Research guide for CMNS 220 Understanding Television (Burnaby)

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If you need help, please contact Sylvia Roberts, Liaison Librarian for Communication & Contemporary Arts at 778.782.3681 or or Ask a librarian.

This guide is intended to help you with research for your major essay proposal and, ultimately, your major essay. If you would like to consult with someone about your specific topic or research needs, let us know.

Conceptualizing your topic

Excerpted from Dr. Druick's Essay Assignment:

Major essay proposal (due March 3, 10%).

Writing a good essay is largely dependent on the phases of conceptualization and research. This assignment asks you to begin your research on one of the essay topics provided (see below) and to hand in a proposal of 300 words that provides a provisional title, gives your working thesis, outlines your argument and provides a preliminary bibliography of at least seven (7) academic sources.  

Tips: Not only should your bibliography include at least seven academic sources, you will do better if you can demonstrate that you have read them by referring to their content in the body of your proposal, i.e. demonstrate that you have chosen useful sources.  Course readings count as academic sources and are good starting places for many of the topics.


Television interests researchers in a wide range of disciplines.  For this essay, the emphasis is on the role that television plays in society, reflecting and influencing social behavior, rather than political economy or the psychological effect on the individual.  Focus on specific television programs or television news, rather than the content of advertising or other forms of media.  

Consider the chief concepts in your topic question.  Do you understand what is being asked?  What interests you about this question? How do you plan to focus your research to address the question?  Some initial brainstorming to answer these questions should supply you with some search strategies.

Additional ideas for clarifying questions are listed with each topic question, below.

Consider that not all television programs will be discussed in scholarly literature, particularly if they're new or had short runs. If you cannot find articles about a specific program that interests you, look for articles that discuss similar programs, whether the same genre or sharing other characteristics relevant to your discussion.   

Trade or industry literature is directed at people working within the industry.  While not considered academic literature, trade publications (e.g. Daily Variety and MediaWeek) include news articles about trends in television, reviews of programs or genres, as well as market information, viewer demographics, program ratings, etc.   Trade literature databases are listed below under the Finding articles section.

If you're not sure how to approach your topic, review your course readings and discussions to look for an entry point.  You may also find it helpful to look at one or more of the sources listed under Background / Overviews. These provide an introduction to a topic as well as a list of academic sources for further investigations.

Background / overviews

If you are looking for background on your topic, consider using a specialized encyclopedia such as:

Search for "television" and your main topic search term, e.g. "gender", "celebrity", "genre", "fans".

Scan the results for entries that seem most relevant to your research.   Each entry will provide an overview of the topic, referring to major areas of research, citations for key literature, related topics and a list of further reading. 

Use these entries as a jumping off point to get a sense of ways that other researchers have approached the topic and where there are different paths to pursue with your research.

Research tips for all topics

To complement your course readings, you will find useful information in other scholarly research journals, books and chapters in anthologies, such as The television reader: critical perspectives in Canadian and US television studies.

Search by the name of your sample tv shows (e.g. Oprah Winfrey Show) or search for the genre of television (e.g. Talk Shows).

SFU Library has some DVDs of television programs and series, as do public libraries.  

You can use Library Search on the Library homepage to find books (e-books and print) and electronic articles available at SFU.   This search tool is very broad in approach so if you don't find what you need, try using specific search tools as recommended below.

To find books or chapters in books

Use the Library catalogue to look for books.    

Start by using search terms that represent your key concepts.  The keyword search finds your search terms anywhere in the record description, whether the title, author, subject or description note fields. 

Try a keyword search for your topic, combined with the word "television", for example, "television and celebrity".   Look at the record details for promising results.  Your search terms will be highlighted in red so you can see why this item was in your results.

If you find a book or a book chapter that looks promising, click on the subject heading links in the record to find all the books that have a major focus on that topic.   

Notes on useful search terms and subject heading for each topic are listed below.  If you use the search terms in a keyword search, you'll find the 

Review pertinent records to discover other useful search terms, particularly those in the subject terms, subject headings or descriptor fields, as these terms will be used consistently  to describe what the book is about.

As well as books that focus on television, you may find television programs discussed in books with a more comprehensive focus.   Use the back-of-the-book index and the table of contents to find relevant pages within such books.

guide to searching the SFU Library catalogue is available if you want more detail. 

To find articles

The following journal databases are the best sources for scholarly articles that discuss research into television topics.   Some also contain trade publications that provide a perspective from those working in the industry, reviews of television programs and discussions of trends in the industry.  

The best databases to find academic literature discussing television are listed below.    

For direction on recognizing the characteristics of scholarly journal articles, see our guide to What is a Scholarly Journal?

Databases that include articles in trade publications for the television industry are below:

Research tips for specific topic questions

  1. Despite the abundance of available images across various media, due to its scale and cultural reach television continues to be seen as a powerful source of representations. Research the representation of any identifiable minoritized group (e.g. racialized, disabled, transgendered) in one or more shows and discuss the significance of the representations. 

You may want to start by identifying shows that include representations of your minoritized group.

Encyclopedia of television subjects, themes and settings  "traces specific topics from 1925 through the 2005-2006 season... themes as adolescence, adult film actresses, bars, espionage, gays, immigrants, lawyers, transsexuals and truckers...Each entry displays how television's treatment of subjects has changed over years."

If you don’t find books that focus on your specific topic in television, try a broader search to find sources that discuss representations of your group in mass media, movies or popular culture. You may be able to apply discussions of stereotypes in other media to television.   Books that discuss minorities in mass media may have chapters or pages that apply to treatment of minorities in television, for example:

Native Americans in the movies:  portrayals from the silent films to the present  The focus of this book is movies but it discusses stereotypical images of native Americans over time which may provide useful support for discussions of representations of First Nations people in television

Sample search term suggestions for generic concepts

  • representation or portrayal or images or stereotypes
  • minorities or ethnic or ethnicity or race
  • transgender or homosexuality or sexuality
  • spanish or hispanic or latin american

Sample subject headings leading to lists of books focused on that topic

To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu.

  • Stereotypes Social Psychology On Television
  • Ethnicity On Television
  • Minorities On Television
  • Race Relations On Television
  • Gender Identity On Television
  • Sex Role On Television
  • Homosexuality On Television
  • Homosexuality And Television
  • Sex On Television
  • People With Disabilities On Television
  • Women On Television
  • African Americans On Television
  • Indians on television
  • Muslims On Television

This is not a complete list of relevant subject headings. In some cases, you may want to explore a group that isn't well represented in the television literature but may be discussed in other disciplines.  For example, if you want to discuss television representations of persons with mental illnesses, you may need to look at books under broader subject headings, such as:

  • Mental illness in mass media
  • Crime in mass media

Additional journal databases that may be useful for this topic:

  1. Television has become increasingly reliant on the Internet and social media for its economic survival. Research the fan activity associated with the show or genre of your choice. Explore whether and how this activity helps to raise the show’s profile and therefore its profitability.

Consider how you will support claims that fans have increased the show's profile;   representation in the People's Choice Awards?  increased ratings?  twitter trending or number of followers?  number of fan sites?

Sample search terms:

Fans or fandom or television viewers or audience

Social media or facebook or twitter or followers

Subject headings for books 

To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu.

  • Television Viewers 
  • Television Viewers Social Aspects
  • Fans Persons
  • Mass Media Audiences
  • Television Programs Social Aspects
  • Television Broadcasting Economic Aspects
  • Internet Marketing Social Aspects
  • Social Media Economic Aspects
  • Online Social Networks Social Aspect
  • Mass Media Audiences

Additional databases for articles that relate to this topic:

  1. Research the history of any television genre (e.g. melodrama, sit com, reality TV, late night talk show, news parody) and how it has (or has not) changed over time. Who constitutes its primary audience? What kinds of social and/or political questions does it allow viewers to explore?

What kind of changes might you see over time?   Were there social, political or economic factors that influenced changes to the content of a genre?    Do you see changes in casting?  In the topics covered within the programs? In the tone of the dialogue?  In how this genre is represented on the airwaves?  

Subject headings for books

To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu.

  • Television Programs -- 69 Related Subjects
  • Television Program Genres
  • Television Comedies
  • Television Melodramas
  • Situation Comedies Television Programs
  • Reality Television Programs
  • Makeover Television Programs
  • Television Cop Shows
  • Television Broadcasting Of Sports
  • Television News Programs
  • Television News Programs Parodies Imitations Etc
  • Television Talk Shows
  • Television Soap Operas
  • Historical Television Programs
  • Science Fiction Television Programs

To increase the specificity of your search, look for the subheadings “history” or “social aspects” (impact on society) after the subheadings listed above, for example:

  • Television Programs History 

If you find a book that deals with your topic more broadly, use the table of contents or back of the book index to look for the specific pages or parts of the book that discuss your research interest.

Trade publications that include articles on the television industry may help you measure change in a programming genre over time, with overviews of the genre and reviews of specific shows as new seasons start.  

To find these discussions, try searching the databases for trade publications (listed under Finding Articles above)  or, for a historical perspective, the databases below:

  1. Television has long been a means of connecting audiences to a variety of “imagined communities.” Choose any transnational or diasporic community and research the way it uses television to make connections “back home”.

Sample search terms

Specific diasporas (Asians, Sikhs, Africans, etc.) AND television

Group identity AND television

Transnational AND television

(Asian Americans or Asian Canadians) AND (television or mass media)

Subject heading that link to specific books that focus on this topic

To search for books by subject heading, use the Browse Search option in the SFU Library Catalogue, then select Subject browse from the drop-down menu.

  • Television Programs 
    • Use the subheading that identifies the relevant country or community
  • Ethnic television broadcasting
  • Minorities in television broadcasting​
  • Mass media and minorities​
  • Mass Media And Nationalism
  • Mass media and ethnic relations
  1. Television is particularly good at creating a feeling of intimacy for viewers with performers. Choose a celebrity and analyze the way he or she uses television to enhance his or her “persona” and/or “brand.”

Related subject headings (link to books on topic)

  • Celebrities In Mass Media
  • Consumer behavior
  • Fame Social Aspects
  • Fame Economic Aspects

Additional journal article indexes:

Business Source Complete