Developing Fictional Relationships

Commentator Jake Halpern describes the phenomenon of the "para-social" relationship. In it, TV viewers come to feel that they know television characters because they see them all the time. Jake Halpern says that he feels like this about the characters in the show Cheers.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Television looms large in commentator Jake Halpern's life; maybe a little too large.

JAKE HALPERN:

Not far from where I live in Boston, there is a sign for the bar Cheers. And for some reason, I'm always tempted to stop in. The place is a tourist trap filled with out-of-towners who want to see the place where Norm, Cliff, Carla and Sam used to hang out in the TV series "Cheers." Only it's not the place where they used to hang out, because that place doesn't even really exist except on some Hollywood back lot somewhere.

My preoccupation with Cheers the bar puzzled me till I stumbled upon a rather obscure but quite fascinating academic notion called belongingness theory. The argument goes something like this: In ancient times, humans who stuck together increased the chances that they would survive and reproduce. So when it came time to, say, hunt a large animal or defend the cave against marauders, groups fared better than the guy on his own. In addition, adults in the group would have been more likely to find mates, reproduce and raise their children. The likely results of all this evolutionary selection is the creation of an internal mechanism that makes human beings crave social acceptance.

The way I figured it, my irrational fondness for Cheers the bar was just my belongingness mechanism kicking in. I just wanted to be part of the gang. Granted, I didn't actually know Norm, Cliff, Carla or Sam--and, admittedly, these people didn't even really exist--but some part of me yearned to be part of their witty banter.

And this brings me to yet another academic theory, that of parasocial relationships. According to academics Horton and Wohl, who originated this concept, television gives viewers the illusion of a face-to-face relationship with the performer. Gradually, over the the course of many episodes, viewers come to feel that they know a fictional persona. Horton and Wohl write: `The persona offers, above all, a continuing relationship. His appearance is a regular and dependable event, to be counted on, planned for and integrated into the routines of daily life.'

I totally buy it. After watching dozens of "Cheers" episodes, I felt as if I knew the personas in the show intimately. In fact, there were times when I'd seen more of the characters on "Cheers" than I'd seen of the people in my own family. So, yeah, I definitely had some parasocial relationships going on.

The truth is we all yearn for companionship. The only problem is that for many of us, myself included, the notion of a well-functioning family and a welcoming group of friends and co-workers is occasionally more easily found on television or in the movies than life itself. After all, in order to maintain real relationships, you have to put in a tremendous amount of effort: making phone calls, returning e-mails, planning weekends together, etc. To maintain parasocial relationships, however, all you have to do is flick on the TV.

If I'm being honest with myself, I have to admit that at times, Norm, Cliff, Carla and Sam have formed, well, a kind of parafamily to which I yearn to belong. I suppose as hideously hackneyed as it sounds, it's just like the show's theme song goes. (Singing) Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. (Speaking) Only they don't know your name, and they really don't even know you came.

NORRIS: Commentator Jake Halpern lives in Boston.

(Soundbite of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name")

Mr. GARY PORTNOY: (Singing) Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name...

(Credits)

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): I'm Robert Siegel.

NORRIS: And I'm Michele Norris. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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