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Remember when TV came to Bush Alaska?

Newcomers to Alaska may be surprised to learn that television was not introduced in a number of isolated communities in Bush Alaska until the late 1970s. This allowed researchers to do some before-and-after surveys, including this one: Forbes, Norma. 1984. Television's effects on rural Alaska: summary of final report. Fairbanks, Alaska: Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

According to Forbes' study, it was "intended primarily for residents of the villages which participated in the study, for the staff of the schools which were involved, and for Alaskan policymakers." Alaskan policymakers were involved because television was brought to the mostly Alaska Native communities via a State of Alaska owned satellite system.

The 23 villages studied ranged from Inupiat communities in the far north to Tlingit/Haida villages and a few logging camps in Southeast Alaska. About 593 children and their parents were interviewed at least twice.

The study sought to answer questions like:

  • Would television improve children's English skills?
  • Would television make children more likely to leave their home villages?
  • Would seeing the variety of occupational choices on television encourage children to broaden their career choices?
  • Would television change children's perceptions of socially acceptable behavior?
  • Television did not improve children's English vocabulary. This result surprised the parents, but not the researchers who said that language acquisition is an interactive process. As a sometime watcher of Spanish television, I can attest to this result.

    Surprisingly to people at the time, and to me as well, the researchers found no correlation between the amount of television viewing and the desire to leave the village for the larger world.

    Another result that surprised researchers is that occupational choices did not significantly change as a result of television viewing. As the researchers put it "Television did not change the variety or the type of occupations of interest to Native children in rural areas."

    Television viewing did apparently change children's ideas of what was acceptable in the larger society. To give one concrete example, the researchers reported this anecdote:

    "A teacher in one of the villages in this study complained that he could not convince his high school students that people in the world outside the village really didn't drive the way the people in the "Dukes of Hazard" drive. Researchers confirm that the driving behavior television portrays is usually dangerous, illegal and completely unrepresentative of the real world."

    Based on interviews with children, the researchers found:

    "In other words, the longer rural Alaskans are exposed to television, the more likely they are to believe that what they see represents expected and usual behavior, even when they know programs involve actors and acting. Research done elsewhere suggests that this also is true of children who are not different or isolated from the majority culture. "

    These weren't the only questions investigated by the study. I encourage you to borrow this 11 page summary and read further. This report is a summary of a larger work called Social and Cognitive Effects of the Introduction of Television on Rural Alaskan Native Children (March 1984). If you get a copy of the summary, I also encourage you to read the "few cautionary words" on page 2 about study limitations. They mostly concern small sample size and lack of funding for a comprehensive study of attitudes. With those caveats, the researchers are reasonably confident of their results.

    Daniel Cornwall is a librarian, amateur photographer and hiking enthusiast who lives in Juneau, Alaska. Find more about him, and lots about libraries, on his blog:


    Editor's note: Here's another fascinating study on how television impacted rural Alaskans in the 1970s: Television and social change on the Bering Strait, by R.J. Madigan, W. Jack Peterson; University of Alaska, Anchorage, 1974.

    I came across this study while reporting on the Bering Strait village of Wales for a story called To Live and Die in Wales, Alaska. Here's what I wrote about the television study:

    In the early 1970s, most of rural Alaska didn't have television. What villagers knew of the outside world came from white teachers and preachers; weekly movie night and the small book collection at the school library; the Sears Roebuck catalogue, which they ordered their clothes from, and The Alaska Sportsman, a popular magazine throughout the bush. Children learned how to cross busy streets from "Dick and Jane," but traffic signals and crosswalks were just words. Everybody walked where they pleased, the only vehicular threat a snowmobile zooming through the village. In 1973, psychologists from the University of Alaska wanted to see how television might affect Native communities before it became widespread in rural Alaska. They chose Wales as their test site. The team installed a videotape player in the school library and ran cable to televisions (the TVs were donated from a hotel in Anchorage) in homes, then monitored the people's viewing habitats. Villagers were soon watching so much television that almost no one came to school board and city council meetings. The researchers discovered that the villagers didn't care much for "The Brady Bunch," a sitcom about a blended family, or "Bonanza," a show about taming the frontier. But they were apparently entranced by "The Andromeda Strain," the 1971 film based on Michael Crichton's novel about an extraterrestrial pathogen that threatens the planet.

    Mike Weyapuk belonged to the first generation to grow up with television. It was on all the time, a window on the world, and he soaked up more from Bob Barker and Alf, Tom Brokaw and Larry King, than he ever did in school. He especially liked history and science documentaries. He learned why the northern lights dance red and green over Wales. He saw a documentary about Mongolia and thought some of the people looked like his fellow villagers. Another show chronicled the life of an Inuit man. When he died, colonialists chopped off his hands, covered them in plaster, and used them as ashtrays, and it occurred to Mike that there were people out there who treated Eskimos like animals.

    -Tony Hopfinger