by Alex Moran
As a writer, I have always felt a vague sense of guilt for choosing to binge TV shows over reading good books. Throughout primary school, I would come home to Hey Arnold, Aquila, or Recess. On a weekend, my dad would take me and my brothers to the cinema to get lost in Jurassic Park, Jumanji, or we’d stay in and watch a classic like The Mighty Ducks, or Flight of the Navigator. But this kind of entertainment was seen as a treat. Junk food. Talking about such topics in the classroom would be dismissed as chatter and distraction. Talking about a book, however, was seen as debate and intellectually stimulating. I remember there was a fellow writer in my class who devoured books. Teachers gravitated towards her when she raised her hand in the classroom, or leafed through Adrian Mole in the lunch hall. She was congratulated for reading and encouraged to read more. I remember wanting equal status, to be seen as a smart storyteller. In many ways, it made a lot of sense for her to be seen as intellectually superior. While she dogeared Roald Dahl in the playground, I ran around making lightsaber noises. I loved to escape with television and film, but no one was impressed by that, so it was time to brave a book. I read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I liked it, but wasn’t compelled to read any more of the Narnia series. I read all of David Almond’s books, and really enjoyed them. But inevitably, I was drawn back to that big, beautiful screen.
I tried writing books, but I was only writing them in the hope they’d be turned in to films. I eventually realised in my early teens that I was, or wanted to be, a screenwriter. This revelation made me slightly more comfortable in choosing a DVD over a novel. Watching lots of great films and TV shows meant I was expanding the knowledge of my craft, as a novelist would be if they were reading a book. Somehow, though, this theory wasn’t convincing. I still suspected that anything on television could only be entertainment, and never art.
These suspicions grew when I graduated in Screenwriting and started interning at production companies. I quickly learned that a surprising number of screenwriters and industry professionals had studied literature, or theatre. Agents and producers looking for promising voices in film and TV seemed less interested in screenwriting graduates and more interested in headhunting promising novelists, or playwrights, and coaxing them into writing for the screen. For some reason, budding screenwriters were less appealing. Perhaps stories that felt complete as a novel or performed play had more appeal, as audiences had already responded to the material. But I also sensed insecurity and reluctance when it came to making an original TV show or film, as though the influence of a superior medium was needed to help commissioned content transcend the lowly parameters of low brow, visual entertainment.
Across the literature sector, theatre sector, and even the film and television sector, I have felt that any story told through pixels was considered inferior somehow. Only a privileged few like The Wire, Mad Men or The Sopranos could graduate to the heights of ‘literature’, or be lauded as a ‘literary masterpiece’. For TV shows to be seen as works of art, they would need to be compared to literary works, rather than great works within their own medium. If literature was the superior art form, why did I prefer TV and film? Why was I appreciating books more than I was enjoying them? Why was I skipping ahead so often to see how many pages were left? I found myself relating to Mark Twain’s wry observation: ‘A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.’ But when it came to watching a great story unfold, I felt no friction, no impatience. I felt deflated when I knew there were only a couple of minutes left in an episode of Breaking Bad, or one episode left before the explosive season finale. But did that preference for film and TV make me lazy? Less smart? Less cultured?
Television’s place in the pecking order is partly down to its glow. A child clutching an iPad automatically invites disapproval and concern from adults, even though they could be using it to read a book. We’ve all heard that screens give us square eyes, that TV can melt our brains. But what’s the hard evidence behind our aversion to telly?
When televisions became more widely available in the 1960s, it was understandable that consumers would be wary of a glowing hunk of metal in their living rooms, especially when nuclear weapons and deadly radiation were very real threats. In 1967, the US conglomerate General Electric Company recalled 90,000 colour televisions, citing concerns over the devices emitting X-rays. After covering the telly tubes with leaded glass, the TVs were back on the market and deemed safe, but health officials advised that viewers avoid sitting directly in front of the TV. This production error understandably left many consumers feeling off-colour. Parents shielded their beloved children from light entertainment, ensuring the next generation would watch TV occasionally from a safe distance, or not at all.
TVs, like radios and lamps, emit low-frequency radiation, but not ultraviolet radiation, so they pose no health risk. Still, you’re better off reading a good book, as there’s definitely no harm in doing that… or is there?
Research shows that long exposure to television can cause eye strain and headaches… but so can too much reading. Various studies suggest that watching too much television can cause blood clots and lead to obesity because we spend so much time sitting down. We also tend to sit down for long periods when we ‘binge-read’.
Some studies suggest there may be a link between binge-watching and dementia in older consumers, but this research is limited and results are inconclusive. Again, the research suggests that it is more to do with the long periods of sitting, and perhaps the age of the participants, than anything else.
Other research suggests that watching TV from a very young age increases a child’s chances of having a speech delay. Reading, however, develops a bond between child and parent through interaction. To quote Parenting Science, ‘TV is linked with slower language acquisition because TV time tends to displace conversation time between babies and adults.’ But the emphasis here is on social interaction and bonding, not the medium of television. Children can watch TV in isolation. They can also read a book in isolation.
Other studies suggest there is a link between television consumption and ADHD in children, but this research is limited, even flawed, and the available evidence suggests, at best, a statistically small relationship.
Other studies suggest that TV can make children violent – if they are consuming violent content, that is. On the other hand, a study at the University of Maryland in 2015 found that watching Sesame Street improved preschoolers’ test scores. As Parenting Science concludes in its article about the effects of television on language acquisition, ‘Surely it’s the information that counts, not the medium itself.’ That is not to say children should be plonked in front of the telly for hours on end watching educational cartoons. We can have too much of anything, but we shouldn’t assume we’re sitting in front of a radioactive weapon when we switch on our TVs.
Even if we can have our concerns over TV consumption alleviated, there is still the argument that watching is passive and reading is active. When reading, we have to morph letters on the page into images and ideas, creating our own versions of the characters and worlds we encounter. On screen, the work has been done for us, but that work has been done by a community of artists. When watching your favourite TV show, you are absorbing the craft of writers, actors, directors, costume designers, sound designers, editors, directors of photography, set designers, composers, and more. There are a myriad art forms to study and admire in depth and detail, so why should television be deemed a less intellectual form of storytelling when it allows so many art forms to thrive within it?
You could argue that, despite the spectacle, the work has still been done for us, and so television leaves the audience unstimulated and unchallenged, whereas reading a book sends us firing off on all cylinders. When thinking about this point of view, a Chekhov quote comes to mind: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ Perhaps TV shows us the shining moon, whereas written words are the glint of light on broken glass. However, we still have to read between the lines when watching a cinematic story. Whereas novels often allow readers into the minds of characters through first person narration, we rarely have the same luxury with TV. A characters’ thoughts and feelings are conveyed through furtive glances and actions. We have to interpret the meaning and intentions behind a characters’ words, or the images the storytellers present. TV and books both show the glint of light on broken glass, just in different ways.
There is more scope in novels to stop and explore, to delve into the inner workings of a character’s mind through beautiful, captivating prose. Those are reasons to prefer a good book to a good TV show, but personally, I like stories to get to the point and don’t want them to hang around. I enjoyed the TV show Game of Thrones more than the book series A Song of Ice and Fire because the creators were forced to be economic. I remember trudging through A Feast for Crows, where minor characters wandered through Westeros while big players remained absent for the entire book. In many ways, the show cut the fat. Long passages, chapters and back stories from the novels had to be conveyed in as few lines as possible on screen, and through that process we enjoyed lean, incredibly rich storytelling. Of course, a lot of great material was left on the cutting room floor, and the bizarrely impatient showrunners skipped over arcs in the final season that could have been wonderful if there had been more time and space to tell the story.
Television has undeniably contributed to a culture of impatience. Whereas books often demand patience and concentration, TV shows need to deliver the goods instantly. Recent Netflix research found that people decide whether to keep watching a show within its first five seconds. The pressure is on for visual storytellers to establish a show’s premise and a compelling dramatic question all within the opening image. Hooks are not only needed at the end of each act break, but at the end of every scene. The reliance on hard-boiled formula has led to cheap tricks and superficial twists to hook audiences on mediocrity. Fear of the Back button has also given rise to a plethora of heart-wrenching, mind-blowing masterpieces. Yes, the golden age of television has spoiled us with fool’s gold, and genuine treasures.
There has been a recent shift in how we perceive TV shows and cinema. TV It’s validating to see more and more great shows praised as ‘important’, ‘vital’, ‘essential viewing’, and so on. That is not to say TV is catching up to books, only that one medium should not be deemed intellectually or culturally superior to another.
It all comes down to what you want to enjoy, rather than what you believe you should enjoy. There are so many great stories out there, and a myriad reasons to love and prefer any of the mediums in which they are presented. Classics are everywhere in every form, but they shouldn’t be something we feel obligated to consume. A classic isn’t something that must be read. You can watch it too.