Are you getting better at watching TV?

Yesterday, I suggested we’re getting better at watching TV.

This lead me to wonder: how much TV do you have to watch to get good at watching TV?  And this lead to: how much TV have we watched?

If my figures are correct, we have watched around 30,000 hours by the end of our 20s.   And 50,000 hours by the end of our 30s.  And nearly 70,000 hours by the end of our 40s.  By life’s end (assuming that’s around 80), you’ve watched over 100,000 hours. (I am discounting generational differences.)


Malcolm Gladwell says we need 10,000 hours to get good at something.   We pass that figure in childhood.

But of course there is no simple relationship between watching and expertise.  “Garbage in, garbage out”, as we used to say.  Bad TV is as likely to “dumb us down” as it was to confer more sophisticated taste.

But I think there is some relationship.  Unless we were truly brain dead, we couldn’t help noticing how bad TV often was, how wooden the characters, how much screen-time was being devoted to that paean to stupidity, the car chase.  In this case, “stupid in” gave us, in some cases, “clever out.”

How many hours did this revelation (the one that said that TV was a little thin) take?  Probably more than 10,000.  (And of course it would in any case.  Gladwell’s figure applies to the pursuit of mastery.  Lying in front of a TV does not qualify.)  That would be mean we come out of childhood as witless viewers, grateful for pretty much anything that’s on.

It begins with a simple act of noticing.  “God, that was a long car chase” would qualify.  Or, in the language of family vacation now applied to car chases, “how much longer!”  And this is the first act of active viewing.  Scrutinizing something we see on the screen.  Seeing that something as a choice, a choice made by someone.  Seeing the choice as something we might make differently, that we could make better.

This begins as a tiny current of consciousness, a small voice in the back of one’s mind.  But eventually there is a kind of acceleration and the viewer shifts more and more from passive to active.  We watch enough (and this “enough” might be 10,000 hours, which would make Gladwell’s condition the beginning, not the end of mastery) and at some point, we go “really, that’s it?”  And now gradually, we begin to use our cognitive surplus, as Clay Shirky would use the term, to do other things.  Now we always see the tedium of the car chase and we begin to use this “interlude” for other acts of noticing and contemplation.  “Why do we only see her left profile?”  “What is the deal with the way he says ‘immediately’?”

The necessary condition for better TV is in place.  Viewers are paying attention.  But the sufficient condition is better writers and producers.  And this is another story.  I think of these people as ham radio operators, desperately pouring a signal into TV land, hoping that someone somewhere will get this subtle bit of dialog.  And eventually a signal returns.

Eventually, viewers and these writers find one another and a virtuous cycle is set in motion.  A number of shows emerge: Hill Street Blues (1981), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), The Wire (2002), Arrested Development (2003).  TV gets better and by the turn of the century, writers and viewers have found one another.   And now the entire system changes.  With better, richer TV in place, someone has probably logged the hours they need for mastery quite early on.  But the end of your teens certainly.

Thoughts and comments, please.

3 thoughts on “Are you getting better at watching TV?

  1. Indy

    I think comedy has played a big part in creating literacy. Satirising genre forms – think of SNL skits, much of The Simpsons, or more up to date, Brooklyn Nine Nine.

    Worth mentioning Warner Bros. cartoons too, from Looney Tunes through to Animaniacs, genre jokes are everywhere.

    There’s also something about basic visual/TV literacy. I can compare with my Dad who grew up without TV – indeed, IIRC he saw his first movie in his teens – he came to England in 1967 and he’s watched plenty of TV and movies since – but I think his visual/TV literacy stopped evolving in the 1980s.

    I’m not sure why this is, I think it’s connected to working life changing his viewing patterns – maybe some boredom with TV too. Anyway, from this data point of one I theorise:

    TV has hit some “event horizon” where if you aren’t trained, you can’t get into it. Sort of like giving a “literary novel” to someone brought up reading “regular books.” But more, the training occurs in specific places – children’s shows, particular comedies – or the natural evolution of adult TV. If you step out of the stream, it’s hard to get back in…

    1. Grant Post author

      Indy, this is a great point, SNL seeded the consciousness of millions of viewers with that first moment of consciousness. “Oh,” you can make fun of this.” This became a badge of the comedians who so shaped boomers in their counter cultural moment. The George Carlins and other “did you ever notice” comedians. That phrase really does capture how comedy was funding the shift from passive to active viewing. Now people were noticing. Thanks! Grant

  2. Eric Nehrlich

    There’s a great bit in the book Interface by Stephen Bury (aka Neal Stephenson), where Cy Ogle, a campaign manager, goes on a rant about the sophistication of the average American TV watcher: “Americans may be undereducated, lazy, and disorganized, but they do one thing better than any people on the face of the earth, and that is watch television. The average eight-year-old American has absorbed more about media technology than a goddamn film student in most other countries. You can tell lies to them and they’ll never know. But if you try to lie to them with the camera, they’ll crucify you.”

    This also ties into my theory that the average American has defense mechanisms against advertising that are absurdly more sophisticated than any other country, such that when American ads are used in the rest of the world, it’s like bringing machine guns to a medieval joust.

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