The Town Without Television, Part 1: Notel

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The Town Without Television by Stuart McMillen - title page
Drawing of house at night, with yellow light shining through windows. Parody of cover of
Let me take you deep into a classic social science experiment from the 1970s. In 1973, Canadian researchers visited the last major town in North America without television reception.
Arriving right before the start of broadcasting, the researchers conducted before-and-after studies that measured the impact of television on the residents.
This was an unprecedented and unrepeatable natural experiment that revealed insights into the pervasive impact of television on the societies that it touches.
Allow at least 10 minutes to read this in-depth science communication comic.
Notel by Stuart McMillen: sign on side of truck
Chapter 1 of The Town Without Television by Stuart McMillen. Two hitchikers walking along the side of a road carrying TVs: parody of Exit Planet Dust by The Chemical Brothers.
Cartoon of two boys watching TV up close. In 1973, television was the #1 leisure activity in North America. Most people watched multiple hours of TV per day.
Drawing of Professor Tannis MacBeth in a cluttered office with bookshelves filled with books. Tannis MacBeth was a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who wondered about television’s impact.
Cartoon of woman standing in her office, thinking about things. She wondered what effect TV had on viewers as individuals, as well as its impact on society more broadly.
But Tannis feared that her predecessors had missed the opportunity to scientifically study the impact of television.
Psychologists had been caught flat-footed when television was introduced to North America in the 1950s.
They had failed to design experiments that would measure the ‘before’ and ‘after’ effects.
By the time psychologists realized the social significance of television, the vast majority of the population were already habitual viewers.
Many fundamental questions about television were unanswered, but it seemed that there were no non-viewers left in North America.
Woman opening her mail and reading a letter, in her office. All hope seemed lost, ...
... until Tannis learned the surprising news that there was still a North American town without television.
Drawing of a woman reading a letter with surprised expression on her face, the artwork tilted on a Dutch angle. Low angle view of character holding a sheet of paper with both hands.
Even more surprisingly, the town was located inside her home province’s borders. Drawing of mail and letters on a messy desk.
POV illustration of a person's hands holding a map in front of them. This town was in the east of British Columbia, a nine-hour drive from Vancouver.
Drawing of a person's hands holding a letter in front of them, above a table. Although it had a sizable population, the was located in a television black spot.
The town was inside the Rocky Mountain Trench: a long, deep valley that separates the Columbia Mountains and the Rocky Mountains.
Cartoon drawing of a mountain valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, viewed from a high angle. The same mountains that created the town's stunning views were also responsible for blocking its television reception.
Cartoon of happy woman reading her mail. Tannis was thrilled to learn about this town, …
Drawing of shocked and surprised woman reading her mail. ...but alarmed to learn that the town was slated to receive television transmission before the end of the year.
Surpised woman carefully reading her mail cartoon. The door was about to close!
This was a never-to-be-repeated research opportunity. A chance to scientifically study the ‘before’ and ‘after’ impact of television.
Tannis seized the moment.
She assembled a team, and scrambled to design a scientific experiment that probed as many factors as possible.
Cartoon of woman speaking into a phone receiver. Drawing of a high-angle office, with a woman at the desk.
Within months, her team was ready to visit the town for Phase 1 of the study.
Low angle view of car driving along mountain highway near guardrail. Tannis MacBeth drove from Vancouver toward the Rocky Mountains.
Before leaving Vancouver, Tannis and her UBC colleagues had decided to exclusively use a nickname for the town in all future publications and public discussions. They wanted to preserve the privacy and anonymity of the residents who had graciously allowed them to visit the town for their research studies.
Tannis chose an enigmatic nickname. High angle view of group of people looking over someone's shoulder.
She dubbed the town 'Notel'.
Side view of a woman driving a car, holding the steering wheel. Tannis reflected on the research into television that other psychologists had done before.
Drawing of cartoon psychologists designing a scientific experiment. These studies typically involved looking for differences between viewers with
... or paying TV-watchers to abstain from television for a certain number of weeks, while being studied by researchers. They often produced suggestive results, but were far from conclusive. Such experiments were poor substitutes for what Tannis and her team were about to perform.
Cartoon drawing of Ford LTD Country Squire side view.
Cartoon of a woman driving a car, drawing showing her front-on viewed through the windshield. The Notel experiment was different. Very different.
In scientific terminology, Notel was a natural experiment, because the researchers were not artificially manipulating the scenario to restrict the residents’ ability to watch television.
Rear view of cartoon car Ford LTD Country squire driving away. The Rocky Mountains were naturally creating the conditions that differentiated Notel from the rest of North America.
Drawing of pine forest illustrated in cartoon style, the pine trees in front of a snow-capped mountain range.
Rear view over the shoulder of a woman driving a car, cartoon illustration of woman holding the steering wheel. Importantly, this wasn't a town of kooky fringe-dwellers, or holdouts.
Notel’s residents actively wanted television. They had petitioned for it.
Drawing of cartoon bighorn sheep standing on a cliff, looking backwards towards viewer.
Car driving along cliffside of winding mountain road cartoon. It was a fluke of geography, rather than the townsfolk’s convictions that had kept Notel’s residents from watching TV.
Cartoon drawing of red Canada Post box on a small town street. Notel was simply a typical Canadian town, minus television.
Cartoon drawing of two boys crossing the street in a small town, wearing beanies and winter clothes. Cartoon illustration of typical Canadian winter with tuques and maple leaf sweaters.
With a population of 658, Notel was the largest sizable North American community without television.
It was connected by highways, bus services, and rail services. Drawing of CN rail train, diesel in small mountain town.
It had radio reception, phone service, and a local newspaper. Cartoon of man walking along a street near a phone booth in small town.
It had schools, stores, a medical centre, a movie theatre, and a recreation centre. Cartoon of police car parked outside small town building.
Tannis MacBeth and the UBC team arrived in Notel in its final fall without TV reception.
21 years behind the debut of CBC Television, entering Notel was like visiting a town today without internet access.
Drawing of a woman standing with her back to viewer, with hands on hips. A crucial technology was simply missing from daily life.
Life without television—unimaginable to most people—was everyday reality for the townsfolk. Cartoon drawing of VW Volkswagon Westfalia camper van.
The timing of the Notel experiment was utterly perfect.
1973 was prior to the availability of home video players and home video game consoles.
Because of this, there was simply no way to use a television for entertainment in the Seventies without a live signal. Drawing of old television set with static noise on the screen - snow without TV channel reception.
Future experiments would never be this ‘pure’ again. Low angle view of a cartoon lounge room, showing a TV set and sofa couch and a close-up of carpet.
The UBC researchers embedded themselves into the community, while conducting their Phase 1 research.
Three people walking along street abreast towards the viewer. Cartoon characters chatting while carrying books and walking.
This data collection was as unbiased as possible, with the researchers wary of projecting their expectations onto the townsfolk.
The project’s hypotheses had been designed so that they would not simply confirm foregone conclusions about television.
Cartoon of 1970s CRT television in lounge room. As they visited the residents’ homes, they often noticed television sets that were ready and waiting.
Drawing of retro orange couch in lounge room. Though useless now, the residents were planning ahead for the start of transmission.
Drawing of man bending down to turn on old analogue television set. Some of the residents demonstrated their TVs’ current reception to Tannis.
Closeup of hand clicking channel changer dial on old television cartoon drawing. In most houses, the TV screens showed only static.
Rear view over the shoulder of people watching television in a dark room. Despite most of the town only ever getting pure static, ...
... some houses in part of the town were occasionally able to tune their sets to a faint signal beamed from a distant tower. Faces of people faces illuminated by television in a dark room watching TV.
Visiting one of these houses, Tannis squinted at what was supposedly “Sesame Street”.
A fuzzy outline was barely visible. Was that Big Bird? Television with low-quality Big Bird image with bad reception.
The audio crackled like a truck driver’s CB radio.
Bert talking to Ernie? It was so hard to tell!
Later on, Tannis endured part of a “Hockey Night in Canada” match, with an invisible puck, and two teams of indistinguishable ghostly players.
The Notel residents emphasized that she was lucky to be viewing on such a “good day”.
Tannis started to laugh, but realized that they weren’t kidding.
What they considered “good TV reception” was completely unwatchable to anyone from outside Notel! Rear view of people watching an old TV set, viewed over their shoulders.
Cartoon drawing of family doing a jigsaw puzzle, showing a close-up of hand holding a puzzle piece. Accordingly, most residents of Notel had simply given up trying to watch television from their homes.
Sisters doing a jigsaw puzzle together cartoon drawing. They knew that TV was a painful experience, and so they did other things instead.
This was exactly what Tannis MacBeth was here to study.
She was fascinated to learn what the residents did with their time, compared to the rest of the continent.
She wanted to know whether a lack of television impacted the residents as individuals: their attitudes, abilities and intelligence.
Cartoon woman drawing standing with hands on hips in front of a house in a small town.
And beyond this, she wanted to know whether a lack of television impacted Notel’s broader social community: the way that the townsfolk interacted with each other.
Rear view of cartoon ice hockey player, skating away on ice on outdoor frozen lake rink. Low angle cartoon of frozen lake in mountain town.
Cartoon drawing of people in a small town grocery store, standing talking to each other. To understand this, Tannis’ team of researchers would conduct various ‘before and after’ studies on the townsfolk.
Family sitting a kitchen dining table cartoon drawing. They collected time-use surveys, to understand how the residents occupied their time.
Drawing of cartoon hand filling out a questionnaire with a pen. They administered research-quality tests and questionnaires for assessing everything from children’s reading abilities, through to adults’ problem-solving skills.
In some cases, the researchers ran observational studies, to measure social interactions, such as playground aggressiveness.
The researchers would collect data once in 1973: before the introduction of TV to Notel.
And they would return to collect data once more in 1975: after TV had been established in Notel.
Tannis MacBeth and her colleagues packed their cars for their return to Vancouver.
They had beaten the deadline, and completed their Phase 1 research.
View over the shoulder of a cartoon woman with scarf blowing in the wind. TV was coming soon. It was the talk of the town.
Drawing of two men carrying a heavy box together, box with a bulky old television set inside.
Low angle view of woman driving a cart, with hand holding steering wheel up close. Tannis soaked up the scene as she rolled out of town.
Low angle side view of car wheel rolling along road. It would be over two years until she and her team would next visit Notel for their Phase 2 research.
Cartoon sign of roadside sign advertising 1973 Grey Cup from CFL Canadian Football League. Ottawa vs Edmonton.
She saw the adults preparing to watch their first Canadian football championship on television in their home town.
Woman driving a car, noticing something in her rear view mirror cartoon drawing.
She caught her last glimpse of children playing in a town without television. Kids playing on a jungle gym climbing frame cartoon drawing.
High angle workers climbing mast antenna wearing overalls and hard hats.
A change from above was about to fundamentally impact the community and its residents. High angle view of valley town from mountain treetops.
Roadside sign for Notel, Canada: the town without television in British Columbia from 1970s. 70s road sign of Rocky Mountains forest next to highway.
The town's 21-year period of innocence was about to come to an end. Cartoon car driving along mountain road: Ford Country Squire.
Rear view of cartoon woman driving a car viewed behind ear, over shoulder looking into center rearview mirror.
The next time Tannis visited Notel, she suspected things would be very different.
The next time Tannis visited Notel, she suspected things would be very different.The next time Tannis visited Notel, she suspected things would be very different.

The Town Without Television: about Notel, a classic study into the impact of television on a community by Professor Tannis MacBeth from the University of British Columbia. In 1973, researchers studied the last remaining Canadian town without TV reception, and ran ‘before’ and ‘after’ experiments.
Support the Tannis MacBeth Memorial Fund to help fund this comic

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Donna Hill

26 February 2022

Hi Stuart, Thank you so much for highlighting this study! Over my career I have referenced this study many times to people to show the impacts of television and other media on human behavior. This is the first time I have found anything on the internet related to the actual study. Can you please send the actual title, journal and publish dates? Even better, I'd love to get a copy of the study! I am a double degree UBC graduate from the 80's. I think the study was referred in our Psych textbooks but of course, they are long gone. I think the study is so relevant to today's global media and people's behavior. I was just talking to my sister about it today! I have always referred to the study as the tel/notel study. Thank you!

Dee Andres

2 August 2021

I would love to read this story

Susan Painter

27 June 2021

Hi Stuart, I was one of Tannis' grad students at UBC when she did the TV study, and I served as a research assistant on the project. One of my tasks was to train the other grad students who conducted the behavioral observations at Notel. I wonder whether your project is meant to include the data coming from Unitel and Multitel, the comparison towns. I appreciate your very detailed and very accurate depiction of the project and I will send a donation to the fund to honor Tannis. I just learned about her passing from a mutual friend. I had last visited with Tannis about 7 or 8 years ago, before her illness took hold. I'm curious about how you got started doing graphic depictions of social science research? Best regards, Susan Painter (Ph.D., UBC 1980)

Katherine Suender

28 May 2021

I am a doctoral student studying the use of graphic novels with high school students in the U.S.

Bronte Erwin

18 May 2021

Like what you are doing. I would like to follow the progress.

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