Extract from Horton, Donald and R. Richard Wohl (1956): 'Mass
Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations
on Intimacy at a Distance', Psychiatry 19: 215-29
This is a classic paper which is very widely cited
but hard to locate. It introduced the notion of 'parasocial interaction'
between viewers and those whom they watch on the television screen. Although
the paper is now very old it is useful to reflect on current television
programmes to consider the relevance of Horton and Wohl's observations.
The original page numbering has been noted to facilitate citation. Please refer to
the pagination provided and the source shown above (Horton and Wohl 1956) rather than citing this online extract.
This is a classic paper which is very widely cited but hard to locate. It introduced the notion of 'parasocial interaction' between viewers and those whom they watch on the television screen. Although the paper is now very old it is useful to reflect on current television programmes to consider the relevance of Horton and Wohl's observations.
The original page numbering has been noted to facilitate citation. Please refer to the pagination provided and the source shown above (Horton and Wohl 1956) rather than citing this online extract.
In television, especially, the image which is presented makes available nuances of appearance and gesture to which ordinary social perception is attentive and to which interaction is cued. Sometimes the 'actor' - whether he is playing himself or performing in a fictional role - is seen engaged with others; but often he faces the spectator, uses the mode of direct address, talks as if he were conversing personally and privately. The audience, for its part, responds with something more than mere running observation; it is, as it were, subtly insinuated into the programme's action and internal social relationships and, by dint of this kind of staging, is ambiguously transformed into a group which observes and participates in the show by turns. The more the performer seems to adjust his performance to the supposed response of the audience, the more the audience tends to make the response anticipated. This simulacrum of conversational give and take may be called para-social interaction.
Para-social relations may be governed by little or no sense of obligation, effort, or responsibility on the part of the spectator. He is free to withdraw at any moment. If he remains involved, these para-social relations provide a framework within which much may be added by fantasy. But these are differences of degree, not of kind, from what may be termed the ortho-social. The crucial difference in experience obviously lies in the lack of effective reciprocity, and this the audience cannot normally conceal from itself. To be sure, the audience is free to choose among the relationships offered, but it cannot create new ones. The interaction, characteristically, is one-sided, nondialectical, controlled by the performer, and not susceptible of mutual development. There are, of course, ways in which the spectators can make their feelings known to the performers and the technicians who design the programmes, but these lie outside the para-social interaction itself. Whoever finds the experience unsatisfying has only the option to withdraw.
What we have said so far forcibly recalls the theatre as an ambiguous meeting ground on which real people play out the roles of fictional characters. For a brief interval, the fictional takes precedence over the actual, as the actor
[start of p. 216]...
becomes identified with the fictional role in the magic of the theatre. This glamorous confusion of identities is temporary: the worlds of fact and fiction meet only for the moment. And the actor, when he takes his bows at the end of the performance, crosses back over the threshold into the matter-of-fact world.
Radio and television, however - and in what follows we shall speak primarily of television - are hospitable to both these worlds in continuous interplay. They are alternately public platforms and theatres, extending the para-social relationship now to leading people of the world of affairs, now to fictional characters, sometimes even to puppets anthropomorphically transformed into 'personalities', and, finally, to theatrical stars who appear in their capacities as real celebrities. But of particular interest is the creation by these media of a new type of performer: quizmasters, announcers, 'interviewers' in a new 'show-business' world - in brief, a special category of 'personalities' whose existence is a function of the media themselves. These 'personalities,' usually, are not prominent in any of the social spheres beyond the media..1They exist for their audiences only in the para-social relation. Lacking an appropriate name for these performers, we shall call them personae.
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. His devotees 'live with him' and share the small episodes of his public life - and to some extent even of his private life away from the show. Indeed, their continued association with him acquires a history, and the accumulation of shared past experiences gives additional meaning to the present performance. This bond is symbolized by allusions that lack meaning for the casual observer and appear occult to the outsider. In time, the devotee - the 'fan' - comes to believe that he 'knows' the persona more intimately and profoundly than others do; that he 'understands' his character and appreciates his values and motives.2 Such an accumulation of knowledge and intensification of loyalty, however, appears to be a kind of growth without development, for the
[start of p. 217]...
one-sided nature of the connection precludes a progressive and mutual reformulation of its values and aims.3
The persona may be considered by his audience as a friend, counsellor, comforter, and model; but, unlike real associates, he has the peculiar virtue of being standardized according to the 'formula' for his character and performance which he and his managers have worked out and embodied in an appropriate 'production format'. Thus his character and pattern of action remain basically unchanged in a world of otherwise disturbing change. The persona is ordinarily predictable, and gives his adherents no unpleasant surprises. In their association with him there are no problems of understanding or empathy too great to be solved. Typically, there are no challenges to a spectator's self - to his ability to take the reciprocal part in the performance that is assigned to him - that cannot be met comfortably. This reliable sameness is only approximated, and then only in the short run, by the figures of fiction. On television, Groucho is always sharp; Godfrey is always warm-hearted.
It is an unvarying characteristic of these 'personality' programmes that the greatest pains are taken by the persona to create an illusion of intimacy. We call it an illusion because the relationship between the persona and any member of his audience is inevitably one-sided, and reciprocity between the two can only be suggested. There are several principal strategies for achieving this illusion of intimacy.
Most characteristic is the attempt of the persona to duplicate the gestures, conversational style, and milieu of an informal face-to-face gathering. This accounts, in great measure, for the casualness with which even the formalities of programme scheduling are treated. The spectator is encouraged to gain the impression that what is taking place on the programme gains a momentum of its own in the very process of being enacted. Thus, Steve Allen is always pointing out to his audience that 'we never know what is going to happen on this show.' In addition, the persona tries to maintain a flow of small talk which gives the impression that he is responding to and sustaining the contributions of an invisible interlocutor. Dave Garroway, who has mastered his style to perfection, has described how he stumbled on the device in his early days in radio.
[start of p. 218]...
this by-play to suggest this ramification of intimacy.
Furthermore, the persona may try to step out of the particular format of his show and literally blend with the audience. Most usually, the persona leaves the stage and mingles with the studio audience in a question-and-answer exchange. In some few cases, and particularly on The Steve Allen Show, this device has been carried a step further. Thus Allen has managed to blend even with the home audience by the manoeuvre of training a television camera on the street outside the studio and, in effect, suspending his own show and converting all the world outside into a stage. Allen, his supporting cast, and the audience, both at home and in the studio, watch together what transpires on the street - the persona and his spectators symbolically united as one big audience. In this way, Allen erases for the moment the line which separates persona and spectator.
In addition to the management of relationships between the persona and performers, and between him and his audience, the technical devices of the media themselves are exploited to create illusions of intimacy.
All these devices are indulged in not only to lure the attention of the audience, and to create the easy impression that there is a kind of participation open to them in the programme itself, but also to highlight the chief values stressed in such 'personality' shows. These are sociability, easy affability, friendship, and close contact - briefly, all the values associated with free access to and easy participation in pleasant social interaction in primary groups. Because the relationship between persona and audience is one-sided and cannot be developed mutually, very nearly the whole burden of creating a plausible imitation of intimacy is thrown on the persona and on the show of which he is the pivot. If he is successful in initiating an intimacy which his audience can believe in, then the audience may help him maintain it by fan mail and by the various other kinds of support which can be provided indirectly to buttress his actions.
At one extreme, the 'personality' programme is like a drama in having a cast of characters, which includes the persona, his professional supporting cast, non-professional contestants and interviewees, and the studio audience. At the other extreme, the persona addresses his entire performance to the home audience with undisturbed intimacy. In the dramatic type of programme, the participation of the spectator involves, we presume, the same taking of successive roles and deeper empathic involvements in the leading roles which occurs in any observed social interaction.6 It is possible that the spectator's 'collaborative expectancy'7 may assume the more profound form of identification with one or more of the performers. But such identification can hardly be more than intermittent. The 'personality' programme, unlike the theatrical drama, does not demand or even permit the aesthetic illusion - that loss of situational reference and self-consciousness in which the audience not only accepts the symbol as reality, but fully assimilates the symbolic role. The persona and his staff maintain the para-
[start of p. 219]...
social relationship, continually referring to and addressing the home audience as a third party to the programme; and such references remind the spectator of his own independent identity. The only illusion maintained is that of directness and immediacy of participation.
When the persona appears alone, in apparent face-to-face interaction with the home viewer, the latter is still more likely to maintain his own identity without interruption, for he is called upon to make appropriate responses which are complementary to those of the persona. This 'answering' role is, to a degree, voluntary and independent. In it, the spectator retains control over the content of his participation rather than surrendering control through identification with others, as he does when absorbed in watching a drama or movie.
This independence is relative, however, in a twofold sense: First, it is relative in the profound sense that the very act of entering into any interaction with another involves some adaptation to the other's perspectives, if communication is to be achieved at all. And, second, in the present case it is relative because the role of the persona is enacted in such a way, or is of such a character, that an appropriate answering role is specified by implication and suggestion. The persona's performance, therefore, is open-ended, calling for a rather specific answering role to give it closure.8
The general outlines of the appropriate audience role are perceived intuitively from familiarity with the common cultural patterns on which the role of the persona is constructed. These roles are chiefly derived from the primary relations of friendship and the family, characterized by intimacy, sympathy, and sociability. The audience is expected to accept the situation defined by the programme format as credible, and to concede as 'natural' the rules and conventions governing the actions performed and the values realized. It should play the role of the loved one to the persona's lover; the admiring dependent to his father-surrogate; the earnest citizen to his fearless opponent of political evils. It is expected to benefit by his wisdom, reflect on his advice, sympathize with him in his difficulties, forgive his mistakes, buy the products that he recommends, and keep his sponsor informed of the esteem in which he is held.
Other attitudes than compliance in the assigned role are, of course, possible. One may reject, take an analytical stance, perhaps even find a cynical amusement in refusing the offered gambit and playing some other role not implied in the script, or view the proceedings with detached curiosity or hostility. But such attitudes as these are, usually, for the one-time viewer. The faithful audience is one that can accept the gambit offered; and the functions of the programme for this audience are served not by the mere perception of it, but by the role-enactment that completes it.
Just how the situation should be defined by the audience, what to expect of the persona, what attitudes to take toward him, what to 'do' as a participant in the programme is not left entirely to the common experience and intuitions of the audience. Numerous devices are used in a deliberate 'coaching of attitudes,' to use Kenneth Burke's phrase.9 The typical programme format calls for a studio audience to provide a situation of face-to-face interaction for the persona, and exemplifies to the home audience an enthusiastic and 'correct' response. The more interaction occurs, the more clearly is demonstrated the kind of man the persona is, the values to be shared in association with him, and the kind of support to give him. A similar model of appropriate response may be supplied by the professional assistants who, though technically performers, act in a subordinate and deferential reciprocal relation toward the persona. The audience is schooled in
[start of p. 220]...
correct responses to the persona by a variety of other means as well. Other personae may be invited as guests, for example, who play up to the host in exemplary fashion; or persons drawn from the audience may be manoeuvred into fulfilling this function. And, in a more direct and literal fashion, reading excerpts from fan-mail may serve the purpose.
Beyond the coaching of specific attitudes towards personae, a general propa-ganda on their behalf flows from the performers themselves, their press agents, and the mass communication industry. Its major theme is that the performer should be loved and admired. Every attempt possible is made to strengthen the illusion of reciprocity and rapport in order to offset the inherent impersonality of the media themselves. The jargon of show business teems with special terms for the mysterious ingredients of such rapport: ideally, a performer should have 'heart,' should be 'sincere';10 his performance should be 'real' and 'warm.'11 The publicity campaigns built around successful performers continually emphasize the sympathetic image which, it is hoped, the audience is perceiving and developing.12
The audience, in its turn, is expected to contribute to the illusion by believing in it, and by rewarding the persona's 'sincerity' with loyalty.' The audience is entreated to assume a sense of personal obligation to the performer, to help him in his struggle for 'success' if he is 'on the way up,' or to maintain his success if he has already won it. 'Success' in show business is itself a theme which is prominently exploited in this kind of propaganda. It forms the basis of many movies; it appears often in the patter of the leading comedians and in the exhortations of MC's; it dominates the so-called amateur hours and talent shows; and it is subject to frequent comment in interviews with 'show people.'13
The acceptance by the audience of the role offered by the programme involves acceptance of the explicit and implicit terms which define the situation and the action to be carried out in the programme. Unless the spectator understands these terms, the role performances of the participants are meaningless to him; and unless he accepts them, he cannot 'enter into' the performance himself. But beyond this, the spectator must be able to play the part demanded of him; and this raises the question of the compatibility between his normal self - as a system of role-patterns and self-conceptions with their implicated norms and values - and the kind of self postulated by the programme schema and the actions of the persona. In short, one may conjecture that the probability of rejection of the proffered role will be greater the less closely the spectator 'fits' the role prescription.
To accept the gambit without the necessary personality 'qualifications' is to invite increasing dissatisfaction and
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alienation - which the student of the media can overcome only by a deliberate, imaginative effort to take the postulated role. The persona himself takes the role of his projected audience in the interpretation of his own actions, often with the aid of cues provided by a studio audience. He builds his performance on a cumulative structure of assumptions about their response, and so postulates - more or less consciously - the complex of attitudes to which his own actions are adapted. A spectator who fails to make the anticipated responses will find himself further and further removed from the base-line of common understanding.14 One would expect the 'error' to be cumulative, and eventually to be carried, perhaps, to the point at which the spectator is forced to resign in confusion, disgust, anger, or boredom. If a significant portion of the audience fails in this way, the persona's 'error in role-taking'15 has to be corrected with the aid of audience research, 'programme doctors,' and other aids. But, obviously, the intended adjustment is to some average or typical spectator, and cannot take too much account of deviants.
The simplest example of such a failure to fulfill the role prescription would be the case of an intellectual discussion in which the audience is presumed to have certain basic knowledge and the ability to follow the development of the argument. Those who cannot meet these requirements find the discussion progressively less comprehensible. A similar progressive alienation probably occurs when children attempt to follow an adult programme or movie. One observes them absorbed in the opening scenes, but gradually losing interest as the developing action leaves them behind. Another such situation might be found in the growing confusion and restiveness of some audiences watching foreign movies or 'high-brow' drama. Such resistance is also manifested when some members of an audience are asked to take the opposite-sex role - the woman's perspective is rejected more commonly by men than vice versa - or when audiences refuse to accept empathically the roles of outcasts or those of racial or cultural minorities whom they consider inferior.16
It should be observed that merely witnessing a programme is not evidence that a spectator has played the required part. Having made the initial commitment, he may 'string along' with it at a low level of empathy but reject it retrospectively. The experience does not end with the programme itself. On the contrary, it may be only after it has ended that it is submitted to intellectual analysis and integrated into, or rejected by, the self; this occurs especially in those discussions which the spectator may undertake with other people in which favourable or unfavourable consensual interpretations and judgments are arrived at. It is important to enter a qualification at this point. The suspension of immediate judgment is probably more complete in the viewing of the dramatic programme where there is an aesthetic illusion to be accepted, than in the more self-conscious viewing of 'personality' programmes.
What para-social roles are acceptable to the spectator and what benefits their enactment has for him would seem to be related to the systems of patterned roles and social situations in which he is involved in his everyday life. The values
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of a para-social role may be related, for example, to the demands being made upon the spectator for achievement in certain statuses. Such demands, to pursue this instance further, may be manifested in the expectations of others, or they may be self-demands, with the concomitant emergence of more or less satisfactory self-conceptions. The enactment of a para-social role may therefore constitute an exploration and development of new role possibilities, as in the experimental phases of actual, or aspired to, social mobility.17 It may offer a recapitulation of roles no longer played - roles which, perhaps, are no longer possible. The audience is diversified in terms of life-stages, as well as by other social and cultural characteristics; thus, what for youth may be the anticipatory enactment of roles to be assumed in the future may be, for older persons, a reliving and re-evaluation of the actual or imagined past.
The enacted role may be an idealized version of an everyday performance -a 'successful' para-social approximation of an ideal pattern, not often, perhaps never, achieved in real life. Here the contribution of the persona may be to hold up a magic mirror to his followers, playing his reciprocal part more skilfully and ideally than do the partners of the real world. So Liberace, for example, outdoes the ordinary husband in gentle understanding, or Nancy Berg outdoes the ordinary wife in amorous complaisance. Thus, the spectator may be enabled to play his part suavely and completely in imagination as he is unable to do in actuality.
If we have emphasized the opportunities offered for playing a vicarious or actual role, it is because we regard this as the key operation in the spectator's activity, and the chief avenue of the programme's meaning for him. This is not to overlook the fact that every social role is reciprocal to the social roles of others, and that it is as important to learn to understand, to decipher, and to anticipate their conduct as it is to manage one's own. The function of the mass media, and of the programmes we have been discussing, is also the exemplification of the patterns of conduct one needs to understand and cope with in others as well as of those patterns which one must apply to one's self. Thus the spectator is instructed variously in the behaviours of the opposite sex, of people of higher and lower status, of people in particular occupations and professions. In a quantitative sense, by reason of the sheer volume of such instruction, this may be the most important aspect of the para-social experience, if only because each person's roles are relatively few, while those of the others in his social worlds are very numerous. In this culture, it is evident that to be prepared to meet all the exigencies of a changing social situation, no matter how limited it may be, could - and often does - require a great stream of plays and stories, advice columns and social how-to-do-it books. What, after all, is soap opera but an interminable exploration of the contingencies to be met with in 'home life?'18
In addition to the possibilities we have already mentioned, the media present opportunities for the playing of roles to which the spectator has - or feels he has -a legitimate claim, but for which he finds no opportunity in his social environment. This function of the para-social then can properly be called compensatory, inasmuch as it provides the socially and psychologically isolated with a chance to enjoy the elixir of sociability. The
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'personality' programme - in contrast to the drama - is especially designed to provide occasion for good-natured joking and teasing, praising and admiring, gossiping and telling anecdotes, in which the values of friendship and intimacy are stressed.
It is typical of the 'personality' programmes that ordinary people are shown being treated, for the moment, as persons of consequence. In the interviews of non-professional contestants, the subject may be praised for having children - whether few or many does not matter; he may be flattered on his youthful appearance; and he is likely to be honoured the more - with applause from the studio audience - the longer he has been 'successfully' married. There is even applause, and a consequent heightening of ceremony and importance for the person being interviewed, at mention of the town he lives in. In all of this, the values realized for the subject are those of a harmonious, successful participation in one's appointed place in the social order. The subject is represented as someone secure in the affections and respect of others, and he probably senses the experience as a gratifying reassurance of social solidarity and self-confidence. For the audience, in the studio and at home, it is a model of appropriate role performance - as husband, wife, mother, as 'attractive' middle age, 'remarkably youthful' old age, and the like. It is, furthermore, a demonstration of the fundamental generosity and good will of all concerned, including, of course, the commercial sponsor. 19 But unlike a similar exemplification of happy sociability in a play or a novel, the television or radio programme is real; that is to say, it is enveloped in the continuing reassurances and gratifications of objective responses. For instance there may be telephone calls to 'outside' contestants, the receipt and acknowledgement of requests from the home audience, and so on. Almost every member of the home audience is left with the comfortable feeling that he too, if he wished, could appropriately take part in this healing ceremony.
[Two final sections omitted here]
(C)1984 The William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation, Inc.,
1711 Rhode Island Avenue, Washington, DC.
Comments on Horton and Wohl's notion of parasocial interaction can be found in:
If anyone finds any other useful comments on Horton and Wohl's paper on parasocial interaction,
please let me know and I'll add them to the list!
Comments on Horton and Wohl's notion of parasocial interaction can be found in:
If anyone finds any other useful comments on Horton and Wohl's paper on parasocial interaction, please let me know and I'll add them to the list!