Friday, June 30, 2017

Thoughts on Structuring a Thesis

When I began researching the history of sport on commercial television (1955-92), I had a vague notion of how the finished work might be structured. While I cannot claim to have thought through every detail of format and layout, my original conception (if that’s not too grand a phrase) envisaged a historical piece laid out along chronological lines. This would be broken down into four distinct sections, a periodisation based on key public policy interventions: the 1954 TV Act and the subsequent committees chaired by Pilkington (1962), Annan (1977) and Peacock (1986).

There was a rudimentary logic behind this.  Firstly, it was influenced by a number of works read during the early stages of literature searching. Both introductory texts (Crisell, 2002) and subject-specific books (Black, 1972) explored the history of television chronologically. Moreover, the ‘official’ histories of ITV produced by the IBA (Sendall, 1982; Potter, 1989; Bonner and Aston, 1998) each dealt with specific periods of commercial television’s history in such a fashion.

Equally, thinking about the research in strictly chronological terms afforded certain benefits. It allowed me, as a relatively novice researcher, to organise key details within the broader historical picture. It is then possible to appreciate historical developments, and to differentiate between short-term experimentation and long-term trends. It was the simplest way of familiarising myself with the period and organising my thoughts.

As the research has progressed, and my thoughts have turned to questions of structuring my thesis, so the linear model seems increasingly redundant. Put simply, it does not feel as though this approach is sophisticated or nuanced enough to deal with the complexity of the subject. Already it is obvious that there are potential themes and case-studies which cannot be easily addressed within such a structure. One may point to ITV’s competition with the BBC, the long-running Saturday afternoon magazine show World of Sport, and the network’s coverage of professional wrestling.

There is a further consideration. Although the research has a distinct focus on ITV, any history of sport on commercial television must include discussion of Channel 4. Launched in 1982, the channel had a distinct remit, and its sports coverage a definite identity. There are specific questions concerning the sports covered by Channel 4, its presentation style, and how the ideas of Americanisation can be used to explain its programming.

In revising my thoughts on the structure of the thesis, I found myself influenced by Andreas Fickers’ book review and what is described as the “rapprochement between the textual and the contextual tradition in television historiography” (2009:568)

“It is only in the last decade that television studies have witnessed a growing interest in the historical nature of the medium and that media historians have moved from a reconstruction of the past based on written archives to a more integral historiography of television, translated in a serious attention for the audiovisual tradition of the medium.” (ibid.)

In this conception, television historiography is not simply reducible to a “reconstruction of the past based on written archives” – as important as this remains. In addition to the political, economic and social contexts of the programming, one might also consider such factors as the audience, technological innovation, and the relationship between broadcaster and advertiser. Perhaps most importantly, the programming is the key text from which analysis flows – elements of which appear, do varying degrees, in works of sports history (Whannel, 1992; Buscombe, 1975).

One can see thematic structuring in various works. Wheatley’s edited collection of essays (2007) on television historiography – the subject of the review – is broken down into four separate themes: “Debating the Canon”, “Textual Histories”, “Production and Institution” and “Audiences”. Something similar occurs in the book ITV Cultures (Johnson & Turnock, 2005). In this work, chapters fall under one of three themes: “Histories”, “Institutions” and “Texts”.

Even if one does not exactly reproduce these themes – and, obviously, a thesis does not follow the same framework as a book – they offer a useful starting point from which to develop my writing. With this in mind, I’m proposing the following as a working structure:

1.            Context
                                 I.           The historical link between sport and the media
                               II.           The position of the BBC as an established broadcaster
                             III.           The birth of independent television; its political and social context
                            IV.            The unique structure of the ITV network
                              V.            An overview of how sport has been broadcast on independent television

2.            Programming & Audiences
                                 I.           A chapter rich in quantitative data examining what is shown, how often, at         what points in the schedule.
                               II.           Viewing figures for sport on commercial television
                             III.           This may be the best place to address the question of ITV’s relationship to       the BBC

3.            Histories
                                 I.           World of Sport
                               II.           Wrestling
                             III.           Football
                            IV.            Channel 4

4.            Identities
                                 I.           National identities: What differences in programming do we witness in Wales and Scotland? How does the position of Scottish Television (STV) – separate from the rest of the independent network – affect sports coverage? To what extent does sports programming recreate, reinforce and shape ideas of British identity?
                               II.           Regional identities: What regional variations are to be found in programming? How do these translate to the national picture, if at all?
                             III.            How does the sports coverage of ITV and Channel 4 intersect with        considerations of gender, race and class?

Of course, this is only a provisional structure, likely to be revised as my research and writing continues. There are, I think, some areas that remain problematic. Despite my best intentions, the history of sport on Channel 4 still feels like an adjunct to ITV. While it certainly fits into the ‘Histories’ section, it may be the case that it requires a stand-alone chapter. The ‘Audiences’ chapter looks sparse, but could be bolstered by the including a discussion of televised mega-events (specifically the Olympics and FIFA World Cup). But, for now at least, this is a sound platform on which to build.


Black, Peter (1972) The Mirror in the Corner: People’s Television, Hutchinson: London

Bonner, P. & Aston, L. (1998) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 5: ITV and the IBA 1981-1992: The Relationship Changes, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Buscombe, C. (ed.) (1975) Football on Television, British Film Institute: London

Crisell, A. (2002) An Introductory History of British Broadcasting (2nd addition), Routledge: London

Fickers, A. (2009) Re-Viewing Television History. Critical Issues in Television Historiography, Helen Wheatley (Ed.), Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 29:4, 567-570

Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) (2005) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Potter, J. (1989) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 3: Politics and Control 1968-80, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Sendall, B. (1982) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 1: Origin and Foundation 1946-62, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Whannel, G. (1992) Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation, Routledge: London

Wheatley, H. (ed.) (2007) Re-Viewing Television History. Critical Issues in Television Historiography, I.B. Tauris: London