Real Soap Opera: Why America Hates Breaking Up With Erica Kane

Erica Kane
After more than 40 years in the role of Erica Kane on "All My Children," Susan Lucci will exit this daytime soap as ABC said it's cancelling the show this year. (Image credit: ABC)

Can't bear to say goodbye to Erica Kane of the long-running daytime soap "All My Children?"

If so, you're not alone. New research suggests dedicated viewers of that drama and "One Life to Live" — both of which get the ax this year — will feel the anguish, particularly those who have stronger "relationships" with their favorite characters such as Erica Kane (played by AMC's star Susan Lucci for more than 40 years). [Lonely Hearts Find Comfort in TV Characters]

A survey that measured the effect of the television writers' strike of 2007-08, when many shows went off the air or were replaced by reruns, on college-age viewers may offer some insight into the psychological effects of this latest disruption to TV watchers' routines.  

Viewers' reasons for watching TV also affected the amount of distress they felt; casual viewers were less affected than those with goals like relaxation, companionship or escape.

"We found that people who primarily watched television for companionship were the ones who felt the most distressed by temporarily losing their programs," said Emily Moyer-Gusé, an assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University and co-author of the study.

However, Moyer-Gusé cautioned that the relationships viewers have with characters are not the same as relationships with real friends.

"While some participants felt real distress at the loss of their favorite TV shows, the distress is not comparable to the distress that comes from real breakups," she said. "There are some aspects of relationships with TV characters that may be comparable to real relationships, but the intensity is generally much lower."

And the viewers who responded to the survey weren't likely to replace their favorite programs with other activities like exercising or socializing with friends. Instead, they replaced their normal TV watching with other media-related activities, including surfing the Internet or watching reruns of their now-dead shows.

Moyer-Gusé and Julie Lather, a former graduate student at Ohio State, conducted the study. Their results appear in the April 2011 issue of the journal Mass Communication and Society.

In the spring of 2008, they surveyed 403 undergraduates using an online questionnaire that asked the students how often they watched TV, how important viewing was to them, their reasons for watching and their feelings about the disruption to their programs.

There are, however, some caveats when applying this research to the current situation. The writers' strike was only temporary, lasting from November 2007 until February 2008; meanwhile, the television network ABC has announced that the soap operas — which have been running for decades — will be canceled permanently.

Also, Moyer-Gusé noted that the research only included college students, who normally have a wider range of entertainment options than others. Distress may actually be higher for others, like the elderly, who rely more on television for entertainment and companionship.

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.