The Town Without Television, Part 2: Unitel

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Unitel comic by Stuart McMillen. Cartoon sheep standing on a mountain road near trees.
Cartoon homage to Twin Peaks TV title screen.
Rear view of boy standing at a window, looking outside, with his face reflection on the glass. You are about to read Part 2 of the Town Without Television series.
Although you can read this comic as a stand-alone piece, you will get more context for the story if you read Part 1 first. Read Part 1 of this comic
Cartoon high angle view of town inside deep mountain valley drawing. In November 1973, the last television blackspot in North America disappeared.
Diagram drawing of television broadcast signals being sent across a valley. Notel, British Columbia started receiving TV signals a full 21 years after CBC Television’s 1952 debut.
Cartoon rear view of woman opening her car door to set outside. Having studied the town in 1973, prior to television reception, ...
... University of British Columbia professor Tannis MacBeth and her team of psychology researchers revisited the town after broadcasting had begun. Low angle rear view of cartoon woman getting out of car door.
This was Phase 2 of their Notel study, researching the ‘before and after’ impact of television on a community.
Rear view of a cartoon woman standing leaning against open car door, looking to the distance with the car cabin open.
But the UBC researchers weren’t studying Notel in isolation. They were studying three British Columbian towns, that were almost clones of each other. Low angle of young woman leaning on an open car door, thinking.
All three towns were located in valleys near mountains. Drawing of deer standing on road in small mountain town.
All three towns were located on highways and railway lines, with daily bus and train services. Cartoon drawing of train at CN Rail station in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Drawing of main street of small town. All three towns had similar civic facilities in their town centres. (Police station, school, library, radio station, newspaper, recreation centre).
Close-up view of cartoon woman's hand writing on a clipboard with pen. The three towns were chosen because they differed in one important way: they each had different availability of television. Tannis MacBeth and her colleagues nicknamed them accordingly.
Multitel had access to four channels: CBC Television, as well as the three American networks ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Unitel had access only to one channel: the government-owned CBC.
And, Notel had access to zero channels during ‘Phase 1’ of the study.
The UBC researchers were confident that the availability of TV was the only overwhelming difference between the three towns. Unitel and Multitel would serve as scientific controls: baselines to compare Notel’s results against.
Rear view of side of woman's head, looking down at documents on a table, showing drawing of hair tucked behind her ear. All three towns were measured in two phases of research.
Phase 1 was in 1973, before the introduction of TV to Notel. Album covers near turntable:
Phase 2 was in 1975, following the introduction of CBC TV to Notel. Album covers near turntable:
Low angle view of woman opening the truck of a car, looking towards luggage bags in the foreground. Unpacking her car in 1975, …
... Tannis MacBeth knew that the mountain air around Notel was now imperceptibly humming with CBC Television’s electromagnetic signal. Low angle view of young woman putting bag over shoulder in a small mountain town.
Tannis wondered about the changes that had occurred since she was last here. Low angle view of woman standing with hands on hips near telephone booth.
Out of the gaze of the researchers, the Notel locals had adopted new habits during the past two years. Drawing of Tannis MacBeth in the distance, looking at out-of-focus townsfolk in foreground.
The television adoption rate by Notel residents was rapid: over 90% of households now owned a TV set. High angle view of houses in a small town, with television aerials on roofs.
Close-up view drawing of TV aerial on a roof. But beyond TV set ownership rates, TV viewing habits were also through the roof in Notel. Within two years, Notel had quickly adopted typical Canadian viewership habits.
Notel was now identical in habit to its fellow CBC-only town Unitel. Residents in both these towns watched an average of 22 hours of television per week. Side view of a cartoon house with TV aerial on its roof.
This was only a little below the 27 hours per week watched by the Multitel residents, who had four channels to choose between. Side view of house front porch with TV aerial on roof.
Tannis noted that there was almost no gradient between the one-, two-, and four-channel towns, in terms of hours spent watching TV.
The introduction of just one channel seized the attention of both Notel and Unitel’s residents at a rate almost equal to how the four channels of Multitel had captured its residents’ time.
Notel had rapidly changed from a town without the ability to even watch television, into a town that was spending roughly one-seventh of its week watching TV. Bar graph showing the rise in TV viewership.
View from behind TV set of lonely man in a dark room, watching television, with the glare of the screen on his face. In a flash, TV-watching had become the number one activity that Notel residents did with their non-working, non-sleeping hours.
This was Tannis MacBeth’s opportunity to understand whether or not watching television had a measurable effect on a population. Cartoon woman writing into a notepad while standing.
Two years earlier, in 1973's Phase 1, Tannis and her colleagues had performed various studies on the people from all three towns. Cartoon woman leaning on the front of a car.
Now, in 1975's Phase 2, the UBC team repeated these same studies on the townsfolk. Cartoon Tannis MacBeth woman standing underneath a broadcast tower with radio waves with the signal visible.
High angle close-up of broadcasting tower above a town, sending out signals. Repeating the studies allowed Tannis and team to detect how Notel had changed from two years under the influence of television.
Divergent thinking in adults. The UBC psychologists tested ‘divergent thinking’ using puzzles that couldn’t be solved with conventional solutions. Connect the nine dots with no more than four straight lines, without lifting your pencil off the paper.
Prior to television, the Notel adults solved these problems with a higher success rate than those from Unitel or Multitel. Success rate: Phase 1 ‘divergent thinking’ puzzles. Notel: 40.4%, Unitel: 25.5%, Multitel: 30%.
Even more tellingly, among those who couldn’t succeed, Notel adults had spent longer trying to solve the problem before quitting. Time spent trying to solve the problem (unsuccessful participants only). Notel: 401 seconds, Unitel: 279 seconds, Multitel: 332 seconds
Unitel and Multitel residents gave up earlier. Drawing of woman gathering her bag and standing up from an exam desk.
After television became available, Notel’s adults dropped to a level that was on par with the other two towns. In Phase 2, the adults were given a different puzzle to solve.
Cartoon drawings of people struggling to solve a puzzle in an escape room. Notel’s adults still persisted for longer than the other towns before quitting, …
… but the margin of difference between the other towns had shrunk significantly. Time spent trying to solve the problem (unsuccessful participants only, compared to those from other towns). Phase 1: 95 extra seconds, Phase 2: 22.5 extra seconds
Rear view of man solving Karl Duncker's candle problem, using thumb tacks to secure a box to a corkboard wall.
Smiling man looking at solved Duncker candle problem box and lit candle. Those who solved the puzzle watched half the hours of television, compared to those who failed to solve it. Hours of television watched per week: Those who solved the candle problem: 18.1 hours. Those who didn’t solve the candle problem: 33.4 hours.
Children’s Aggression: cartoon of children grappling and shouting at each other on a playground. The researchers wondered if watching television affected the way that children played with each other.
The UBC team made scientific observations of the children in school playgrounds across all three towns. Drawing of a woman with a clipboard observing children playing on a school playground.
Cartoon teacher standing near a school noticeboard in a hallway. Again, there was a clear 'before and after' effect.
Two years after TV’s introduction, children in Notel doubled their acts of physical and verbal aggression per minute. Acts of physical aggression per minute: Notel children. Phase 1: 0.431 per minute, Phase 2: 1.122 per minute
Drawing of fighting children rolling on ground in rough-and-tumble play. This increase in aggression wasn’t confined to certain sub-sections of the children.
The increase in aggressiveness was detected across-the-board, and included both physical and verbal aggression. Drawing of cartoon boy yelling at a tearful girl on school playground.
It was measured in both boys and girls. (Drawing of one girl pulling another girl's hair in a fight).
It was measured in children of different ages. (Grade 1 through to Grade 5).
Even individual children who were non-aggressive in Phase 1, became more aggressive in Phase 2, following the introduction of television. View of child being bullied by a group of boys.
Interestingly, Notel’s children became more aggressive than the children of Unitel and Multitel. Acts of verbal aggression per minute: Phase 2. Notel: 1.122 per minute, Unitel: 0.564 per minute, Multitel: 0.640 per minute
Cartoon frog caught inside a jar. Children’s gender stereotypes. The researchers measured children’s attitudes on appropriate behaviour for boys versus girls, and men versus women.
Before television, Notel’s children held more egalitarian views toward gender roles, than their peers in the TV-watching towns.
After TV was introduced, Notel’s students held more gender-stereotyped views. Low angle view of underside of an ironing board.
The children’s views reflected the skewed way that men and women were portrayed on television. Graphs showing a rapid increase in stereotyped views on gender from children.
Children’s reading skills. Before television, Notel’s Grade 2 and 3 students were reading at a rate that was more fluent than their counterparts in Unitel and Multitel. Two years later, after the introduction of television, the new Grade 2 students were no better than those from Unitel or Multitel.
Boy doing homework, with a television playing in the same room: distracted and struggling to study. For some reason, the new Grade 3 Notel students scored significantly worse than their Unitel and Multitel counterparts, and also the Phase 1 Notel students.
Children’s creativity: Children sitting around a classroom table. Before television, Notel’s Grade 4 and 7 students scored better on a test of creativity than their counterparts in Unitel and Multitel.
Cartoon boys sitting in a classroom, thinking about a problem. Alternate Uses test. Think of as many different ways that you could use the five items in front of you: magazine, knife, shoe, button, key.
Happy imaginative boy writing in notepad in a cartoon classroom. They were able to think of more total ideas, as well as more unique ideas to the problems, compared to the television towns’ students.
After TV, the Notel students dropped to the same level as Unitel and Multitel students. Young boy with glasses sitting an exam in a classroom, struggling slightly.
How had television affected the children’s behaviour patterns? With all these notable differences between Phase 1 and Phase 2, the UBC psychologists wondered how television had affected the children in such measurable ways. Cartoon Tannis MacBeth in her office with bookshelves.
Tannis MacBeth thought that television affected the Notel children by the same indirect method: time-displacement.
Low angle rear view of boy on floor, watching a television set up close. Vintage wooden CRT television set in living room. As television-watching became the dominant activity in the children’s leisure time, …
… it took the place of other possible experiences. Cartoon dinosaur toys on the floor of a living room.
Father teaching a young boy how to read words from a book at a table. Learning to read takes repetitive practice.
Decoding the individual letters, decoding the individual words is relatively easy. (Boy trying to read the phrase: “Mary’s dog is scared of the geese in the park.”)
But seeing the meaning behind the words is hard. High angle view of boy reading a book, view over boy's shoulder drawing.
Readers need to combine multiple concepts in their head. Boy trying to read a book cartoon illustration.
To be a fluent reader, children need to see beyond the black alphabetic squiggles, …
... to mentally picture the story that the words tell. Cartoon angry geese.
Cartoon boy lying on stomach on living room floor, reading a book open on the ground. Television has a negative influence on young readers at this crucial stage of reading.
The only way through this difficult stage is with repetitive, slogging practice.
Drawing of a child trying to read a book near a TV set. Television's presence is a threat to young readers.
Boy choosing to stand up and turn on TV set. For a child learning to read, television represents a tempting alternative.
It is an opportunity for their mind to take a break. Drawing of sofa with books open on the couch.
To watch prefabricated stories that don’t need decoding. Boy watching a children's TV show up close to the television set on a lounge room floor.
Reading needs concentration and attention. Side view of a boy immersed reading a book at his bedroom desk.
Television needs openness and passivity. Rear view of a girl watching TV set, cartoon with glazed eyes and slack jawed expression.
Watching television, therefore, requires the opposite skill set to reading. Close-up view of feet of girl on the floor watching a TV set, lying on her belly.
Students without a natural knack for reading may drop their books, and choose the easier option of watching television. Rear view cartoon of a young girl sitting close to a TV set playing kids shows.
Similarly, television crowds-out the time that could otherwise be spent freely playing. Rear view of boys playing in the outdoors: low angle cartoon of boys balancing on rocks.
The contrast between television-watching and free-playing is stark. High angle cartoon view of boys climbing up a tree from the ground.
Rear view of a boy climbing up a rope ladder cartoon drawing.
Cartoon drawing low angle view of a boy climbing up a rope ladder to a treehouse. During free-play, the child is a continuous, active participant in the world around them.
Cartoon of children looking over the side of a treehouse, playing 'pirates' with telescopes held to their eyes.
Drawing of boy with paper hat looking over balcony towards woodland.
High angle view of a bird with a worm above tree house, drawing of children sitting in a treehouse talking. Free-playing children observe their surroundings, …
… and make their own fun. Cartoon scene of children pointing at a treasure on the ground, with pirate outfits.
By playing, children develop problem-solving skills. High angle view of boys standing in a forest holding a compass, arm pointing to the direction that they want to walk to.
Body coordination skills. Drawing of a boy swinging through the air on a rope, with other children playing with bow and arrows in a forest.
Social skills. Side view cartoon of children hiding behind rocks in the woods, deciding to move forward.
Drawing of children carrying rocks to make a cubby-house in the forest. Co-operation. And other mental tools.
Cartoon of children crouched on the ground, looking at worms on the soil. By exploring the world around them, ...
Drawing of a cartoon child's hand holding an earthworm. Worm in the dirty hand of a child, above a muddy puddle in a forest. ... children exploring the world build a bank of diverse direct experiences ...
Drawing of squirrels on a picnic table, sniffing a jar of peanut butter. ... that they can later remember ...
Drawing of laughing children finding something funny. ... and apply to other parts of their lives.
Drawing of boy holding a magnifying glass, looking at a praying mantis on a tree. As television occupied more of their leisure time, the children engaged in fewer of these interactive stimuli.
Drawing of a side view of a boy watching TV very close to the television set screen. Their world shrank accordingly.
Cartoon of happy boy writing answers to a test at a school desk. In Phase 1, Notel students surpassed Unitel and Multitel in the creativity test by drawing upon these diverse real-world experiences.
Cartoon imagery of children adventurous playing in the outdoors.
Close-up drawing of a child writing on a page with face close to the tabletop. In Phase 2, Notel children had a poorer diversity of direct personal experiences.
Their creativity was drawing from an impoverished bank.
Cartoon boy climbing on the furniture inside a house living room. Of course, television doesn’t always replace highly-productive activities.
Tannis MacBeth noted that even being bored is an experience valuable to mental development.
Indoor child looking out of a window to the neighborhood outside. Boredom provides time for daydreaming, ...
Boy sitting on the floor, playing with blocks. ... time for tinkering, …
Boy sitting on a kitchen floor, looking around with pots and pans on the floor. ...time for quiet reflection, ...
Excited boy drawing art project pictures with pencils and paper. ...time for craft projects.
Boy carrying a washing basket up staircase. Bored children explore their surroundings, …
...and try new things. Boy sliding down a staircase riding inside a laundry basket.
Bored children are forced to use their imaginations. Low angle drawing of a boy underneath a dining room table.
They need to devise their own ideas. Cartoon of a boy making a pillow fort out of sheets, cushions, and chairs.
Bored children rearrange their environments... Low angle view of a lamp inside a pillow fort under chairs and sofas, made from pillows and sheets.
… and they think about the future. Rear view of cartoon boy sitting inside a pillow fort.
Television annihilates the possibility of being bored. Cartoon rear side view of CRT television set.
Television serves to fill time that could otherwise have been a wellspring for personal growth. Cartoon sister and brother sitting in front of TV set's glare.
Hand twisting the dial of an old TV set's channel dial. At the click of a dial, …
Side view of cartoon boy watching television while lying on floor on stomach… the “bored” viewer silences the valuable thoughts …
Rear view of boy lying on rug watching television, with feet up in the air. Cartoon drawing of a child watching TV set on the ground.
... that might have hidden beyond the valley of boredom. Rear view of girl sitting on a pillow on the floor in front of TV set.
Overall summary: impact of television on individuals. Though several of their other experiments failed to yield clear results, …
...the UBC researchers felt they had unearthed some major evidence into the impact of television on its viewers.
Despite the promise of educational television such as
… Tannis MacBeth noted that television tended to have negative, rather than positive effects on its viewers.
The results were evident when comparing Notel against Unitel and Multitel.
And also when comparing Notel’s Phase 1 results against its Phase 2 results. Overhead view of two pieces of paper being held in front of a person.
But, besides these negative impacts onto the individuals that watch television, …
… Tannis MacBeth’s team had also monitored the social impact of television on the community of Notel.
Cartoon pedestrians walking down the street of a city illustration. She looked at the cumulative effects of television ...
... across a whole community that had adopted TV-watching as its main leisure activity. Drawing of people walking down a street towards viewer.
Side view of cartoon young woman in sweater walking down a city street. By turning their attention from the individuals to the group, and again looking for 'before' and 'after' effects, ...
...Tannis pinpointed some of the strongest findings from the entire research project. Drawing of cartoon bus, cartoon trolleybus on Vancouver streets with B.C. Hydro logo on front.
Rear view of old Vancouver trolleybus with overhead wires above the city street. The community impacts of television will be covered in Part 3 of The Town Without Television.
Side view drawing of bus and car stopped at traffic lights near pedestrians. As the creator of this series, it is the chapter that I’ve most been looking forward to telling.
Drawing of Aristocratic restaurant building in Vancouver, Canada during 1970s. Cartoon B.C. Hydro trolleybus near Aristocratic Cafe with
Rear view drawing of cartoon woman standing on a street corner, looking at trolleybuses driving down the street under overhead wires. If you've appreciated the story so far, please donate to my crowdfunding campaign and help fund the remainder of my work into this series.
Rear view drawing of cartoon woman standing on a street corner, looking at trolleybuses driving down the street under overhead wires. If you've appreciated the story so far, please donate to my crowdfunding campaign and help fund the remainder of my work into this series.Rear view drawing of cartoon woman standing on a street corner, looking at trolleybuses driving down the street under overhead wires. If you've appreciated the story so far, please donate to my crowdfunding campaign and help fund the remainder of my work into this series.

How are children and adults impacted by watching television? This comic outlines the effects of television on individuals, as found by the Notel experiment from Canada in the 1970s.

Support the Tannis MacBeth Memorial Fund to help fund this comic

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Karoline Faegri

11 September 2021

I like your comic strips.

Supporter from San Diego

10 September 2021

Your talent and style are incredibly inspiring. This story is captivating and very well presented. Thank you for staying dedicated to your craft!

Anonymous guy

30 October 2020

Aside from TV, the internet leisure has taken it place nowadays. And the effects it brings is far worse than the TV.

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