“We are on a break!”

Posted by on Nov 5, 2014 in Cover Stories, MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

“We are on a break!:” A look at parasocial breakup and Friends

Jane LeGros is a second year masters student in the Manship School of Mass Communication. Her research interest is in media and fandom. Follow Jane on Twitter at @janelegreaux

 

Where were you on May 6, 2004 during the Friends series finale? Were you one of the millions who tuned in to watch Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, and Joey say goodbye? Were you sad? Were you upset that your weekly trips to Central Perk with the six friends were ending? Professors Keren Eyal (Sammy Ofer School of Communication, IDC Herzliya) and Jonathan Cohen (Department of Communication, Haifa University) explore this in their 2006 study, “When Good Friends Say Goodbye: A Parasocial Breakup Study.”

 

What is parasocial breakup?

Parasocial breakup basically explains the effects and emotions a person may feel when a character on a television show leaves, a series ends, or the viewer chooses to end that relationship for various reasons.

 

Parasocial breakup can happen when there is a parasocial relationship (PSR) between a person and a media figure. Originally defined by Horton and Wohl (1956) as being a “seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer,” a great example of one type of interaction that may lead to a PSR is your grandmother yelling at her favorite soap opera after the umpteenth plot twist involving her favorite character (because you know you have a grandmother who yells at the TV). These relationships do not replace relationships with other people, but are still interesting because they provide enjoyment and give insight into viewers’ emotional states.

 

The study

Eyal and Cohen (2006) looked at Friends because the show had been on the air for 10 years and it was a show about, well, friends. There were plenty of possibilities for parasocial relationships because people had loved the characters for years… remember “the Rachel” haircut?

 

The study looked at 7 hypotheses:

  • The more intense the PSR, the more distress viewers will report following PSB.
  • The longer a viewer reports watching Friends, the more distress he or she will report following the end of the show.
  • The more committed viewers report themselves to be to watching Friends, the more distress they will report following the end of the show.
  • The more a viewer holds positive attitudes toward the show, the more distress he or she will report following the end of the show.
  • The more a viewer reports his or her favorite Friends character is perceived as being his or her overall favorite television character, the more distress he or she will report following the end of the show.
  • The more a viewer reports finding his or her favorite Friends character attractive, the more distress he or she will report following the end of the show.
  • The more a viewer considers his or her favorite Friends character to be popular (among others), the more distress he or she will report after the end of the show.

 

Eyal and Cohen conducted a survey of 279 undergraduate students on a college campus after the final episode of Friends aired. The survey included questions about participants’ PSR and reactions to the breakup of their relationship with their favorite Friends character, their viewing of the show Friends (both duration of viewing and commitment to the show), their affinity toward the show, their attitudes toward and feelings about their favorite character on the show, as well as questions about participants’ loneliness and demographics.

 

All but three of the hypotheses were supported.

 

The three that were not supported were the following:

  • The longer a viewer reports watching Friends, the more distress he or she will report following the end of the show. It was not supported because after controlling for the intensity of the relationship, duration of viewing did not significantly predict PSB.
  • The more a viewer reports his or her favorite Friends character is perceived as being his or her overall favorite television character the more distress he or she will report following the end of the show. This was not supported because once PSR was controlled, the degree to which the favorite Friends characters were overall favorites did not significantly predict PSB.
  • The more a viewer reports finding his or her favorite Friends character attractive the more distress he or she will report following the end of the show. It was not supported because character attractiveness was not found to be a significant predictor of PSB.

 

When I first read the study, I thought, for sure, that the longer a viewer watched Friends, the more distress he or she would report after it ended, so the results of that hypothesis in particular shocked me. My own experiences with the show formed an opinion in my mind – I had a friend who loved the show very much, had watched for years, and was distraught by it ending. Having read the study though, I suppose that parasocial breakup can happen just as often with someone who only watched the show for a season as it can for someone who watched for years if he or she is equally invested in what happens to the characters.

 

I better understood why the other two hypotheses were not supported. To me, Friends was successful because it was an ensemble show; that is, the show did not have one central character. When my friend who loved the show lamented its end, she was not upset about one character. She was upset that she wouldn’t see any of their stories anymore. She was upset that her weekly trips to Central Perk were ending.

 

So how do parasocial relationships work now?

If you’re like me, you might wonder if things are different because of social media. In doing research for this blog post, I came across a YouTube blogger named Jared Sellick who, in a response to another YouTube blogger, discusses the fact that now we can have “relationships” with celebrities because of social media. Today, we have the opportunity to talk back. We can even have conversations with fictional characters.

 

One of my favorite shows is CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, so naturally I had to follow Dr. Sheldon Cooper (@therealsheldonc) on Twitter. Many of these are fan-operated accounts but if I want to ask “Sheldon Cooper” something, I can.

 

My master’s thesis will primarily look at the concept of “fandom,” and parasocial relationships definitely relate. When fans can become the characters, how does it change that parasocial relationship?

 

Jonathan Cohen speculates that social media might make the relationship stronger, which might make breakups harder. I am inclined to agree. He also mentions that where parasocial relationships are involved, it would be good to add social media into the mix, but he believes the basic design of his and Dr. Eyal’s study is still valid.

 

Eyal, K., & Cohen J. (2006). When good friends say goodbye: A parasocial breakup study. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 50(3), 502–523.

 

 

Jane LeGros is a second year masters student in the Manship School of Mass Communication. Her research interest is in media and fandom. Follow Jane on Twitter at @janelegreaux