Would Your Audience Be Sad if You Broke it Off?

Posted on May 25, 2011


It’s not you, it’s me.

That’s what Oprah is saying today to her significant others; the women (and some men) she’s  been dating five days a week for the last 25 years. 

They’ve shared so much; laughter and tears, highs and lows, it’s no surprise that women (yes, and some men) across America will feel heartbroken today after Oprah’s last show.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Mass Communication and Society people who become invested in television characters are having a “parasocial,” or one-sided, relationship. One-sided or not, according to the report, the relationship feels very real.

So when a favorite TV character disappears, like Oprah, fans can feel actual emotional distress similar to the end of an actual relationship.

Researcher Emily Moyer-Guse, who fielded a study about the phenomenon after the 2007 television writer’s strike, says predictability is a big driver in these relationships, “It’s knowing that this is someone who is always going to be there, and you know what to expect from this individual.”

Moyer-Guse also found that people who say they watch TV for companionship had the highest level of distress when their shows weren’t available.


Let’s consider the factors at work here:

  • A medium people use for companionship 
  • the feeling someone will be there for you consistently
  • the comfort of knowing what to expect from that person

Sounds more like radio to me.

People often watch television in groups with family or friends. People generally listen to the radio when they are alone; commuting or working for example.

What a great opportunity to build a strong parasocial relationships that bring listeners back to your show day after day which, as we’ve discussed before, is what really leads to ratings success.

But there’s one important element, which Moyer-Guse’s study takes for granted, that holds many radio hosts back from forming strong relationships with their audience; you have to be a personality listeners care about.

Oprah provided millions of women with real companionship. Her show regularly provided a mix of information, entertainment and emotion that kept her viewers company and formed a deep bond.

What can listeners expect on your show today?