractual issue, so there is not much sense to make out of it. Oftentimes an actor will negotiate with the producer specifically about how big their name appears and in what order in the credits.

The most vivid example which comes to mind is Andy Kaufman in Taxi getting a lead credit, which was negotiated by his talent agent. The credit was very weird considering his small role in the series and obscurity at the time.

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On a side note, the convention for animated shows is to only include the Show Title, Creator, and Developers. Voice actors and producers receive credit at the conclusion.

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