Last month the British born soap opera EastEnders celebrated its thirtieth year on television. The BBC covered the event with style by offering viewers a week of live shows, a whodunit, a marriage and a death. Central to the plots were characters that have been portrayed on the show since the beginning. The characters that we know, we like, or dislike even. Characters that we have a relationship with, yet we have never met them and know they are make believe.
So what is it that makes us tune in every week to our favorite shows? What is it that makes us laugh or cry along with their storylines? Why do we find ourselves attracted to some characters and why do we spend a good portion of our time wondering what is going to happen next? There is an explanation according to research carried out in America at Buffalo and Miami Universities. It’s called ‘The Social Surrogacy Hypothesis’ which basically suggests that we watch, love or hate because we feel lonely and empty. It also says that we may need the characters from the television as an easy way to get access to many people and different personalities, in other words friends (www.sciencedirect.com)
Many people in Britain use the phrase ‘I only had the TV on for the background noise.’ This one sentence suggests that we would rather hear other people’s voices than complete silence. Silence can be deafening when your lonely or bored and luckily we can alleviate that by switching on to voices from all over the world. If you’re missing your partner, you can tune the television into a love story and fill your heart. If you’re feeling broody, you can flick on a family show or movie and instantly you have access to children and family dynamics. If you can’t decide what to wear or how to style your hair, then in Britain Gok Wan is available on 4od to give you advice at any time, and if you want to feel exhilarated, as though you have competed in a competition, then you can just turn over to Sky Sports.
But what happens to us when television becomes more than just light entertainment? What happens when you find yourself physically and mentally affected by the people on the screen? We can start to become dependent on them is what, and that can be a lot more dangerous that it seems to be.
Blogger and personal developer, Michael Pollock wrote about his television addiction (www.michaeldpollock.com) He stressed that he had made sound calculations and found that he was watching three months of TV per year. He broke the addiction, but found it difficult when it came to missing his favorite shows. But he also recognized after meeting a new person, that TV was giving him a way to ignore his crippling self-esteem issues. Michael hit out at the problem with television that you begin to hide behind it and also lose the motivation to go outside and socialize. You start to worry less about finding real voices and real people to use as background noise. In other words you think, why put in the time to make real friends when you can turn on a button and have more than you need.
Take the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise. As a woman watching these reality shows can satisfy all your needs. You can compare fashion and beauty, measure your career success by comparing your life to theirs, and you can also participate in the drama, even if you’re just shouting at the box in the corner. With the rise of social media, it is even possible to actually connect with the stars of shows. You can say what you want and hashtag. Then suddenly, you’re personally involved with what you’re watching. After a while, your own life of less glamour and more reality, is just not enough. Your own friends begin to seem dull. Suddenly nobody gets you and your better of alone with you TV. You need to watch the ‘Real Housewives,’ because they have felt how you are feeling and they don’t challenge you about it, they don’t try to make attempts to help, they just let you be free.
In the end, being a voyeuristic semi participant in an event or storyline is a lot easier than living out similar scenarios in real life. We do look to television for company if we are lonely and we also like to use it for entertainment when we are bored. But when we have real problems, characters in our favorite shows offer us a way out. They provide us with the life we really want, the life that is easy or dramatic and exciting depending on what we looking for.
So congratulations to EastEnders for entertaining the nation for thirty years. You have done well. You have loyal fans, and you have kept up enough momentum. However, if your one of those people, like Michael Pollock was. Someone who uses television to fill the gap in your own life, then you need to use the on/off button more often. Turn off the TV, pick up the phone and call the first person that comes into your head. Delete the actors of your favorite characters from your twitter. You know they are real people and not the characters, so just admit it to yourself, and give them a wide berth. Start seeking out real people. People whose breath you can feel when they speak to you, or whose arms can embrace your when your happy or sad. Turn your back on your TV heartthrob and open your eyes to find a life size substitute with warm skin.
Social Surrogacy is the way to a stress free life. But as with any addiction, it’s not going to satisfy your every need. Television characters might seem perfect or might seem empathic to your plights. But behind every character there is a writer and that the kind of person you need in your life. One that is real, three dimensional and understands enough about society to write about what we need. When all said and done, eventually you’re going to need someone who will answer you back, and technology hasn’t evolved enough to make a multi conversational TV.