May 24, 2011 at 9:04 AM ET
If you're one of the zillions who is tearful over the thought of life without "The Oprah Winfrey Show," now you have a scientific excuse for your sadness. (You get a scientific excuse! And you get a scientific excuse! And -- OK, that's enough.)
A recent study showed that when a favorite TV show goes off the air -- even temporarily -- its absence can leave the show's most fanatical viewers feeling lonelier. In 'Oprah's' case, we're thinking the rather emotive women featured on the blog Faces of the Last Season of Oprah will be among those having the hardest time dealing with the loss of the show, which ends its 25th and final season on Wednesday.
If you're blue over losing Oprah -- or the characters from shows-gone-by like "Lost" or "Arrested Development" -- that feeling can be explained by a term coined in the 1950s by a pair of psychiatrists: You've developed a "parasocial," or one-sided, relationship with the people that live inside your TV (or inside your computer screen, if Hulu is more your thing).
"We develop these relationships with certain characters -- and it doesn't have to be a fictional character; it could be a TV personality, like Oprah," says Emily Moyer-Guse, an assistant professor of communications at Ohio State University. She's the lead author of the new study, which was published in the journal Mass Communication and Society.
Related: Oprah's 10 most memorable moments
"We develop them over time -- it's actually part of the normal way we watch and enjoy TV," says Moyer-Guse. "We watch these shows, and we start to think of them like a friend." Not to say many of us actually believe we're friends with Oprah or other TV personalities; but the people in the media we choose to spend our time with likely have qualities we'd seek out in friendships. "It’s kind of the same things that drive real relationships with people," she explains.
Back to Moyer-Guse's new study: Remember the TV writers' strike in 2007 and 2008? Moyer-Guse was missing her favorite show, "Lost," and wondered how others were handling the temporary loss of their favorite programs. So in the spring of 2008, she and former Ohio State graduate student Julie Lather rounded up 403 undergrads to answer an online questionnaire, all about TV.
They asked the volunteers about their "relationship" with their favorite TV characters, instructing the students to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how much they agreed with the sentence, "My favorite character makes me feel comfortable, as if I am with a friend." Other questions were meant to suss out how much the show meant to the students, by rating from 1 to 5 how much they agreed with a statement like this one: "Now that my favorite television show is off the air, I feel more lonely."
They were also asked why they watched TV -- for companionship? To relax? To escape? Finally, the students were asked what they did with their newfound free time, now that their shows were off the air.
People who said they had deeper "friendships" with their favorite TV characters also said they felt lonelier in the characters' absence. And the students who said they watched TV for companionship reported the most distress related to their shows' temporary absences. And, no, people didn't use this break in the TV season to do crazy things like exercise, garden or read -- most said they just watched reruns, or surfed the Internet.
Moyer-Guse's research didn't look at any shows that have been on the air as long as Oprah's has, but it's clear that the longer a person has been watching a show, the stronger their parasocial bond with the program and its characters will be.
"Part of what drives it is the predictability, and the knowing that this is someone that is always going to be there, and you know what to expect from this individual," Moyer-Guse says. "For a whole generation of the population, it’s something that’s always been on, every day."
Is there a TV show you're still mourning? Leave a comment telling us what it is, and why you miss it.
Follow Melissa Dahl on Twitter @melissadahl.