Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

When Good Friends Say Goodbye: A Parasocial Breakup Study

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

When Good Friends Say Goodbye: A Parasocial Breakup Study

Article excerpt

Final episodes of long-running and greatly loved television series achieve famously high ratings (Battaglio, 2001). It was hardly surprising, then, that an estimated 51 million viewers tuned in to view the final episode of Friends, which aired in the United States on May 6, 2004 (Associated Press, 2004). Although viewers were no doubt aware that they would be able to see their friends from Friends over and over again in reruns and DVDs, the last episode seemed to mark a farewell of some import to many millions. The vast majority of viewers know that their relationships with television characters are imaginary (Caughey, 1985), and yet, as the ratings numbers and the general commotion around this and other finale shows suggest, the end of such relationships is emotionally meaningful. What do viewers feel when relationships with television characters come to an end? To what extent are separations from television characters similar to endings of personal relationships? What factors impact the intensity of feelings associated with such breakups? Which viewers experience these feelings more strongly than others? This study attempts to answer these questions with data collected from viewers immediately after the end of Friends.

This study is set within the framework of parasocial relationships (PSRs). Initially defined by Horton and Wohl (1956) as a "seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer" (p. 215), PSRs have been widely studied, both in terms of their development and in terms of their influences on viewers' emotional states and reactions to television exposure (e.g., Auter, 1992; Eyal 8, Rubin, 2003; Turner, 1993). PSRs are now understood to be an integral and important part of many people's systems of social relationships and "the distinction between social and parasocial relationships, which Horton and Wohl [1956] assumed was so obvious, is increasingly complex and hard to define" (Cohen, 2004, p. 200). As discussed later, the topic of PSRs is, in fact, now recognized as a potential contact point between mass media and interpersonal theories (Turner, 1993). Researchers are increasingly applying interpersonal, relational, and developmental theories to the study of PSRs (Cohen, 2003; Cole & Leets, 1999; Isotalus, 1995). This study contributes to this literature by applying aspects from theories of relational development to the study of people's parasocial relationships with mediated characters. It extends this literature by examining the application of theoretical premises regarding relational dissolution to the study of the termination of imaginary relationships.

Friends

Friends came on the air in 1994 following NBC's success with Seinfeld, and like its predecessor, was created as a sitcom set not in a family home or business, but rather focused on a group of young single adults. In an age of segmented viewing when the viewing unit is no longer composed solely of nuclear families, the time was ripe to experiment with moving the focus of sitcoms away from families. Furthermore, a program about young, urban singles made sense based on the belief that viewers relate and identify with those who are similar to them and the special attractiveness of the 18-to-30 demographic to advertisers. However, unlike Seinfeld, famous for being a show about "nothing" (CNN, 1998; TV Tome, 2005), Friends was a show about something: It explored the interpersonal relationships of its stars as a basis for its plot and humor. This heightened the potential for viewers to feel like they were a part of this group of friends, a feeling Auter and Palmgreen (2000) showed to be an important part of relationships with the characters. Over 10 years viewers were invited to watch these six friends interact, learn about them in intimate and meaningful ways, and vicariously experience the trials and tribulations of young adulthood. Most of the college students who took part in this study were still in elementary school when the show first aired and grew up watching the show. …

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