Teaching Local Television History with Primary Sources

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Teaching with Primary Sources Vol 4(3)
Stephen Groening
University of Washington

The curriculum for my department’s new major in Cinema and Media Studies includes an upper-division course entitled “Television History;” as the new hire in Television and New Media, charged with teaching the course, I was struck immediately by the challenges. How could I go about teaching the one hundred plus year history of television — from cultural imaginaries in the 1800s to early 20th century experiments, to the classic network era, and now the digital age — in ten weeks? Because I am in a department dedicated to comparative work across linguistic and national boundaries, I also felt an urge to account for the different histories of television globally, which made the task seem even more impossible. After researching other syllabi, reading through several television history books, and scanning through the contents of journals, I realized the solution was actually quite simple: go in the complete opposite direction. Instead of a course with an expansive scope that would cover nearly everything, I chose to make Television History a local history course; relying on my expertise in research and writing media history, so that students could rely on me for guidance and coaching, rather than facts, figures, and information. To make such a local history course work I designed the syllabus around a single long-term research project to be published online on a digital history site called the Seattle Television History Project (STHP).

The overall objective of my course and STHP is to produce an open-ended, online, and publicly available research project aimed at recovering, archiving, and publicizing the local history of television in Seattle. STHP takes advantage of Omeka, a free open source web publishing and database platform created by the Center for History and New Media. The decision to turn to digital publication was based on two goals. First, I wanted to provide students with a semi-structured course that gave them the kinds of skills that would be useful regardless of their later careers. Second, I wanted to produce public-facing research, as a way of giving back to the very community that makes the University possible. I envision the project as a kind of public service, reflecting back to Seattle residents their own television history and culture. It is thus local in a dual sense: about the local and addressed to locals.

This project comes at a time when many local television stations — not just in Seattle but nationally — are either destroying or abandoning their archival materials. Despite institutions with a television preservation mission, such as the Vanderbilt Television News Archive and the Paley Center for Media, economic pressures, the changeover to digital technology, as well as television’s relentless focus on the “now” threaten to destroy local stations’ archives, which are valuable resources for historians of all stripes. Asking students to pursue their own research projects on the local history of television, results in the (re)discovery of primary sources and renews focus on local resources such as the public library, museums, television stations, and retired professionals (I am ever hopeful that local stations will realize the value of their holdings). The University of Washington library’s special collections already include the papers of Dorothy Bullitt, the first female local television station owner in the United States, as well as papers related to numerous original television programs donated by local photojournalists. Additionally, I am fortunate to be supported by a newspaper collections librarian, a cinema and media studies subject librarian, and a moving image archivist. As part of this course, they lead workshops on finding and handling materials, as well as cataloging, collecting, and archiving materials.

Because of the public-facing digital aspect of the student work, the projects curate and display primary sources and rely on primary sources as the basis for published research. Primary sources take many forms — technological artifacts, programs, interviews with television professionals, newspaper advertisements, television listings, the internal documents of a television station; I encourage students to seek them out as relevant to their topic. Primary materials limit the scope of students work; they provide a kind of inherent structure but at the same time indicate seeming limitless research questions. They can also be thrilling and inspirational. Students’ discovery of materials may be the only time in their undergraduate education in which they pursue independent research and make their own findings. This constitutes a moment of empowerment for students, a moment when they discover their own abilities as researchers and scholars that previously may have been underdeveloped or unnoticed.

Just using primary sources is not sufficient for this effect. I could, for instance, introduce students to David Sarnoff’s 1931 essay, “Television Today and Tomorrow,” a piece of writing familiar to me and which has generated plenty of secondary scholarship. But such a lesson constitutes merely a starting point for getting students to think about interpretation, contextualization, and narration. In an encounter with a primary source well-known to scholars (and the instructor), students still think there is an “answer” and look to me to provide the final verdict, the key insight, or at the very least to explain the primary sources’ significance so that they understand why it was assigned in the first place. Thus the primary source becomes implicated in the instrumentality that characterizes the view held by so many undergraduates (and some faculty) toward course work and course materials. The very open-endedness of primary sources, which are new and unfamiliar to everyone in the course, instructor included, provokes that sense of wonder and curiosity that can, in turn, cultivate student growth and learning.

To help structure student research, I draw on John Corner’s “five aspects of television”: television as institution, television as making, television as representation and form, television as sociocultural phenomenon, and television as technology (Corner 275-6). These aspects overlap and impinge on each other, of course, but part of educating students in the theory and method of media historiography is to impress upon them both the difficulty of analysis (as well as producing analytic categories) and the usefulness of seemingly arbitrary categories (as well as their unintended effects). Indeed, one of the most common student questions was: “what do you mean by television?” While my definition of television is deliberately broad, including audiences, texts, institutions, and technology, it became clear that that my students were really asking a question about media specificity: are online videos found on YouTube television? At first blush this may seem to be an inane question and/or an irritating one for those of us used to long hours in archives slogging through dusty materials (“undergrads and their need for instant gratification,” I might have grumbled).  However, questioning the status of previously broadcast material found on YouTube inspires a set of questions about collecting and archiving. For instance, what are the differences between archive.org, the University’s libraries, and YouTube, (to name a range of disparate platforms and modes of collecting that students often see as equals because they are all online)?

The leveling of sources and topics, due partly to students’ interactions with the worldwide web and their inexperience in historical research, was exacerbated by my decision to allow students to choose their own topics. Because I was not an expert on the history of television in Seattle and remained optimistic about students’ ability to find and access sources I did not know about, I decided not to limit their topic (although I tried to keep them out of the 21st century). Many of the proposed topics were uneven in scope – from a short-lived music variety show to “the history of class and race on Seattle Television.” However, this decision resulted in a wide range of research on topics I would not have predicted, much less recommended: from coverage of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, to Bill Nye the Science Guy, to Macklemore’s music videos. One woman, working with a group interested in sports broadcasting, found archived broadcasts of University of Washington athletics in the university libraries, and compared different broadcasting techniques and technologies from the 1940s until the 1970s to analyze changes in style in collegiate sports broadcasting.  The initial encounter with the archival footage was marked by a mix of wonder, astonishment, and shock — some early footage looked like surveillance footage or even C-SPAN (“they didn’t even have voice-over commentary!”). This emotional reaction actually drove the student’s curiosity to find out when certain techniques and technologies were introduced to sports broadcasting. In other words, the discovery of a relatively small body of work spurred larger questions and also encouraged the student to think about the context and situatedness of broadcasting. A pair of students, curious about the history of Spanish-language broadcasting in Seattle took it upon themselves to interview television producers and on-air talent from the local Univision affiliate. Their interviews provided the basis for essays on the struggle for recognition by Spanish-language broadcasts in the Pacific Northwest, and illuminated the relationship between a national network and local affiliate in a clear and effective way. My “serial killer” group, as I affectionately dubbed them, rooted through newspaper archives for stories on Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer. Although we managed to find the names of retired photojournalists who had covered Bundy’s trial and even one who interviewed his mother, my students were unable to secure interviews with them. But this “failure” is also a lesson about engaging in independent research and seeking primary sources — sometimes they do not exist, or are difficult to uncover, or simply reluctant. In this way, media history can be much like science in the lab — marked by repetitive tasks that bear few results until a breakthrough moment and suddenly all the “wasted” effort and time becomes worthwhile.  Indeed, this is one aspect of working with primary sources that I tried to communicate to my students — primary sources are more likely to lead to more questions since they are just as much about uncovering the gaps in the historical record as they are about filling in those gaps.

Primary sources are perhaps the key to explaining historiography as a practice to students. What I mean is that students very often think that history is “the way things were” (perhaps a more sophisticated student will say “it’s a story about the past”). By actually making students go through the process of writing history they start to understand that history is hardly “the way things were” or even an “interpretation of the past” but rather a highly mediated narrative based on scant and incomplete evidence. Working with primary sources means going back to fundamentals. What constitutes evidence (or what counts as a primary source)? What level of trust does one put in that source? What other sources is it in conversation with? How does one contextualize that source? These questions have a new salience for students as they struggle with their own projects and sources necessary for their own writing of history, they begin to see how historiographic method and practice are about our relationship to the materials of the past. History is not “a story about the past” but an interpretation of what of the past still exists in the present. Assigning undergraduates independent media research that relies on first-hand encounters with primary sources communicates this lesson powerfully.


Corner, John. 2003. “Finding data, reading patterns, telling stories: issues in the historiography of television” Media, Culture, and Society 25 (2003), 273-280.

Sarnoff, David. 1931. “Television today and tomorrow” Television News (September-October): 250-1, 313.

Resource Links

Omeka: omeka.org

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: rrchnm.org

Seattle Television History Project: depts.washington.edu/sthp

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