Why TV Writers Need to Watch TV

People who want to write are often told that they should read as much as they can in order to improve their craft. “Readers are the best writers,” we are told, with this phrase being up there with such popular refrains as “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell.” Likewise, people who want to write for television are advised to watch a lot of TV (read: be an average American college student during finals week). But how important is it really?

About a year ago a very successful television writer came to our school and I got the chance to talk to him. He asked me about what types of writing I was doing. I can be a real awkward, nervous type when the winds are right, and I remember being flustered out of my mind as I blurted out a quick summary of the screenplay that I was working on at the time. Miracle of miracles, he agreed to read the first ten pages and give me some notes.

A few weeks later, I got a phone call.

There were several problems with the script, most of them to do with the setup being too vague, but that wasn’t my main takeaway from the conversation. Throughout the phone call, he regularly referred to well-known TV shows and films either as being similar to what I was trying to achieve with my story or as being general examples of good structure and technique.

With each new reference, he would ask me whether I had seen said TV show or film. The answer was invariably no.

Let me give you a little background here. I didn’t watch TV regularly at the time and the only contemporary shows that I had seen in their entirety were Doctor Who (not counting the classic series) and, more recently, all (then) six episodes of Sherlock. I am, as a rule, pretty inept when it comes to getting around to watching or reading things that people recommend to me. It’s the reason I didn’t read The Hunger Games until last fall (I totally recommend it, by the way), and it’s also the reason that my mental reserve of watched shows and films is, even now, criminally barren.

My point is, talking to a writer who had seen all of this stuff and could refer to it when I couldn’t was like talking to someone who was speaking another language. Eventually he changed tactics and asked me what shows I had seen. I said the first thing that came to my mind, which also happened to be the truth: “I don’t really watch TV.”

And I immediately realized how ridiculous that was.

Watching TV is really important, and not just for vague reasons of being familiar with the medium or some such thing. Looking at other people’s work can give you a good point of reference for your own, an understanding of what works and what doesn’t in this or that situation with this or that type of character. I get stuck on my work as bad as anyone, but I’ve gotten straight-up revelations just from watching other shows, and I still don’t watch all that many.

That’s part of the reason I’m doing this blog, I guess. So I can expand my horizons and help other people expand theirs, and so that I can think deeply about things I’ve already seen and how they apply to me as a writer. But I’m done talking about me. If you want to write for TV, watch TV. Art can’t happen in a bubble; you can learn so much just by looking at what’s gone before.

And if you’re not a writer, watch TV anyway. Life is short and there are some good stories out there.