TV Breakups: When a Show Ends, Fans May ‘Mourn’

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Updated: 1/27/2012 12:58 pm

April 22, 2011 -- One minute, the relationship is humming along, comfortable yet exciting. The next, poof! It’s gone.

Never mind that the relationship is a TV relationship and you're mourning the passing of your favorite character. This is what experts call a ''parasocial" relationship. It's a bond formed, in this case, by some television viewers with a character on their favorite television show.

Experts have been studying how people typically react to these TV breakups. In short, viewers can be mildly bummed out.

When a beloved show is taken off the air, ''people experience distress," says researcher Emily Moyer-Guse, PhD, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, Columbus.

''They experience more distress depending on how strong the relationship was," she tells WebMD.

Her new research, which echoes the findings of research by others, is published in Mass Communication and Society.

Measuring Distress From a TV Breakup

For the study, Moyer-Guse surveyed 403 college students ages 18 to 33. She did the study during the 2007-2008 Hollywood writers' strike. During the strike, many shows were taken off the air temporarily.

The students answered questions about their viewing habits, reasons for watching, how important the shows were, and how close they felt to their favorite characters.

Next, they described their level of distress as a result of their programs being disrupted by the strike. They described what activities they substituted once the shows were not airing.

Not surprisingly, the stronger the ''relationships,'' the more the distress.

Those who watched TV to relax, to enjoy the companionship of the characters, or to escape pressures were more distressed, she found, that those who said they watched TV just to pass time. Those who watched for companionship were most likely to be distressed.

Men and women were about equally distressed, she says, although women in general reported stronger TV relationships than men did.

To fill the extra time, many watched TV reruns. Others turned to the Internet. Only 15% said they put the extra time to use exercising; 18% said they spent more time with friends and family.

The results aren't disturbing, Moyer-Guse says. "What we show is, it's very normal," she says of the distress. "It's very normal to develop these kinds of relationships. It's something most people do."

"We did measure the intensity of the distress, and what we found was, it wasn't really extreme. On a scale of 1 to 5, the average was 2 or 2.5."

What isn't known, she tells WebMD, is whether it is more difficult to cope when the show is off the air for good. In the case of the strike, the shows were expected to resume once the labor dispute was resolved.

Mourning a TV Show: A Real Experience

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, PhD, professor of English at Central Michigan University, who reviewed the study findings for WebMD, says some people invest a lot of their time and energy in TV programs. 

When they disappear, "it's like you have lost someone important to you. It does leave a hole there for a while. It's a form of mourning."

In most cases, he says, the distress does not equal that when real relationships end.

Of TV bonds, he says, "It is a real experience, but the intensity [of the relationship] doesn't match. It's less intense."

Of course, you can't mourn any broken relationship forever, whether real life or TV.

Asked how distressed fans of Charlie Sheen's Two and a Half Men show, interrupted in the wake of Sheen's personal troubles, might continue to be, Weinstock speculated that for many fans, distress may have turned into disgust by now.

"You reach a tipping point with the shenanigans."

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