We considered naming this piece “Why we have seen every episode of The Big Bang Theory, Midsomer Murders, Bob’s Burgers, and The IT Show.” Why are we so enamored of these television shows, which seemingly have nothing in common? This essay explores the reasons why people may select certain shows to watch regularly and repeatedly during a time of anxiety as well as the role of television in providing comfort and a sense of wellbeing.

Psychological research has explored the impact of media on individual behavior and self-concept for decades, with attention primarily given to the negative effects of film and television on behavior. There has been very little focus on the positive impact of television on human emotion and mental health. The positive aspects of television merit greater attention at this point in history given that COVID has increased people’s time at home in many countries. Apart from work, people have chosen to fill their time at home with a variety of new hobbies and activities, including television. In what ways do people benefit from television, especially during such a difficult emotional period?

Interestingly, movies have long been accepted as sources of comfort for multiple reasons. When watched repeatedly, the characters of a favorite movie and the familiar plot can provide a sense of comfortable calm for viewers. An example from Donna’s life

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illustrates this point:

I (Donna) had a serious illness some years ago and underwent several years of difficult treatments and surgeries. During that time, I watched one particular movie every morning that I had treatment (and I had treatments at least once a week for over a year). By the time I was beginning to recover, I knew every line of dialogue. The characters had become my friends… and I found tremendous comfort in being with these friends in the morning before going to the medical center. These characters became part of my support network. They were approachable, funny, and poignant. I am now in a period in which I do not need regular treatment anymore. And I now refuse to watch this film, despite how much I love it. Not because I associate it with a difficult time in my life. Rather, because I cherish it. It is a form of comfort to be saved for when I face treatments again.

Repeatedly viewing a favorite film seems commonplace and culturally accepted. Anyone ever steeped in an argument over the must-see Bogart classic or the quintessential holiday film understands such film devotion. People have favorite movies for breakups, sleepovers, sick days—even films rewatched in specific locations or with certain people for nostalgic reasons. In contrast, devotion to television is not considered as positive, as evidenced by the wealth of psychological research focused on negative outcomes. However, we claim that television series can be quite effective and satisfying as sources of comfort, anxiety relief, and connection to others.

In both of our homes, television is ubiquitous. Even when not actively watching, we often have the television on in the background. Yet, each member of our households has different viewing habits and television preferences. Consider Donna’s household, for example:

There is a vast difference in what my husband and I (Donna) choose to watch and what we each avoid. I tend to avoid news shows—and most certainly avoid news channels on which commentators give me their opinions on the news of the day. I prefer to read the news once or twice a day and then watch comedies, murder mysteries, baking shows, or the occasional documentary when I turn on the television. My watching habits are notably “low-brow.” In addition, I keep the volume low. I find loud sounds of any kind discomforting and choose my shows accordingly. In contrast,

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my husband has news programs on the television for much of the day, most often programs with commentator “rants” (his word, not mine). Although we occasionally watch a show or movie together, it is not a common occurrence. Clearly, each of us has different interests, but I would claim we have different needs as well. I have a higher level of general trait anxiety than my husband. He has a higher need to feel informed and current in multiple aspects of culture: music, economics, and politics in particular. Thus, I seek television that calms me down, regardless of how informative it is. He seeks television that keeps him informed, regardless of how provoking it might be. This visual medium satisfies both our needs, different though they are.

This is not the time, place, or article to dive into the art, business, or capitalism of television. Nonetheless, television shows don’t burst into existence when we hit the power button. They have legions of people behind them; some of whom engineer the shows over episodes or seasons to be cathartic. High-brow or low-brow, the truth is that none of it is meaningless. Regardless of their hierarchal place, all shows provide an outlet for the viewer, as they are designed to. Depending on a person’s individual psychological needs, multiple forms of television media can be comforting or satisfying and thus create an emotional bond. Consider the many different types of shows available, and the various types of socio-emotional needs people have. Need high-energy stimuli to feel alert and engaged? Television has options. Need low-action, calm stimuli to balance an overactive nervous system? Television has just the show. Need to feel engaged with other people so as to not feel so alone? Television provides a solution. Need to feel connected and informed, to thoroughly understand the world? Television can help. Need something to keep occupied during periods of sleeplessness? Television is there 24/7.

One key benefit to television is its ability to comfort the viewer. For Donna, her cherished film as described above represented comfort during very specific times of her illness, yet the British series Midsomer Murders (1997-present) became a comforting thread throughout all of her illness. The hushed tones of these shockingly dangerous English hamlets could potentially lull her to sleep and, because of auto-play, be there when she woke up. As she watched the show, it became a source of general comfort that has persisted to this day; the series has continued to serve a comforting purpose during the pandemic.

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Indeed, in our view, there are several ways in which television provides comfort. The first is through the characters and the ability to become enveloped in their lives as they become stitched into the viewer’s life. Characters grow and change over episodes and seasons. In a sense, they become part of the viewer’s social world. Whether the viewer is quarantined, has difficulty connecting to people, or has real-world relationships but wants more, serial television shows provide a way to invest emotionally. As shows begin, just as with relationships in real life, viewers look at the characters, see potential, and want to see how they navigate through their fictional lives. As they do so, viewers grow either proud of the characters or disappointed. Even if there are pitfalls along the way, just as in real life, the audience keeps rooting for the characters they like. As one example, for devoted Game of Thrones viewers, Sansa becoming Queen of the North and Arya defeating the Night King are not just plot points. Given where these characters started and what they faced on their respective journeys, these triumphs are important and serve as triumphs for fans as well. Because Game of Thrones is a television show (as well as book series), viewers can relive those victories at will, as emotionally needed.

The second comforting feature of television is predictability. Television shows watched regularly become familiar to viewers. For procedurals like Alexandra’s choice, described below, this adds to the warm-blanket feeling. That feeling is dependable, always there when desired—either by regular network scheduling or by streaming services. She explains:

A couple of years ago, I (Alexandra) also started watching a show called Death in Paradise (2011-present), which is a whodunit set on a fictional Caribbean island. Each episode follows a set format: A short pre-murder backstory leads into a discovered body, followed immediately by incongruously upbeat title music. There is one central location for each case; there are exactly four main suspects and one to two red herrings. There are one to two scenes at the local bar. Everyone is stumped until the main detective makes a brilliant connection. At the end, everyone is gathered together, and the whole case is wrapped with a bow. Real-life is unpredictable and messy. That has been magnified exponentially in the past two years. It’s comforting to turn on shows like Death in Paradise and know what you’re getting—not just with the formula, but also the characters.

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There are numerous research studies in psychology demonstrating that people like what is familiar and predictable; perhaps that is part of the particular attractiveness of nostalgic television during periods of crisis. As adults, such shows are familiar, like old friends to be revisited. Such series also harken back to a time that seemed simpler. The past probably was not so carefree, but it may seem simpler during difficult present times. Something is comforting about being able to regress to another era for just a little while, a time during which our memories are softer, having the rough edges erased by the passage of time and the flaws of memory. Put all those things together and the result is a medium that can be as comforting as a home-cooked childhood meal.

Finally, television also provides an avenue to alleviate loneliness. Most basically, we’d venture that most people have, at one point or another, turned on the television to make an empty house feel less hollow. Beyond that, for people who are largely house-bound alone, television shows provide company. Donna provides an example:

When I (Donna) was a teen, I stayed with an elderly relative for two weeks to care for her while her usual caregivers were away. She was physically disabled, and thus spent most of her time in a wheelchair. Every day, she watched soap operas for the entire afternoon. I came to realize the extent to which the characters in these shows had become her social circle. She knew them and their families, they kept her company, and watching them helped to keep her mind sharp and engaged. Yes, soap operas staved off her loneliness.

At times, television keeps away more than just the perception of loneliness and provides an artificial yet legitimate connection to the outside world. Television enables connectedness without the risk of infection in the era of COVID. The medium not only provides television “friends,” but it also permits a safe way to connect with real family members and actual friends through synchronous watching from the safety of home. Alexandra provides an example:

Out of necessity, the pandemic birthed a myriad of “watch party” platforms, allowing friends and family to watch TV in sync while chatting. Without official watch party platforms, my family has begun enjoying shows together, even though we are living apart, by texting throughout episodes. It allows us to have family

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movie nights or watch TV over dinner as we would have done together. Beyond families and friends, many TV shows have communities of fans, so that viewers are not just watching a show, but also joining a group of like-minded enthusiasts.

In a period of culture-wide anxiety, as it could be argued the last several years have been, television may be viewed as a form of self-treatment for anxiety and isolation for a substantial portion of the population. We claim that the combination of safety, connectedness, lowered anxiety, and comfort can make television an invaluable psychological resource for maintaining stable mental health, particularly during difficult times.

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Authors:

Alexandra E. Gibson

Alexandra E. Gibson is Director of Programs at the Philadelphia Film Society. Her areas of expertise include film history and media studies, trends in television, and the societal impact of film. She was screenwriter and producer for the film Guests of a Nation (2012) and has authored articles for the Philadelphia Film Society, All Geek To Me, and Cinedork. She may be contacted at agibs529@gmail.com.

Donna Crawley

Donna Crawley, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Her research has focused on such topics as the detection of deception, factors affecting criminal case outcomes, and the relationship between empathy and mortality salience. Her areas of expertise also include the psychology of cults, which she has studied for 40 years. She may be contacted at dcrawley@ramapo.edu.

How to Cite This:

Crawley, D., & Gibson, A. E. (2022). Emotional attachment to television: Comfort, companionship, and anxiety reduction. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 80-85.

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