Tag Archives: Buffy the Vampire Viewer

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.