Parasocial Relationships in Female College Student Soap Opera Viewers Today.

Christine Camella

Western Connecticut State University

Abstract:

This form of mass communication is a clear viewing of how media distinctively soap operas impacts its viewers. Questionnaires were given to 20 females in Pinney Hall at Western Connecticut State University and were then compared to each other depending upon the number of episodes watched. The answers and results found agreements with recent studies that have been done on these types of relationships. The final outcome was the more episodes a student watched the higher degree of involvement occurred in this type of relationship.

Introduction:

This study is based on Media impact, specifically daytime soap operas and how it can affect female college students. Depending on the amount of time spent watching, a student may create the illusion of friendship and or relationship to a television persona that in fact they have never met. These involvements have been categorized as "Para social relationships". Theorists have claimed that these relationships can in some cases be life changing and personality molding, but definitely life impacting; More importantly it appears that they can occur and one may not even realize it. Ultimately it becomes clear that television is one of today's most dynamic media vehicles touching more people than most other communication vehicles.

In Researching Para social relationships with major media television personalities it almost seems to be a normal consequence of television viewing. Although people may not consider themselves to be having a relationship with these characters, many of the studies done indicate that there is almost always some form of relationship existing in almost all regular soap opera viewers (Rubin, Perse, 1987,p.251).

This study concentrated on two main questions regarding this type of communication; what is Para social interaction and is it affected by the amount of time spent watching?

Summarizing the cultivation theory developed largely by George Gerbner which states that the more television watched the more you are likely to obtain distorted views of life (Wood, 2000,p.252) and Altman and Taylor (1973) who hypothesized that the more time people spend watching and involving themselves the more they become more intimate with the media persona. Therefore, viewers who have watched a personality #onsistently over time may perceive a sense of intimacy evolving from their expectations of increased intimacy in past interpersonal experiences. (Rubin, Perse, Powell, 1985,p.156)

This concept of Para social relationships was layed out by Horton and Wohl in 1956. They defined it as a "relationship on the part of a television viewer of friendship or intimacy with a remote media 'persona'"(Rubin, Perse, Powell, 1985,p.156). This interaction with the "persona" was based on the frequent and persistent appearance of realistic people (Horton& Wohl, 1956). Being encouraged by conversational manner, interpersonal style, and media production techniques all allowed the viewer to react interpersonally to television personae and feel they "know" the characters the way they know their friends. (Rubin, Perse, 1987,p.248) In weighing the two elements one might suspect that heavy soap opera viewers may become more intimately involved with the characters.

Para social relationships and Interactions started to attract much attention in the 1980's when theorists began to study the relationship among Para social interaction, loneliness, and local televised news. Looking at the possibility that viewers often feel some kind of friendship or are familiar with local anchors. "Rubin and Perse (1988) examined the impact of attitudes, motives, and audience activity on cognitive, affective, and behavioral involvement among soap opera viewers. They found that Para social interaction and thinking about and discussing content were aspects of media involvement meaning how intentionally respondents approached the viewing situation and how much attention they paid to the programs"(Emmer-Sommer, 1999,p.482).

Rubin and Perse who studied a form of Para social interaction constructed media uses and effects model. Greater affective, cognitive, and behavioral involvement with soap opera content was linked to an active direction toward daytime television serials. These three manifestations of involvement were operationalized respectively as Para social interaction with a favorite soap opera character, thinking about the content of a favorite soap opera and discussing the content of a favorite soap opera (Rubin, Perse, 1987,p.251). The results of their studies showed that the intention and attention activity measures were important contributors in addition to motives and attitudes to explaining involvement. Para social interaction, thinking about content, and discussing content represent related, yet different proportions of media involvement. For example, viewing attention and perceived realism of soap opera content correlated with Para social interaction. This suggests that Para social involvement reflects attention to realistically perceived content during the viewing experience. The sexual appeal of attractiveness of the character, however motivated those who Para socially interacted with characters. Perhaps, on the other hand, the lack of perceived sexual appeal impedes the development of Para social relationships (Rubin, Perse, 1987,p.263). Para social interaction was clearly a sense of personal involvement with soap opera characters and stories (Rubin, Perse, 1987,p.264)

What kinds of dimensions of media relations of Para social interaction are there? Rosengren & Windahl (Mcquail, 2000,p.6) identified two of these dimensions.

1) Someone imagines himself or herself being in action or where there is a state of mutual stimulation.

2) Identification (with screen figure) fans are affected by what happens to fictional characters and talk as if they were real. Expressing strong emotional identifications

It is due to this information of Para Social relationships, that enables soap opera viewers to gain pleasure from being able to understand how a certain character feels or behaves in particular circumstances, due to themselves having been in a similar situation, or having the knowledge about the subject in hand. For instance, here is an example of such a Para Social relationship between a viewer and a character from the American Soap opera, Dynasty. " I really understand her (Claudia's) situation because there are so many mentally ill people here in Denmark nowadays and no-one can feel absolutely safe"(Richards, 2001,p.3)

Another example of these dimensions is one from the film "Nurse Betty", and although this film is fictional it gives a great example of someone involved in a Para social relationship. This women Betty becomes obsessively involved in the soap opera "Someone to Love" and creates a love like relationship with character Doctor David. She often would imagine herself meeting David in the desert with roses in his hand expressing to her how much he loves her. She started to live her life as though she were on that soap setting out to become a nurse and find her true love David when in actuality he was only a television character who played the role of a doctor. This character had lost his wife in a car accident and Betty's husband had been killed so she identified with him and his pain. The character David had said that there was just something special out there for him and Betty was so involved with this soap opera that she thought he meant Betty was that special person. She ended up driving from Kansas to California trying to find her true love that was just a fictional character (film). This example is the extreme of someone Para socially involved with a media persona but it is exactly what this study proves. Someone who watches a soap opera religiously becomes very intimately involved with a persona that does not exist in real life.

This type of deep identification with a character can be seen when a viewer cries at a soap wedding or funeral, or similarly at a birth or marital break up. The viewer appears to enjoy this roller coaster ride of different emotions when watching their favorite soaps." you can experience a full range of emotions from anger to despair, to sheer joy, excitement and relief" (Richards, 2001,p.3)

It has been argued that soap operas owe part of their popularity to the fact that its viewers enjoy forming this kind of participatory 'relationship' with the characters, and also like to identify themselves with plots and characters. In fact, regular viewers of long-running soaps may have already experienced the gratifications of forming Para Social relations with the characters and in doing so have allowed them to become almost 'real' friends and family as this man illustrates. "I know that after a while the characters do become concerned for their well being just as we are for our own friends and colleagues" (Richards, 2001,p.3)

METHODOLOGY

The data for this research study come from a questionnaire that was handed out to 20 females of Pinney Hall at Western Connecticut Sate University. This questionnaire consisted of a variety of questions that could be indicants of Para social interaction. This Para social interaction scale was adapted from a previous research done by Rubin & Perse in 1987. The respondents were asked to focus on their favorite soap opera and character and express their agreement or disagreement to certain ideas. They indicated their agreement according to five response options ranging from (A) " strongly agree", to (E) "not at all" with each statement. Depending upon the number of episodes watched within a week a comparison between the two respondents will correlate the degree of Para social interaction. The reason for choosing female college students is due to the fact that recent studies have shown college students to be loyal soap opera fans and in some cases actually worked their class schedules in order to watch them. The respondents were also asked to identify two characters one they like and one they dislike and discuss why they chose the character they liked. This was asked to find out the reason for such Para social interaction.

RESULTS

* See Appendix for questionnaire

In order to secure information a questionnaire was prepared with 18 items , which were directed at finding out just how strong the emotions of the viewer, were and why the viewers liked or disliked certain characters.

Question 1 was a very important question in that it showed just how much time the individual spent on watching. Although there were only options of 1-5 some people wrote in even more and up to 10 episodes.

Question 2-4 related directly to determining the soaps they liked and the characters they loved or hated. This part of the questionnaire was very interesting in that question #4 asked the student to identify the character they liked. In many cases the students picked a character that they could identify with which may have been some of the characteristics that student possessed. For example student #1 chose a character that had " sweet, gentle, kind, down to earth which she could relate to". And in some cases a student would pick a character merely because of attraction an example being student #2 explaining, " he is hot and dangerous".

Questions 5-18 were directed at determining just how strongly the students were involved. Selections were from a - e, "strongly agree", "somewhat agree", "disagree", "strongly disagree", and "not at all".

In comparing two student questionnaires one student who watched five episodes of all soap operas to one who watched two episodes the degree of Para social interaction differed in the way that the one who watched more episodes had a higher level of involvement than the one who watched two. For example in item # 5 " My favorite soap opera character makes me feel comfortable, as I am with a friend", the student who watched more of the episodes chose "strongly agree", but the other chose " not at all". Item number 17, which asks, " My favorite soap opera character helps me understand some of the problems other people have". Respondent #1 marked "somewhat agree", and the other marked "strongly disagree". Suggesting that the one with the higher involvement may have signs of identifying with that character and this could be the reasoning for such Para social interaction. One point that stuck out in this research study was that on item 18 " My favorite soap opera presents things as they really are in life", all the students chose "not at all", so it is safe to assume that the overall student body of females just like watching for entertainment and are still able to grasp onto reality not like Nurse Betty. Looking at the questions asked about favorite soap opera and character I have found that Passions, General Hospital, and Days of our lives were the three most watched. Not only did the respondents have identical soap operas but also they liked and disliked some of the same characters. But the reasoning for choosing their favorite character also differed from the ones who had a higher level of Para social interaction. For example looking back at the questionnaire the student who had more involvement chose the soap opera General Hospital and her favorite character was Elizabeth. Her explanation of why she chose this character was because she was very down to earth and she could relate to her. In the other case the same soap opera was chosen but a different character was liked. This student chose sonny but her reasoning was based on his looks explaining that he was hot and dangerous. What does this all mean? To my understanding the one who watches more of the soap opera her motives for creating a Para social relationship is being able to identify with someone. The person who watched less of the soap opera was just attracted to the character so her motives for creating a Para social relationship was merely attraction. All the respondents had some degree of a Para social relationship as shown in the scale, but not all had the same strength.

DISCUSSION

After reviewing the data that were collected and evaluating the results, it became clear that the studies done by Rubin and Perse still hold true today. Female college students definitely have Para Social relationships with soap opera characters and the depth of the relationships seem to directly correlate to the amount of time spent watching. The students who watched five or more soaps a week were the most emotional in their answers and took a more dramatic approach to their situations. However, it did also become apparent that the majority of students kept a better perspective on how they related to these characters and in general seemed to watch them for two reasons 1) Ability to identify with them as they are so life like or 2) to idolize and admire or desire to have in their lives. It is easy to assume that television has become a daily activity in our society so it is not surprising that in some cases people may go beyond the actual act of just watching for entertainment. In this study of soap opera viewing it seems only normal that the entertainment can become more to the viewer and seeing the character as a friend. These soap operas are a unique form of entertainment, different from other television drama and are especially significant because the target audience seems to be women. It is interesting there have not been that many in depth studies on this type of mass communication and if this project could be redone the questionnaire would be expanded to include questions regarding sexual behavior. In particular asking if they felt it was ok to have sexual relations with many different people as seen often on these soaps. It would be interesting to try and determine whether or not sexual promiscuity is so accepted today as a result of years of this kind of behavior being viewed on a regular basis. The cultivation theory suggests that people's values and their outlooks on life can become distorted and greatly affected by soaps.

If nothing else it became so evident that TV touches so many lives that the people who produce the products viewed have a great responsibility and impact on the world today. As a media student I feel I must take this to heart and do my best to improve the quality of whatever it is I bring to the general public.

References

Emmer-Sommer, Tara, M. (1999). Mass media research effects. Journal of Human Communication Research.25, 478-497.

LaBute,N.(Director) (2000). Nurse Betty (Film).Universal.

Mcquail, chapter 12 abstracts. " The social character of audience experience". Retrieved from the World Wide Web: http://www.uis.edu/-grubbs/Mcquail/chap12.html.(6).

Richards, S. "Why are soap operas so popular?" Retrieved March 3, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.aber.ac.uk/education (3).

Rubin, A.M.Perse, E.M, & Powell, R.A. (1985). Loneliness, para social interaction, and local television news viewing. Human Communication Research, 12,155-180.

Rubin, A.M. & Perse, E.M. (1987). Audience activity and soap opera involvement: A uses and effects investigation. Human Communication Research, 14, 246-268.

Wood, Julia T. (2000) Communication theories in action: An introduction. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wadsworth Publications. 252

Appendix

Questionnaire

1) On an average week how many soap opera episodes do you watch?
a) One
b) Two
c) Three
d) Four
e) Five

2) Please name your favorite soap opera?


3) Identify two characters one you like and one you dislike?

4) Explain why you like the character you chose?

5) My favorite soap opera character makes me feel comfortable, as if I am with a friend.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

6) If my favorite soap opera character appeared on another TV program, I would watch that program.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

7) I see my favorite soap opera character as a natural down -to-earth person.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

8) My favorite soap opera character seems to understand the kinds of things I want to know.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

9) If I saw my favorite soap opera character in a newspaper or magazine I would read it.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

10) I would like to meet my favorite soap opera character in person.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

11) I feel sorry for my favorite soap opera character when he or she makes a mistake.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

12) My favorite soap opera character keeps me company when I am lonely.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

13) I would rather watch my favorite daytime soap opera than watch anything else on TV.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

14) Whenever I am unable to watch my favorite soap opera, I really miss it.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

15) Watching my favorite soap opera is on of the more important things I do each day.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

16) My soap opera lets me see how other people live.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

17) My favorite soap opera helps me understand some of the problems other people have.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

18) My favorite soap opera presents things as they really are in life.
a) Strongly agree
b) Somewhat agree
c) Disagree
d) Strongly disagree
e) Not at all

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