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A cold open (also called a teaser) in a television program or movie is the technique of jumping directly into a story at the beginning or opening of the show, before the title sequence or opening credits are shown. On television this is often done on the theory that involving the audience in the plot as soon as possible will reduce the likelihood of their switching away from a show during the opening commercial.
In some movies, the title card does not appear until the end. In such cases, one cannot refer to the entire movie as the "opening"; the term "cold open" in these instances refers to the opening moments or scenes. Likewise, in movies with excessively long pre-credits sequences, the "cold open" does not necessarily refer to the entire pre-credits sequence. For example, James Bond films often use pre-credit sequences with little or no relation to the subsequent plot; these are not considered teasers.
Cold opens became widespread on television by the mid-1960s. Their use was an economical way of setting up a plot without having to introduce the regular characters, or even the series synopsis, which would typically be outlined in the title sequence itself. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964–68) and Star Trek (1966–69) are examples in the United States; in the United Kingdom, it was usually series destined for the American market which utilised the format, such as The Avengers (1961–69) and The Saint (1962–69).
In the early 1960s, few American series used cold opens; and half-hour situation comedies almost never made use of them prior to 1965. But many American series that ran from the early 1960s through the middle years of the decade (even sitcoms) adopted cold opens in later seasons. For example, Gilligan's Island did not use cold opens during its first two seasons, but did use them in its third and final year (1966–67); they were used on some seasons of Mission: Impossible, likewise with “Hawaii Five-O”. Many other long-running TV series used cold opens. Similar patterns can be seen with sitcoms, including Bewitched and The Beverly Hillbillies. Many cold openings in sitcoms do not set up the plot but usually involve physical comedy or bantering. Closing credits of a sitcom usually feature a scene between characters that does not have any relevance to the plot.
British producer Lew Grade's many attempts to break into the American market meant that various of the shows which he was involved with incorporated the cold open, such as The Persuaders! (1971) and Space: 1999 (Series One only, 1975). Later, many British action-adventure series employed the format, such as The New Avengers (1976–77) and The Professionals (1977–81).
Toying with many television conventions, Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969–74) played around with the concept of cold opens, sometimes having an entire episode before the starting credits, and, in two instances ("The Cycling Tour", the first episode to have a full-length story, and "The Golden Age of Ballooning", the first episode of series four) had no opening credits at all (the former has a brief title card with the episode's title, and the latter has no titles because Terry Gilliam had not finished the new opening sequence).
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, daytime soap operas became the main user of cold opens, with most American soaps employing the format. While several soaps experimented with regular opens in the early 2000s, all are currently using cold opens. Typically, a soap opera cold open begins where the last scene of the previous episode ended, sometimes replaying the entire last scene. After several scenes, usually to set up which storylines will be featured in the episode, the opening credits are shown.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some shows began with highlights from the previous episode.
US sitcom and drama episodes often have a traditional cold opening, which usually sets up the plot using the main cast members. Some sitcoms, however, use cold opens which have nothing to do with the plot of an episode (e.g. Malcolm in the Middle). In the US, TV shows will occasionally forgo a standard cold open at the midway point of a two-part episode, or during a "special" episode. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fourth season finale lacked a cold open, as it was an unusual dream-centric episode. The cold open has become common if not standard for sitcoms in the 2000s, while in the 1970s and 1980s many traditional multi-camera sitcoms usually launched straight into the opening theme song.
The long-running NBC sketch variety show Saturday Night Live has always employed a cold open (except for season 7 and other rare exceptions). The cold open usually ends with someone breaking character and proclaiming "Live, from New York, it's Saturday Night!"
The current revamped version of The Electric Company features a cold open introducing the plot, ending with one of the Company members yelling "Hey, you guys!!"
Documentaries do not use cold openings as frequently as fictional shows. The World at War is one famous exception, where in a few short minutes an especially poignant moment is featured. After the title sequence, the events that explain the episode are outlined more fully.
Modern video games have included cold opens, either beginning with a lengthy opening sequence or, like the Metal Gear Solid games, including an entire level before the titles. Both Wild Arms and Kingdom Hearts II went as far as including an entire subplot, often taking upwards of three hours to play through, before showing the game's logo. Another example is Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, in which Ezio escapes Monterigionni. After performing a leap of faith, the camera does not follow him and the Assassin's Creed logo is shown. The opening sequence in Need for Speed: Undercover was also an example, with a police chase scene that the player can take part in, which was followed by a full motion video cinematic and the game's logo. X-Men 2: Clone Wars is perhaps the best example, as you are taken directly to the game's first level upon powering the game on, skipping any title screen or even a character select screen until the first stage is completed.
Cold opens were also an occasional device in radio. Jack Benny's weekly program would usually begin with Don Wilson reading standard copy announcing the name of the program and introducing the stars. Sometimes however, particularly for a show at the start of a new season, the actors would launch into material without any announcement and perform a sketch written to give the audience the impression they were eavesdropping on the stars' off-microphone lives. That would be followed by the more standard Don Wilson introductions and the show would proceed as normal after that.
Cold opens are common in crime dramas, such as all Law and Order variants and the CSI shows, with the crime being committed before the title sequence. CSI: Miami's version of this cold open style is famous and widely parodied; generally, Horatio Caine makes a dramatic comment on the crime (and then puts on or removes his sunglasses while doing so), immediately followed by the "Yeah!" of "Won't Get Fooled Again", the show's opening theme. In the comedy show It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia created by Rob McElhenney, in the opening of every episode has a cold opening with the time and the day along with the place.
Cold openings did feature in several Australian drama series including McLeod's Daughters. Popular Australian soap opera Home and Away used cold opens for several episodes following the recap during its 2006 season.
In the sci-fi reboot to the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, written by screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the cold opening leads to the title shown over a large African jungle where a troop of chimpanzees is being captured and killed by poachers.
Cold opens sometimes employ a segment known as a "teaser". The following memorandum was written on May 2, 1966 as a supplement to the Writer-Director Information Guide for Star Trek, and was authored by Gene Roddenberry, describing the format of a typical episode. This quotation refers to a cold open, commonly known as a teaser:
- a. Teaser, preferably three pages or less. Captain Kirk's voice over opens the show, briefly setting where we are and what's going on. This is usually followed by a short playing scene which ends with the Teaser "hook."
The "hook" of the teaser was some unexplained plot element that was alluded to in the teaser, or cold open, which was intended to keep audiences interested enough in the show to dissuade them from changing stations while the titles and opening commercial roll. Star Trek writer David Gerrold, to tweak William Shatner on set, once joked he was writing a Star Trek episode in which Kirk lost his voice in the teaser (the hook), and didn't get it back until the tag. Gerrold states that Shatner's comment about this suggested episode was unprintable.
In television series, a similar technique called cliffhanger is often placed before commercial breaks, to keep the audience from switching channels during the break. For instance, in Law & Order this second hook is often the arrest of the suspected perpetrator of the crime committed in the cold open.
The teaser is sometimes referred to as the "tease"; the companion closing-scene at the end of the show is the "tag".
See also 
- What is a cold open? – WiseGeek
- The Making of Star Trek, Whitfield Stephen E. and Roddenberry Gene (Ballantine Books, 1968) ISBN 0-345-27638-8
- Alexander, David (1994). Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry. Roc Books.
- Gerrold, David (1977). The Trouble with Tribbles. Bantam.