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Television History

Issues of Research Design and Method

School of Politics and Communication Studies, University of Liverpool

School of Politics and Communication Studies, University of Liverpool

School of Politics and Communication Studies, University of Liverpool

In this article, we want to develop a discussion about research into television history. In so doing, we are attempting to raise some questions concerning the historiography of television and to place our present project in a theoretical and methodological context. As a team, we are currently engaged in research into the history of World in Action, the long-running and widely praised British 'current affairs' series, and our comments are largely informed by our experiences in undertaking this inquiry. Later in the article, we look at the specific questions raised by research in this area of television output and give some indication of the nature and success of our own studies. However, we hope that our remarks will offer some insight that will prove valuable in a broader setting – for historical research of a range of television forms and in a variety of national circumstances. With this in mind, we open with a more general discussion of aims and methods relevant to historical research of television, beginning with the overriding question of purposes.

Why study television history? A number of traditional and more recent assumptions about historical inquiry often serve to make this appear a less pointed question than it should be. Within media research, it is often convenient to suppose that an understanding of the past will help in the formation of future policy and practice. Such a view–of use beyond the academy – may help in obtaining funding from increasingly utilitarian research councils, but risks exaggerating the impact of academic study on any area of policy and professional practice. It also raises the question of the accessibility of research – in terms not only of its dissemination but also of the way in which it is organised and written.

There is no doubt, however, that for professional media groups, the ability to have access to accounts of the history of their organisations and practices, to the story of where they have been, can help orient them better, and more critically, in relation to change and the new choices that change brings. The nature of Journalism Studies in many countries testifies to this (perhaps because of all the areas of media professionalism, journalism is most self-conscious about its status and its codes of practice). So media historians may have a special obligation to be wary of the excessive esotericism that afflicts so many areas of current media scholarship and reduces its 'reach' to other than academic readers.

But whatever the indirect support offered to the self-understanding of the media professions, and perhaps to a larger public awareness about the changing nature and role of television, research of the kind we are undertaking must primarily be framed within an academic rationale. Media history cuts into political history but more deeply still into social and cultural history. Compared with the openness of contemporary developments, the past offers a relative closure in which diverse forms of records can in some fashion bring us inside the flows of process and help us to plot the interactions of structure and agency. Past periods 'stay still' for examination and explanation, even though there are dangers in assuming too inert an object of study. Where a wide enough choice of documentation is available, broader patterns may emerge through the local detail, thus allowing a re-reading of that detail within the pattern. Of course, there is throughout the advantage of knowing what happened afterwards, a hindsight not available to the contemporary analyst. The dialectic of pattern and detail, both empirical and necessarily theoretical too, is part of the distinctive value of historical accounts. In the case of our research, it is to be found, for instance, in the tension between our analysis of the production notes for a particular programme and our knowledge of the developing indispensability of television for post-war British democracy.

Accounts of past events may often draw upon information sources which would have been inaccessible to contemporary researchers because of their commercial sensitivity or their confidential content. While the investigation of developments in earlier eras usually denies the opportunity to analyse or comment directly upon issues of immediate relevance, it also thereby avoids the breathless topicality which can sometimes beset television research. It offers instead the opportunity to produce complex and richly documented accounts, often drawing upon hidden or 'insider' perspectives and with some claim to definitiveness.


We noted above that, much more than in many other areas of cultural practice, debate about television has often been caught within a kind of permanent 'now', from which speculation about the future seems far more interesting than engagement with the past. It is perhaps predictable that in Britain the press and radio have been better served by cultural historians than has television. The Press (mostly the 'serious' press) has been seen as a fit subject for history because of the directness of its link with political and parliamentary affairs. Radio has held the fascination of opening up questions about the culture of the inter-war years and it is also seen to be a 'closed chapter' in media history insofar as its role as a primary national medium is concerned. Scannell and Cardiff's (1991) work on radio in the period 1920–40 stands as a model for any media history wishing to engage with broader cultural change. Another contrast with television history can be made with historical studies of film, now one of the strongest areas of contemporary film scholarship internationally. The greater eminence of historical work here is no doubt partly attributable to the higher cultural status of film and the more direct parallel with the history of literature and theatre.

In comparison with this work, then, and in spite of the importance of television to public and private life over the last 50 years and the continuing international acclaim given to the best work in several genres, research into television history is still underdeveloped in Britain. Nevertheless, an increased interest in it has seemed to follow from the way in which British television has over the last decade changed so rapidly in both its organisational and cultural character. We might call one dominant version of this the 'nostalgic' view. Certainly, it carries risks of framing the recovery of the past within a presumed, implicit sense of lost 'quality', especially since so much of the 'new' has been seen as questionable by many senior professionals as well as by academics. Such surreptitious judgement is something we would seek to avoid (on the question of how value often becomes an organising factor in consideration of British television history, see Branston 1998). The reverse effect is produced when it is seen that the 'new' is now so different from the 'old' that the latter loses rather than acquires interest. The rate of change in the industry has undoubtedly also led to some people adopting this response, becoming far more concerned with looking forward than looking back.

Whatever the variations in motive and interest, a significant barrier to any further development is the practical problem of gaining access to source materials. Writing any kind of history of television usually requires the use of written or film archives. An attempt to focus on production places this at its centre. The BBC has not encouraged academic interest in its archive materials and it routinely imposes quite tight limits and costs on those seeking to use them. Most commercial television companies in Britain have been even less co-operative with academics. In the commercial sector in particular, this is partly because historical research into television is not the primary purpose of archives. They are organised to operate as profit centres, providing research on demand and handling the sale of programme material at commercial rates to programme-makers. As a rule, their staff are neither qualified nor equipped to handle enquiries, waive fees or provide research support to the academic sector, nor do they have much to gain from doing so. So access to broadcasting archives can often require lengthy and sensitive negotiations with company executives, who are likely to set limits on the scope of archival access and the information which may be published.

Problems of under-development and of access have their own national character, of course, and researchers have national models to follow in attempting to overcome them. No British television historian could but be in debt to the magnificent work of Lord Asa Briggs in developing, over many years and in several volumes, the corporate history of the medium as part of 'broadcasting'. In his last volume (Briggs, 1995), the scope was extended to include a selective consideration of programme culture, thereby partly redressing the balance of an account which had previously privileged institutional organisation and personnel. But with a few exceptions (the essays in Corner, 1991, for instance, and Jacobs, 2000), a more detailed consideration of generic development, of the interconnections at work in the development of television's system of looks, sounds, attractions and social obligations, has not been forthcoming. A subsidiary aim of our own study is that it might help to move things on, at least in the area of factual programming, and to stimulate further work, particularly by younger scholars.

The issue of historiographic research design in the area of television inquiry also deserves some general comment. A key problem here is that of turning data into significance in a situation where there are only constrained opportunities for generating new resources. Available data is likely to take a limited number of forms: first of all perhaps, archived film or video, and various kinds of archived production documentation. Subject to factors of survival or retention, these may include scripts, contracts, research materials, internal and external correspondence, and notes covering any aspect of a production from casting to copyright clearance. There is also the taped oral testimony of surviving members of a production team. Albeit exclusively recollection, this is at points quite crucial not only in providing new data but in giving significance to material from other sources whose meaning would otherwise be irrecoverable. Finally, there are the published sources – the programme guides, the preview blurbs, the critical responses, the letters to editors – giving insight into the cultural significance of the programme-as-broadcast and some indications as to public response. The scale and range of available information will necessarily play a central role in determining the scheme of inquiry to be adopted, circumscribing possibilities for explanation and for lines of interconnection and causality.

Among the opportunities presented by the amassed documentation of a television history project is that of gaining a greater understanding of the production culture itself and its own motives, aspirations, evaluative criteria and sense of its activities within the wider setting of the television industry and the public/audience. How do workers on a programme write about their work? How do they relate to changing technology, to competition, to praise and to controversy? Especially when read against the film and tape archive, the detail of such production files that do survive, offer an unusually focused and sustained account of what it is to be involved in making television within particular kinds of programme genres, organisations and systems of resource. They open up the area 'behind the text' in a way which gives a novel and sharply particular sense of the factors from which an individual programme is built. Broadly speaking, media research would clearly benefit from more extended laterality of this kind, one that connects importantly with questions of intent, even though work on concurrent production poses challenges of both access and method. Neither textual analysis nor audience research can compensate for its lack.

The lateral view raises questions about causality and consequence, albeit within the same conjunctural frame – a particular 'phase', a given year, a specific sequence of programmes, a single programme. But the longitudinal view, the view of development across phases, raises them more profoundly still and it is this view which is most privileged in any work calling itself a history. As Hans Fredrick Dahl has noted, specifically referring to media history:

Nearly all history is about change – and if it is not, the absence of change itself will require special explanation. This being so, history more than other sciences requires free access to all types of variables and tends to handle them in an integrative manner: Everything bears some influence of some sort on everything else. This may sound advantageous but, of course, it constitutes the very problems of historical credibility (Dahl 1994:560).

In our own study, covering a time span of some 35 years, some axes of change are clearly developmental (technology, for example, improves in the audio-visual quality, speeds and capacities it supports). Other axes of change are more evaluatively uncertain (do programmes get 'better' or 'worse'? Does the condition of the British public sphere improve or deteriorate in the course of the series' run?). Making sure that a kind of default developmentalism does not become implicit in the entire account is very important, but sometimes very difficult to avoid in shaping a coherent study. We noted above that one of the great advantages of historical analysis is the 'hindsight' factor, giving the researcher a way of ordering significance by a kind of reverse teleology (how did we get here from there?). Illuminating and, indeed, essential though this is to historical work, it can constrain the extent to which we allow the past to emerge 'on its own terms' and disadvantageously cast everything within the I framework of the formative.

These questions of research design, particularly the combination of lateral and longitudinal aspects, lead to questions about how a history should be written. The model often adopted here is some version or other of the 'integrative manner' referred to by Dahl. Most frequently, it might be called an 'integrated narrative', since it tries to plot 'the influence of everything on everything else' with some concern for matters of degree, and at the same time as it tells a story. In this story, chronology is not so much a device of aesthetic satisfaction as a means of keeping issues of causality as accurate as possible. Causality cannot simply be reduced to chronology but historical writing cannot usually afford to offer the first without a firm base in the second. Among the many issues raised here is that of just how much data, how much 'lateral spread', can be contained within a narrative framework. We may all have come across historical studies so weighed down with data that they simply cannot progress as readable accounts of change. Indeed, one prejudice against historical writing, held not only by students but by academics outside of historical studies, is that sense of a dense, inert agglomeration of details which some examples of the genre seem to exemplify. Many popular histories gain their literary attractiveness partly from the very lightness and selectivity of the detail they carry. Writing good media history is not simply a function of having good sources and a sound analysis.


Our own particular interest is in factual television and specifically in current affairs. Our focus on a single series is partly practical, necessitating negotiation of access with only one television company. It also derives from the significance of the series itself; World in Action ran on the British independent (commercial) network from 1963 to 1998, acquiring the status of 'pioneer' and 'landmark' in the development of current affairs television. Most editions were scheduled for a 30 minute slot in early evening primetime, going out weekly for a long 'season' each year. Each edition took a single topic and, with few exceptions, gave it sustained address through a mixture of location filmed report, interviews and commentary. This gives the series a different identity from 'magazine' formats, in which a number of different topics are handled in the same edition. World in Action saw itself as offering a tough, serious look at matters of public importance, sometimes of public urgency. From the beginning, it covered such topics as the war in Vietnam and the illegal arms trade.

With such a long record of exposition and investigation of public issues, World in Action seemed to offer the promise of a detailed analysis of how the making of factual television occurs within the settings of institutional policy and of production resources and routines. It provided a lateral and longitudinal framing strong enough for us to be highly specific about the history of the series and to raise and address broader questions about current affairs television and social change. There is a 'human story' to be told as well, insofar as the inquiry is also about the people who made the programmes, viewed as a changing professional group with different motives and criteria but nearly always excited by the possibilities which the series offered at different periods in its development. Given sufficient archive access to programmes and to records, the research provided us with a rather special chance to trace one programme over 35 years of change, both in the nature of television and in the relation television has with a changing society.

Generically, the series is of interest to us because of the way its chosen topics variously connect with items on the British agenda of public concern. Sometimes these are exclusively domestic concerns, sometimes they involve the links between Britain and other parts of the world – by way of trade, aid or often disagreement and conflict. Here was a series that wanted, albeit with an occasional edition in a lighter vein, to bring matters of urgency and import before the attention of audiences. The commitment to the public sphere was clear and emphatic, whether the series chose to follow-up on selected items that had appeared in 'hard news' outlets, or to pursue stories that had been ignored by, or somehow lay behind, the mainstream flow of other reporting.

A further area of interest is provided by its role in the development of a distinctive television journalism, employing some of the work practices and personnel associated with print journalism, but producing output with a specifically visual character. In its initial stages of development, journalists worked alongside film-makers, with each group sharing its skills. Later, television current affairs became a medium for investigative journalism, exploiting the evidential possibilities offered by visual and sound recording to 'name the guilty men'. Similar developments outwards from the established customs and routines of print practice can also be traced in other areas of television reporting, where the ability to illustrate through sound and vision and to create a sense of urgency helps to forge new opportunities for a journalism that is both serious and popular.

This connects with questions about the aesthetics of current affairs, since the genre brings together elements of features reporting found elsewhere, including in broadcast news, and combines them with elements from the tradition of documentary. Here, the expanded time available for production and for screening allows for a very different approach from that of the news report. The increased opportunities for directorial organisation of image and of narrative permits a richer engagement with a topic, one drawing selectively on the wide range of formats which the documentary has developed over many years. These include the use of observational techniques, the combinatory use of interview voices and the introduction of a symbolic and possibly a dramatised element to the account. There is a sense in which 'current affairs' programming of this kind falls between two conventional foci for media analysis. It does not consist of news journalism, so it cannot be fitted easily within the sociological frames devised for investigating news (almost always involving some form of comparative element, either with other news accounts or with alternative, nonnews versions of the events portrayed). However, neither does it offer documentary of the kind that Film Studies has found most interesting in its analysis of non-fictional artefacts. Although imaginative and often strongly narrativized, its reportorial directness rarely draws on a self-conscious aesthetics either in the manner of documentary film-making of the classic cinema period or of that strand of independent film-making that has often been the subject of writing about documentary in the United States. Indeed, the mixture of aesthetics and journalistic function within current affairs television poses something of a challenge to the researcher, giving the interplay between method, form, content and purpose quite a distinctive character. Critical sensitivity to textual systems is called for, but the sheer commitment to content also requires a broader sociology.


In this section, we want to look more closely at some of the more practical issues we have faced in developing our project. These issues re-connect with the more general theoretical and analytic questions discussed above. Often, it is only once the practical work has begun that the true character of the theoretical and analytic task is revealed.

a The longitudinal view: Creating a taxonomy

One essential ingredient of the research design for the project was the construction of a 'programme log' to provide an overview of all the output over the entire span of the series from 1963 to 1998. The log provides a spine for the historical, longitudinal aspect of the project, acting as a central reference for the assessment of programme output and for series development over time. It allows us to recover information about every episode screened, including 'spinoffs' not directly part of the series itself, and covers scheduling information, personnel, archival and published references and other contextualising notes.

As a PC-based database, the programme log has allowed us to develop a basic taxonomy with regard primarily to the content of episodes, allowing us to monitor shifts in emphasis over the period. If required, we can isolate, for example, all the programmes involving a particular member of the production team whom we wish to interview, or those whose main thematic concern is Northern Ireland. Alternatively, we can construct a chart showing the balance between domestic and overseas-set programmes which may yield clues about the series' editorial pre-occupations or budgeting constraints.

The programme log is indispensable to our research. Yet it has its limitations, especially with regard to the content taxonomy. If used too mechanically for quantification purposes it can encourage a synoptic, ahistorical approach to the 35 year period, in which any year is equivalent to any other – at the expense of a more developmental perspective which takes account of the changing social context. And the categories in the taxonomy can come to seem too analytically blunt for anything more than the crudest indication of preferences. It is, furthermore, primarily an analysts' taxonomy – we have not attempted to use the content categories used by the editorial teams at different stages in the series' development, since these are hard to recover for every period and may have been at least largely implicit within contexts of production. Certainly, they would not have been a stable set of categories for the full span of our study.

b Accessing the archives

It was always evident to us that the value of our research would depend almost entirely upon the richness of the archives maintained by Granada Television. Something close to a complete run of film/ tape material was absolutely necessary, but what we were looking for, by way of insight into the social, institutional and cultural context of production, required much more than this. What we discovered was an extensive range of supporting material, both at the level of individual programmes and the organisation of the whole series. For individual programmes, this production information covered some or all of the following factors: programme research reports and planning documents; shotlists; programme personnel and participants; sources and clearances for programme material; press clippings; correspondence relating to the making of programmes and their reception (including detailed complaints from parties believing themselves to be wronged); legal advice and company discussion of it; programme synopses and publicity materials for overseas sales. Across the entire span of the series, there was a broader range of information such as: regularly-updated lists of programme ideas; minutes of programme team meetings; series-related correspondence with staff and outside bodies and briefing papers on regulation issues.

Such a range of documentation has provided the means by which to carry out a kind of archaeology, necessarily selective in ways beyond our control, of the series. It was through this archive that we were, for example, able to trace the series 'back from its inception in 1963 to earlier series within Granada. These had involved some of the same personnel, and had generated comparable crises for the company in its relations with the regulatory authority (the Independent Television Authority). A key problem here was the interpretation of 'balance' and 'impartiality' in the coverage of current affairs. In the history of British television, claims to 'impartiality' have sometimes been seen to disguise a favouring of official and corporate sources. The requirement for 'impartiality' itself has been viewed as a convenient way of covertly preserving established interests against any investigative reporting that seems to support a critical judgement. The sense of judicious equality carried by both terms hides tensions and conflicts that lie right at heart of the consistently awkward relationship between British television and British government. Many people, including some who worked on World in Action, have held to the view that a more committed approach to the reporting of certain issues is a democratic necessity and that the language of 'impartiality' is too often an excuse for reportorial timidity. One key part of our study will be a deeper critical engagement with this area of protocols and regulation. We shall have the advantage of a far better documentary basis than most others who have explored the problems to which regulatory language has given rise.

As with most archives, there are gaps and inconsistencies in the one we are using at Granada. The thoroughness with which it was maintained depended upon varying clerical procedures and a sense of historical value which varied from period to period. The archive was not kept with any expectation of subsequent academic research. The anticipated 'users' would often have been members of the programme team when they were researching new episodes on the sarrte or similar topics, as well as other production teams within Granada and those charged with the production of corporate records. Authorship of specific documents is not always clear. Yet, what the archive may lack in completeness, it makes up for in authenticity and detail and in the way it provides evidence of the perspectives, criteria and definitions which went into both the making of broadcast output as well as the subsequent professional assessment after transmission.

c Textual analysis

There is a specific rationale for our interest in the textual properties of broadcast output, since one of the objectives of the research has consistently been to explore the changing modes of portrayal and explanation used in the mediation of 'current affairs' to the viewing public. Thus, we asked about the different kinds of format and expositional method that had been employed by the programme in attempting to mix popularity with seriousness. We wanted to know more about how investigative approaches – ways of getting new information – were linked to devices of televisual presentation – ways of showing things to viewers and talking them through an account combining commentary and interview. Some of our questions were about the overall structuring of materials, and the development of programme 'pace'. Others were about quite specific uses of film, for instance, or ways of linking interviews. In deciding what to watch from the vast film and tape archive we were guided by different selective criteria. We wanted to look at some editions of the series because of their typicality for a particular period or recurrent theme. We looked at others because of their reputation as highly-regarded or as controversial episodes (this kind of distinctiveness has often been indicated in the written archives, and has emerged in our interviews as well). Some of the results of this combination of textual analysis with a broader archival history can be read in Goddard et. al 2001, an account of the formation and early years of the series (1963–1965). In this, we look at programmes about the politics of immigration and race; the contemporary politics of Greece; profiteering in the pharmaceutical drug industry; a typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen; the election of a new leader for the Conservative party and the war in Vietnam. In each case, close attention to the programme text is fitted within, but also informed by, a broader perspective on the makers' intentions and the programme-making itself. There are precedents for this (Campbell 1991 is a fine example for factual television study) but few which have been able to draw so directly on production archives in making their textual correlations.

Such a potential involved the greatest difficulties for us, in that the work of textual analysis continued to present problems of selection and depth. With so many episodes to choose from, even the guiding principles indicated above are only a partial help. There is an overriding, pragmatic requirement to relate the local analysis to a scheme of significance developed outside of it. The text is investigated for what it can say about something already on our research agenda from other kinds of documentation. This does not prevent the possibility of the textual analysis generating ideas which send us back into the printed documentation with 'new leads', but we have prioritised printed archive over text because we think this gives us better continuity and consistency in an historical study. It offers a better chance of making sense and gaining coherence across an awesome range of possible indicators and therefore allows for improved management of the material's challenging richness in our written accounts.

d Interviews

The interview component of our research design was introduced in anticipation of the gaps in the written archive; we hoped that people who had been involved with the series in the past might be able to remember things that we could not otherwise discover or support from the records. As an element of oral history, moreover, the interviews did more than this: they also provided insights into the 'workplace culture', which could be obtained in no other way. It was from an interview with a film editor, for instance, that we learned about the 'last minute' character of the scripting of programmes in the 1960s and the way in which available film-footage and script were put together. Textual analysis can make many mistakes when unsupported by information of this kind.

However, interviewing is for us very much a 'back-up' research method. The obtaining of informants is often difficult and the selectivity of the testimony defies clear control. The very passage of time makes memories unreliable, quite apart from partiality of viewpoint and the settling of old scores! Involvement in the making of the series may, understandably, be recalled by interviewees as part of their own personal biography in a way that has greater significance for them than the larger history of the series. For interviewees concerned about maintaining a broader view, the decades in which they worked have now acquired a distinctive social identity as chapters in the history of British social change. This identity often neatly collects many truths about the period, while simultaneously blocking the perception of others.

Compared with many other modes of media analysis, historical research is slow and less easily controlled by governing theories and analytic innovation. Most of the primary data has its origins outside any academic scheme of collection and designation. The gap between significance at the time and significance now is always there to hinder a sense of direction and judgement. In some areas, the abundance of data is a major challenge, in others its scarcity risks undercutting any firm analytic claim. However, at its best, historical writing has a density of explanation and detail invaluable to social understanding. In our case, we think we are contributing significantly to a fuller sense of what television in Britain has meant and continues to mean.


Briggs, A. (1995) The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol V: Competition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Branston, G. (1998) "Histories of British Television", pp. 51–62 ofGeraghty, C. and Lusted, D. (eds.) The Television Studies Book. London: Arnold.

Campbell, C. (1991) '60 Minutes' and the News. Champaign, 111: University of Illinois Press.

Corner, J. (ed.) (1991) Popular Television in BritaIn: Studies in Cultural History. London: British Film Institute.

Dahl, H. F. (1994) "The Pursuit of Media History". Media, Culture and Society16(4): 551–563.

Goddard, P., Corner, J. and Richardson, K. (2001) "The Formation of World in Action: A case study in the history of current affairs journalism". Journalism2(1): 73–90.

Jacobs, J. (2000) The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scannell, P. and Cardiff, D. (1991) A Social History of British Broadcasting, Vol. l. Oxford: Blackwell.

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