In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Television

  • Introduction
  • General Histories and Textbooks
  • General Anthologies
  • Television Technology Histories
  • Legal and Regulatory Histories
  • Studies of the Industry Before 1960
  • Dramatic Formats Before 1960
  • Broadcast Television 1960–1990
  • Broadcast and Cable Television Since 1990
  • Television and Digital Media
  • Issues of Race and Gender
  • International Anthologies
  • International Monographs

Cinema and Media Studies History of Television
William Boddy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0036


While journalists, cultural critics, technology writers, and industry figures have been writing about television for a surprisingly long time (going back at least to experiments with mechanical television in the late 1920s), the academic study of television history largely emerged only in the 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom. Befitting its object of study as at once a major industry, creative medium, and political battlefield, scholarly writing on television history owes distinct debts to the disciplines of business, technology, and legal studies, as well as humanities-based film and cultural studies. Paralleling the renaissance of the study of film history and the rise of cultural studies, scholarly writing on television’s past since the 1980s has vastly expanded our understanding of the ubiquitous medium during a period of sustained change in its traditional institutions and practices. Supported by a range of scholarly journals, archives, and conferences, contemporary scholarship in television history has actively explored both the medium’s tangled past and its uncertain future in a world of fragmented audiences, proliferating technological platforms, and competing business models. Not surprisingly, given its scale and dominance in international program markets, the US television industry has preoccupied television historians, though increasing attention has been paid to the global contexts of television production and exchange in the early 21st century. Academic writing on television often blurs distinctions among history, theory, and criticism, and this hybrid quality can be seen in the organization of academic conferences, the design of edited anthologies, and even within the pages of a single-authored book. In part, this fluidity reflects the polyglot nature and relative youth of the academic study of television, but it also reflects an attempt by many television scholars to reach out to a wide array of readers and to fully engage with popular, ubiquitous, and sometimes culturally degraded program texts. It remains to be seen what happens to this populist impulse of much historical writing on television as the universalist, top-down culture of traditional broadcast television threatens to dissolve in a multiplatform digital cornucopia. As current intellectual fashions and the academic marketplace coalesce around often carelessly defined notions of new media and screen cultures, the value of rigorous historical work on television’s program forms, audiences, and institutions will be more important than ever.

General Histories and Textbooks

The historical study of radio and television history through the 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom was dominated by the massive multivolume institutional histories Barnouw 1966 and Briggs 1961. Despite their age, the works remain valuable beyond historiographic interest, drawing upon as they do to a rich field of corporate and government archives as well as interviews with contemporary participants. As postsecondary courses in television history expanded since 1990, a new generation of textbooks, including Barnouw 1990, Edgerton 2009, Gomery 2008, Hilmes 2011, Marc and Thompson 2005, and Sterling and Kittross 2001, and synthetic histories of television, like Castleman and Podrazik 2010, has appeared in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and these works bring with them a new historiographic sophistication as well as the fruits of contemporary scholarship.

  • Barnouw, Erik. A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933. Vol. 1, A Tower in Babel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

    Still an impressive achievement of archival research and narrative history, this multivolume history combines massive research, strong narrative design, and a skeptical stance toward the industry, with an emphasis on regulatory and political contexts. Barnouw’s political bêtes noires and aesthetic blind spots become more conspicuous in the final volume, which ends with the late 1960s.

  • Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

    A highly readable single-volume distillation and updating of Barnouw’s three-volume history of US broadcasting, it remains strong in corporate and regulatory history, if uneven in the discussion of specific programs and creative style and increasingly distant in historical coverage.

  • Briggs, Asa. The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Vol. 1, The Birth of Broadcasting. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

    This is the first volume of a five-volume history of British broadcasting, written over three and a half decades by an eminent social historian, from the beginnings of radio to the early 1970s, drawing upon BBC and government records, balancing discussion of institutional, political, and program issues. Still indispensable to the study of British broadcasting and the BBC.

  • Castleman, Harry, and Walter Podrazik. Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television. 2d ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010.

    This is a lively and opinionated chronology of prime-time US television, nonacademic though thoughtful and well informed. In its concentration on programs, it serves as a useful complement to more institutionally centered histories. The book also includes prime-time schedule grids for every US American network television season from 1944 to 2010. Originally published in 1982.

  • Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    This is a concise and thorough (if still somewhat top-down) history of US television, balancing institutional and programming topics, with four case-study chapters by specialist historians alongside the chronological narrative.

  • Gomery, Douglas. A History of Broadcasting in the United States. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

    Gomery’s incisive 350-page history of radio and television in the United States emphasizes issues of programming and industry form over those of technology and regulation. This is a lively contemporary account, exhaustively researched, from a distinguished US media historian.

  • Hilmes, Michele. Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States. 3d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011.

    Hilmes offers a cultural studies–oriented account of American radio and television, taking advantage of recent scholarship and carefully connecting the medium to its cultural and historical context. The book includes a number of case studies on specific historical topics and is unusually sensitive to questions of historical method.

  • Marc, David, and Robert Thompson. Television in the Antenna Age: A Concise History. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470775745

    This is a brief and highly readable volume on US television history by two prominent writers on American television and popular culture, with an emphasis on popular programming.

  • Sterling, Christopher H., and John Kittross. Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    This is the most recent edition of an established textbook on US radio and television, with an emphasis upon technology and legal and regulatory issues, concluding with an exhaustive bibliography.

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