I grew up watching offbeat Saturday afternoon westerns like "Sky King" on TV. Not very original and highly formulaic, series like these featured stories a kid could snack on without spoiling her dinner. They were also instructive on plot, setting and a bit of character development. Now, with Comcast and Dish Network, the prospects of finding old and new flat screen gems from all over the globe are virtually limitless. If you're looking for story ideas, try the "it's so old, it's new" or the "it's so new, it's new" approach.
From A&E to the History Channel to Turner Classic Movies, today's cable fare offers a nearly infinite variety of old films and true stories (check out international news channels like ITN, too) that if studied and emulated (not plagiarized) for their strengths can break writers' block and reinvigorate a writing slump. The key is to select the salient story points - plot twist, offbeat setting, funky character - and consider how to bring these into the 21st century a la Kenneth Branagh setting Shakespeare's As You Like It in Japan (okay, the reviews are mixed on that one, but you get the point). Speaking of Branagh, on the modern side of the coin, check out Wallander, a British detective series set in Sweden. Emmy-winning Philip Martin's direction in this stark, minimalist setting is refreshing.
Don't limit your search to movies. Stories from genealogies to "Antiques Road Show" can inspire fact-based stories, often the best kind.
Tip: While the classics are great (The Hunchback of Notre Dame just appeared on TCM), look for offbeat stories. A recent showing of Joan Crawford and Leif Erickson in Straight Jacket (also on TCM), had a wonderful twist ending that surprised even a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's Ghost Stories For Young People. But watch the difference between drama and melodrama - it's a fine line.