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Horton, Donald & R. Richard Wohl:

'Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance'

Particip@tions Volume 3, Issue 1  (May 2006)


Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance


One of the striking characteristics of the new mass media – radio, television, and the movies – is that they give the illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer.  The conditions of response to the performer are analogous to those in a primary group.  The most remote and illustrious men are met as if they were in the circle of one’s peers; the same is true of a character in a story who comes to life in these media in an especially vivid and arresting way.  We propose to call this seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer a para-social relationship. 

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 program’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 programs, 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 be comes 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.  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[1]

They exist for their audiences only in the para-social relation.  Lacking an appropriate name for these performers, we shall call them personae.


The Role of the Persona 

The persona is the typical and indigenous figure of the social scene presented by radio and television.  To say that he is familiar and intimate is to use pale and feeble language for the pervasiveness and closeness with which multitudes feel his presence.  The spectacular fact about such personae is that they can claim and achieve an intimacy with what are literally crowds of strangers, and this intimacy, even if it is an imitation and a shadow of what is ordinarily meant by that word, is extremely influential with, and satisfying for, the great numbers who willingly receive it and share in it.  They “know” such a persona in somewhat the same way they know their chosen friends: through direct observation and interpretation of his appearance, his gestures and voice, his conversation and conduct in a variety of situations.  Indeed, those who make up his audience are invited, by designed informality, to make precisely these evaluations – to consider that they are involved in a face-to-face exchange rather than in passive observation.  When the television camera pans down on a performer, the illusion is strong that he is enhancing the presumed intimacy by literally coming closer.  But the persona’s image, while partial, contrived, and penetrated by illusion, is no fantasy or dream; his performance is an objectively perceptible action in which the viewer is implicated imaginatively, but which he does not imagine.

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 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.


The Bond of Intimacy 

It is an unvarying characteristic of these “personality” programs 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 program scheduling are treated.  The spectator is encouraged to gain the impression that what is taking place on the program gains a momentum of its own in the very process of being enacted.  Thus Steve Alien 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 this style to perfection, has described how he stumbled on the device in his early days in radio.

Most talk on the radio in those days was formal and usually a little stiff.  But I just rambled along, saying whatever came into my mind.  I was introspective.  I tried to pretend that I was chatting with a friend over a highball late in the evening.  Then – and later – I consciously tried to talk to the listener as an individual, to make each listener feel that he knew me and I knew him.  It seemed to work pretty well then and later.  I know that strangers often stop me on the street today, call me Dave and seem to feel that we are old friends who know all about each other.[4]

In addition to creating an appropriate tone and patter, the persona tries as far as possible to eradicate, or at least to blur, the line which divides him and his show, as a formal performance, from the audience both in the studio and at home.  The most usual way of achieving this ambiguity is for the persona to treat his supporting cast as a group of close intimates.  Thus all the members of the cast will be addressed by their first names, or by special nicknames, to emphasize intimacy.  They very quickly develop, or have imputed to them, stylized character traits which, as members of the supporting cast, they will indulge in and exploit-regularly in program after program.  The member of the audience, therefore, not only accumulates an historical picture of “the kinds of people they really are,” but tends to believe that this fellowship includes him by extension.  As a matter of fact, all members of the program who are visible to the audience will be drawn into 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 Alien show, this device has been carried a step further.  Thus Alien has managed to blend even with the home audience by the maneuver 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.  Alien, 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, Alien 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.

For example [Dave Garroway explains in this connection], we developed the “subjective-camera” idea, which was simply making the camera be the eyes of the audience.  In one scene the camera – that’s you, the viewer – approached the door of a dentist’s office, saw a sign that the dentist was out to lunch, sat down nervously in the waiting room.  The dentist returned and beckoned to the camera, which went in and sat in the big chair.  “Open wide,” the dentist said, poking a huge, wicked-looking drill at the camera.  There was a roar as the drill was turned on, sparks flew and the camera vibrated and the viewers got a magnified version of sitting in the dentist’s chair – except that it didn’t hurt.[5]

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 program 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.


The Role of the Audience 

At one extreme, the “personality” program 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 program, 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” program, unlike the theatrical drama, does not demand or even permit the esthetic 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-social relationship, continually referring to and addressing the home audience as a third party to the program; 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 program 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 program for this audience are served not by the mere perception of it, but by the role-enactment that completes it.


The Coaching of Audience Attitudes

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 program, 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 program 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 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 toward personae, a general propaganda 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 X sympathetic image which, it is hoped, the X 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]


Conditions of Acceptance of the Para-Social Role by the Audience

The acceptance by the audience of the role offered by the program involves acceptance of the explicit and implicit terms which define the situation and the action to be carried out in the program.  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 program 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” 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, “program 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 program 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 program 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 program 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 favorable or unfavorable 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 program, where there is an esthetic illusion to be accepted, than in the more self-conscious viewing of “personality” programs.


Values of the Para-Social Role for the Audience

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 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 skillfully 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 program’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 programs 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 behaviors 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 he 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 hi 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 “personality” program – 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” programs 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 honored 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 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.  But unlike a similar exemplification of happy sociability in a play or a novel, the television[19] or radio program 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 re quests 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.


Extreme Para-Sociability

For the great majority of the audience, the para-social is complementary to normal social life.  It provides a social milieu in which the everyday assumptions and understandings of primary group interaction and sociability are demonstrated and reaffirmed.  The “personality” program, however, is peculiarly favorable to the formation of compensatory attachments by the socially isolated, the socially inept, the aged and invalid, the timid and rejected.  The persona himself is readily available as an object of love – especially when he succeeds in cultivating the recommended quality of “heart.”  Nothing could be more reasonable or natural than that people who are isolated and lonely should seek sociability and love wherever they think they can find it.  It is only when the para-social relationship becomes a substitute for autonomous social participation, when it proceeds in absolute defiance of objective reality, that it can be regarded as pathological.[20]

The existence of a marginal segment of the lonely in American society has been recognized by the mass media themselves, and from time to time specially designed offerings have been addressed to this minority.[21]  In these programs, the maximum illusion of a personal, intimate relationship has been attempted.  They represent the extreme development of the para-social, appealing to the most isolated, and illustrate, in an exaggerated way, the principles we believe to apply through the whole range of “personality” programs.  The programs which fall in this extreme category promise not only escape from an unsatisfactory and drab reality, but try to prop up the sagging self-esteem of their unhappy audience by the most blatant reassurances.  Evidently on the presumption that the maximum of loneliness is the lack of a sexual partner, these programs tend to be addressed to one sex or the other, and to endow the persona with an erotic suggestiveness.[22]

Such seems to have been the purpose and import of The Lonesome Gal, a short radio program which achieved such popularity in 1951 that it was broadcast in ninety different cities.  Within a relatively short time, the program spread from Hollywood, where it had originated, across the country to New York, where it was heard each evening at 11:15.[23]

The outline of the program was simplicity itself.  After a preliminary flourish of music, and an identifying announcement, the main and only character was ushered into the presence of the audience.  She was exactly as represented, apparently a lonesome girl, but without a name or a history.  Her entire performance consisted of an unbroken monologue unembarrassed by plot, climax, or-denouement.  On the continuum of para-social action, this is the very opposite of self-contained drama; it is, in fact, nothing but the reciprocal of the spectator’s own para-social role.  The Lonesome Gal simply spoke in a throaty, unctuous voice whose suggestive sexiness belied the seeming modesty of her words.[24]

From the first, the Lonesome Gal took a strongly intimate line, almost as if she were addressing a lover in the utter privacy of some hidden rendezvous:

Darling, you look so tired, and a little put out about something this evening.  .  .  .  You are worried, I feel it Lover, you need rest .  .  .  rest and someone who understands you.  Come, lie down on the couch, relax, I want to stroke your hair gently ...  I am with you now, always with you.  You are never alone, you must never forget that you mean everything to me, that I live only for you, your Lonesome Gal.

At some time in the course of each program, the Lonesome Gal specifically assured her listeners that these endearments were not being addressed to the hale and handsome, the clever and the well-poised, but to the shy, the withdrawn – the lonely men who had always dreamed, in their inmost reveries, of finding a lonesome girl to comfort them.

The world is literally full of such lonesome girls, she urged; like herself, they were all seeking love and companionship.  Fate was unkind, however, and they were disappointed and left in unrequited loneliness, with no one to console them.  On the radio, the voice was everybody’s Lonesome Gal:

Don’t you see, darling, that I am only one of millions of lonely girls.  I belong to him who spends his Sundays in museums, who strolls in Central Park looking sadly at the lovers there.  But I am more fortunate than any of these lovers, because I have you.  Do you know that I am always thinking about you? ...  You need someone to worry about you, who will look after your health, you need me.  I share your hopes and your disappointments.  I, your Lonesome Gal, your girl, to whom you so often feel drawn in the big city where so many are lonely.

The Lonesome Gal was inundated with thousands of letters tendering proposals of marriage, the writers respectfully, assuring her that she was indeed the woman for whom they had been vainly searching all their lives.

As a character in a radio program, the Lonesome Gal had certain advantages in the cultivation of para-social attachments over television offerings of a similar tenor.  She was literally an unseen presence, and each of her listeners could, in his mind’s eye, picture her as his fancy dictated.  She could, by an act of the imagination, be almost any age or any size, have any background.

Not so Miss Nancy Berg, who began to appear last year in a five-minute television spot called Count Sheep.[25]   She is seen at 1a.m. each weekday. After an announcement card has flashed to warn the audience that she is about to appear, and a commercial has been read, the stage is entirely given over to Miss Berg.  She emerges in a lavishly decorated bedroom clad in a peignoir, or negligee, minces around the room, stretches, yawns, jumps into bed, and then wriggles out again for a final romp with her French poodle.  Then she crawls under the covers, cuddles up for the night, and composes herself for sleep.  The camera pans down for an enormous close-up, and the microphones catch Miss Berg whispering a sleepy “Good-night.”  From out of the distance soft music fades in, and the last thing the viewers see is a cartoon of sheep jumping over a fence.  The program is over.

There is a little more to the program than this.  Each early morning, Miss Berg is provided with a special bit of dialogue or business which, brief though it is, delights her audience afresh:

Once, she put her finger through a pizza pie, put the pie on a record player and what came out was Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore.”  She has read, with expression, from “Romeo and Juliet,” “Of Time and the River,” and her fan mail.  She has eaten grapes off a toy ferris-wheel and held an imaginary telephone conversation with someone who, she revealed when it was all over, had the wrong number.[26]

Sometimes she regales her viewers with a personal detail.  For instance, she has explained that the dog which appears on the show is her own.  Its name is “Phae-deaux,” she disclosed coyly, pronounced “Fido.”

It takes between twenty and twenty-six people, aside from Miss Berg herself, to put this show on the air; and all of them seem to be rather bemused by the success she is enjoying.  Her manager, who professes himself happily baffled by the whole thing, tried to discover some of the reasons for this success in a recent interview when he was questioned about the purpose of the show:

Purpose? The purpose was, Number 1, to get a sponsor; Number 2, to give people a chance to look at a beautiful girl at 1 o’clock in the morning; Number 3, to do some off-beat stuff.  I think this girl’s going to be a big star, and this was a way to get attention for her.  We sure got it.  She’s a showman, being slightly on the screwball side, but there’s a hell of a brain there.  She just doesn’t touch things – she caresses things.  Sometimes, she doesn’t say anything out loud, maybe she’s thinking what you’re thinking.”[27]

The central fact in this explanation seems to be the one which touches on Miss Berg’s ability to suggest to her audience that she is privy to, and might share, their inmost thoughts.  This is precisely the impression that the Lonesome Gal attempted to create, more directly and more conversationally, in her monologue.  Both programs were geared to fostering and maintaining the illusion of intimacy which we mentioned earlier in our discussion.  The sexiness of both these programs must, we think, be read in this light.  They are seductive in more than the ordinary sense.  Sexual suggestive-ness is used probably because it is one of the most obvious cues to a supposed intimacy – a catalytic for prompt sociability.  Such roles as Miss Berg and the Lonesome Gal portray require a strict adherence to a standardized portrayal of their “personalities.”  Their actual personalities, and the details of their backgrounds, are not allowed to become sharply focused and differentiated, for each specification of particular detail might alienate some part of the audience, or might interfere with rapport.  Thus, Miss Berg, despite the apparent intimacy of her show – the audience is invited into her bedroom – refuses to disclose her “dimensions,” although this is a piece of standard information freely available about movie beauties. 

The Lonesome Gal was even more strict regarding personal details.  Only once did she appear in a public performance away from her radio show.  On that occasion she wore a black mask over her face, and was introduced to her “live” audience on the same mysteriously anonymous terms as she met her radio audience.  Rumor, however, was not idle, and one may safely presume that these rumors ran current to provide her with a diffuse glamour of a kind which her audience would think appropriate.  It was said that she lived in Hollywood, but that she originally came from Texas, a state which, in popular folklore, enjoys a lively reputation for improbabilities and extravagances.  Whispers also had it that French and Indian blood coursed in her veins, a combination all too likely to suggest wildness and passion to the stereotypes of her listeners.  For the rest, nothing was known of her, and no further details were apparently ever permitted.


The Image as Artifact 

The encouragement of, not to say demand for, a sense of intimacy with the persona and an appreciation of him as a “real” person is in contradiction to the fact that the image he presents is to some extent a construct – a facade – which bears little resemblance to his private character.  The puritanical conventions of the contemporary media make this facade a decidedly namby-pamby one.  With few exceptions, the popular figures of radio and television are, or give the appearance of being, paragons of middle-class virtue with decently modest intellectual capacities.  Since some of them are really very intelligent and all of them are, like the rest of us, strong and weak, good and bad, the facade is maintained only by concealing discrepancies between the public image and the private life. 

The standard technique is not to make the private life an absolute secret – for the interest of the audience cannot be ignored – but to create an acceptable facade of private life as well, a more or less contrived private image of the life behind the contrived public image.  This is the work of the press agent, the publicity man, and the fan magazine.  How successfully they have done their work is perhaps indicated by the current vogue of magazines devoted to the “dirt” behind the facade.[28]

Public preoccupation with the private lives of stars and personae is not self-explanatory.  Sheer appreciation and understanding of their performances as actors, singers, or entertainers does not depend upon information about them as persons.  And undoubtedly many members of the audience do enjoy them without knowing or caring to know about their homes, children, sports cars, or favorite foods, or keeping track of the ins and outs of their marriages and divorces.  It has often been said that the Hollywood stars – and their slightly less glamorous colleagues of radio and television – are modern “heroes” in whom are embodied popular cultural values, and that the interest in them is a form of hero-worship and vicarious experience through identification.  Both of these interpretations may be true; we would emphasize, however, a third motive – the confirmation and enrichment of the para-social relation with them.  It may be precisely because this is basically an illusion that such an effort is required to confirm it.  It seems likely that those to whom para-social relationships are important must constantly strive to overcome the inherent limitations of these relationships, either by elaborating the image of the other, or by attempting to transcend the illusion by making some kind of actual contact with him.

Given the prolonged intimacy of para-social relations with the persona, accompanied by the assurance that beyond the illusion there is a real person, it is not surprising that many members of the audience become dissatisfied and attempt to establish actual contact with him.  Under exactly what conditions people are motivated to write to the performer, or to go further and attempt to meet him – to draw from him a personal response – we do not know.  The fan phenomenon has been studied to some extent, [29] but fan clubs and fan demonstrations are likely to be group affairs, motivated as much by the values of collective participation with others as by devotion to the persona himself.  There are obvious social rewards for the trophies of contact with the famous or notorious – from autographs to handkerchiefs dipped in the dead bandit’s blood – which invite toward their possessor some shadow of the attitudes of awe or admiration originally directed to their source.  One would suppose that contact with, and recognition by, the persona transfers some of his prestige and influence to the active fan.  And most often such attempts to reach closer to the persona are limited to letters and to visits.  But in the extreme case, the social rewards of mingling with the mighty are foregone for the satisfaction of some deeply private purpose.  The follower is actually “in love” with the persona, and demands real reciprocity which the para-social relation cannot provide.

A case in point is provided in the “advice” column of a newspaper.[30]   The writer, Miss A, has “fallen in love” with a television star, and has begun to rearrange and reorder her life to conform to her devotion to this man whom she has never actually met.  It is significant, incidentally, that the man is a local per former – the probability of actually meeting him must seem greater than would be the case if he were a New York or Hollywood figure.  The border between Miss A’s fantasies and reality is being steadily encroached upon by the important affective investment she has made in this relationship.  Her letter speaks for itself: 

It has taken me two weeks to get the nerve to write this letter.  I have fallen head over heels in love with a local television star.  We’ve never met and I’ve seen him only on the TV screen and in a play.  This is not a 16-year-old infatuation, for I am 23, a college graduate and I know the score.  For the last two months I have stopped dating because all men seem childish by comparison.  Nothing interests me.  I can’t sleep and my modeling job bores me.  Please give me some advice.

The writer of this letter would seem to be not one of the lonely ones, but rather a victim of the ‘magic mirror’ in which she sees a man who plays the role reciprocal to hers so ‘ideally’ that all the men she actually knows “seem childish by comparison.”  Yet this is not the image of a fictional hero; it is a ‘real’ man.  It is interesting that the newspaper columnist, in replying, chooses to attack on this point – not ridiculing the possibility of a meeting with the star, but denying the reality of the image:

I don’t know what you learned in college, but you are flunking the course of common sense.  You have fallen for a piece of celluloid as unreal as a picture on the wall.  The personality you are goofy about on the TV screen is a hoked-up character, and any similarity between him and the real man is purely miraculous.

This case is revealing, however, not only because it attests to the vigor with which a para-social relationship may become endowed, but also because it demonstrates how narrow the line often is between the more ordinary forms of social interaction and those which characterize relations with the persona.  In an extreme case, such as that of Miss A, her attachment to the persona has greatly invaded her everyday life – so much so that, without control, it will warp or destroy her relations with the opposite sex.  But the extreme character of this response should not obscure the fact that ordinarily para-social relations do “play back,” as it were, into the daily lives of many.  The man who reports to his friend the wise thing that Godfrey said, who carefully plans not to make another engagement at the time his favorite is on, is responding similarly, albeit to a different and milder degree.  Para-social interaction, as we have said, is analogous to and in many ways resembles social interaction in ordinary primary groups.

The new mass media are obviously distinguished by their ability to confront a member of the audience with an apparently intimate, face-to-face association with a performer.  Nowhere does this feature of their technological resources seem more forcefully or more directly displayed than in the “personality” program.  In these programs a new kind of performer, the persona, is featured whose main attribute seems to be his ability to cultivate and maintain this suggested intimacy.  As he appears before his audience, in program after program, he carries on recurrent social transactions with his adherents; he sustains what we have called para-social interaction.  These adherents, as members of his audience, play a psychologically active role which, under some conditions, but by no means invariably, passes over into the more formal, overt, and expressive activities of fan behavior.

As an implicit response to the performance of the persona, this para-social interaction is guided and to some extent controlled by him.  The chief basis of this guidance and control, however, lies in the imputation to the spectator of a kind of role complementary to that of the persona himself.  This imputed complementary role is social in character, and is some variant of the role or roles normally played in the spectator’s primary social groups.  It is defined, demonstrated, and inculcated by numerous devices of radio and television showmanship.  When it has been learned, the persona is assured that the entire transaction between himself and the audience – of which his performance is only one phase – is being properly completed” by the unseen audience.

Seen from this standpoint, it seems to follow that there is no such discontinuity between everyday and para-social experience as is suggested by the common practice, among observers of these media, of using the analogy of fantasy or dream in the interpretation of programs which are essentially dramatic in character.  The relationship of the devotee to the persona is, we suggest, experienced as of the same order’ as, and related to, the network of actual social relations.  This, we believe, is even more the case when the persona becomes a common object to the members of the primary groups in which the spectator carries on his everyday life.  As a matter of fact, it seems profitable to consider the interaction with the persona as a phase of the role-enactments of the spectator’s daily life.

Our observations, in this paper, however, are intended to be no more than suggestions for further work.  It seems to us that it would be a most rewarding approach to such phenomena if one could, from the viewpoint of an interactional social psychology, learn in detail how these para-social interactions are integrated into the matrix of usual social activity.

In this connection, it is relevant to remark that there is a tradition – now of relatively long standing – that spectators, whether at sports events or television programs, are relatively passive.  This assertion enjoys the status of an accredited hypothesis, but it is, after all, no more than a hypothesis.  If it is taken literally and uncritically, it may divert the student’s attention from what is actually transpiring in the audience.  We believe that some such mode of analysis as we suggest here attunes the student of the mass media to hints within the program itself of cues to, and demands being made on, the audience for particular responses.  Prom such an analytical vantage point the field of observation, so to speak, is widened and the observer is able to see more that is relevant to the exchange between performer and audience.

In essence, therefore, we would like to expand and capitalize on the truism that the persona and the “personality” programs are part of the lives of millions of people, by asking how both are assimilated, and by trying to discover what effects these responses have on the attitudes and actions of the audiences who are so devoted to and absorbed in this side of American culture.



[1]   They may move out into positions of leadership in the world at large as they become famous and influential.  Frank Sinatra, for example, has become known as a “youth leader.”  Conversely, figures from the political world, to choose another example, may become media “personalities” when they appear regularly.  Fiorello LaGuardia, the late Mayor of New York, is one such case.

[2]   Merton’s discussion of the attitude toward Kate Smith of her adherents exemplifies, with much circumstantial detail, what we have said above.  See Robert K.  Merton, Marjorie Fiske, and Alberta Curtis, Mass Persuasion; The Social Psychology of a War Bond Drive; New York, Harper, 1946; especially Chapter 6.

[3]   There does remain the possibility that over the course of his professional life the persona, responding to influences from his audience, may develop new conceptions of himself and his role.

[4]   Dave Garroway as told to Joe Alex Morris, “I Lead a Goofy Life,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1956; p. 62.

[5]   Reference footnote 4; p. 64.

[6]   See, for instance: George H.  Mead, Mind, Self and Society; Chicago, Univ.  of Chicago Press, 1934.  Walter Coutu, Emergent Human Nature; New York, Knopf, 1949.  Rosalind Dymond, “Personality and Empathy,” J.  Consulting Psychol.  (1950) 14:343-350.

[7]   Burke uses this expression to describe an attitude evoked by formal rhetorical devices, but it seems equally appropriate here.  See Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives; New York, Prentice-Hall, 1950; p. 58.

[8]   This is in contrast to the closed system of the drama, in which all the roles are predetermined In their mutual relations.

[9]   Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, Vol. 1; New York, New Republic Publishing Co., 1937; see, for instance, p. 104.

[10]   See Merton’s acute analysis of the audience’s demand for “sincerity” as a reassurance against manipulation.  Reference footnote 2; pp. 142-146. 

[11]   These attributes have been strikingly discussed by Mervyn LeRoy, a Hollywood director.  In a recent book.  Although he refers specifically to the motion-picture star, similar notions are common In other branches of show business.  “What draws you to certain people?” he asks.  “I have said before that you can’t be a really fine actress or actor without heart.  You also have to possess the ability to project that heart, that feeling and emotion.  The sympathy In your eyes will show.  The audience has to feel sorry for the person on the screen.  If there aren’t moments when, rightly or wrongly, he moves the audience to sympathy, there’s an actor who will never be big box-office.”  Mervyn LeRoy and Alyce Canfield, It Takes More Than Talent; New York, Knopf, 1953; p. 114.

[12]   Once an actor has succeeded hi establishing a good relationship with his audience in a particular kind of dramatic role, he may be “typed” In that role.  Stereotyping in the motion-picture Industry is often rooted in the belief that sustained rapport with the audience can be achieved by repeating past success.  (This principle is usually criticized as detrimental to the talent of the actor, but it is a sine qua non for the persona whose professional success depends upon creating and sustaining a plausible and unchanging Identity.) Sometimes, indeed, the Hollywood performer will actually take his name from a successful role; this Is one of the principles on which Warner Brothers Studios selects the names of some of Its actors.  For Instance, Donna Lee Hickey was renamed Mae Wynn after a character she portrayed, with great distinction, in The Caine Mutiny.  See “Names of Hollywood Actors,” Names (1955) 3:116.

[13]   The “loyalty” which Is demanded of the audience is not necessarily passive or confined only to patronizing the persona’s performance.  Its active demonstration is called for in charity appeals, “marathons,” and “telethons”; and, of course, it is expected to be freely transferable to the products advertised by the performer.  Its most active form is represented by the organization of fan clubs with programs of activities and membership obligations, which give a continuing testimony of loyalty.

[14]   Comedians on radio and television frequently chide their audience if they do not laugh at the appropriate places, or if their response is held to be Inadequate.  The comedian tells the audience that if they don’t respond promptly, he won’t wait, whereupon the audience usually provides the demanded laugh.  Sometimes the chiding is more oblique, as when the comedian interrupts his performance to announce that he will fire the writer of the unsuccessful Joke.  Again, the admonition to respond correctly is itself treated as a joke and is followed by a laugh.

[15]  Coutu, reference footnote 6; p. 294.

[16]   See, for example, W.  Lloyd Warner and William E.  Henry, “The Radio Day Time Serial: A Symbolic Analysis,” Genetic Psychol.  Monographs (1948) 37: 3-71, the study of a daytime radio serial program in which it is shown that upper-middle-class women tend to reject identification with lower-middle-class women represented in the drama.  Yet some people are willing to take unfamiliar roles.  This appears to be especially characteristic of the intellectual whose distinction is not so much that he has cosmopolitan tastes and knowledge, but that he has the capacity to transcend the limits of his own culture in his identifications.  Remarkably little is known about how this ability is developed.

[17]   Most students of the mass media occupy a cultural level somewhat above that of the most popular programs and personalities of the media, and necessarily look down upon them.  But it should not be forgotten that for many millions Indulgence In these media is a matter of looking up.  Is it not also possible that some of the media permit a welcome regression, for some, from the higher cultural standards of their present status? This may be one explanation of the vogue of detective stories and science fiction among intellectuals, and might also explain the escape downward from middle-class standards in the literature of “low life” generally.

[18]   It is frequently charged that the media’s description of this side of life is partial, shallow”, and often false.  It would be easier and more profitable to evaluate these criticisms if they were formulated in terms of role-theory.  From the viewpoint of any given role it would be interesting to know how well the media take account of the values and expectations of the role-reciprocators.  What range of legitimate variations in role performance is acknowledged?  How much attention is given to the problems arising from changing roles, and how creatively are these problems handled?  These are only a few of the many similar questions which at once come to mind.

[19]   There is a close analogy here with one type of newspaper human-interest story which records extreme instances of role-achievement and their rewards.  Such stories detail cases of extreme longevity, marriages of especially long duration, large numbers of children; deeds of heroism—role performance under “impossible” conditions; extraordinary luck, prizes, and so on.

[20]   Dave Garroway, after making the point that he has many “devout” admirers, goes on to say that “some of them ... were a bit too devout.”  He tells the story of one lady “from a Western state” who “arrived in Chicago [where he was then broadcasting], registered at a big hotel as Mrs.  Dave Garroway, opened several charge accounts in my name and established a joint bank account in which she deposited a large sum of money.  Some months later she took a taxi to my hotel and informed the desk clerk she was moving in.  He called a detective agency that we had engaged to check up on her, and they persuaded her to return home.  Since then there have been others, but none so persistent.”  Reference footnote 4; p. 62.

[21]   This group presumably includes those for whom “Lonely Hearts” and “Pen Pal” clubs operate.

[22]   While the examples which follow are of female personae addressing themselves to male audiences, it should be noted that for a time there was also a program on television featuring The Continental, who acted the part of a debonair foreigner and whose performance consisted of murmuring endearing remarks to an invisible female audience.  He wore evening clothes and cut a figure in full conformity with the American stereotype of a suave European lover.

[23]   This program apparently evoked no very great amount of comment or criticism in the American press, and we are indebted to an article in a German illustrated weekly for details about the show, and for the verbatim quotations from the Lonesome Gal’s monologue which we have retranslated into English.  See “Ich bin bel dir, Liebling ...  ,” Weltbild (Munich), March 1, 1952; p.12.

[24]   This is in piquant contrast to the popular singers, the modesty of whose voice and mien is often belied by the sexiness of the words in the songs they sing.

[25]   The details relating to this show are based on Gilbert Millstein, “Tired of It All?” The New York Times Magazine, September 18, 1955; p. 44.  See also “Beddy-Bye,” Time, August 15, 1955, p. 45.

[26]   The New York Times Magazine, reference footnote 25.

[27]   The New York Times Magazine, reference footnote 25.

[28]   Such magazines as Uncensored and Confidential (which bears the subtitle, “Tells the Facts and Names the Names”) enjoy enormous circulations, and may be thought of as the very opposite of the fan magazine.  They claim to “expose” the person behind the persona.

[29]   M. F. Thorp, America at the Movies; New Haven, Yale Univ.  Press, 1939.  S. Stansfeld Sargent, Social Psychology; New York, Ronald Press, 1950.  K. P. Berliant, “The Nature and Emergence of Fan Behavior” (unpublished M.A.  Thesis, Univ. of Chicago).

[30]   Ann Landers, “Your Problems,” Chicago Sun-Times, October 25, 1955; p.  36.



Department of Sociology, University of Chicago

Committee of Human Development, University of Chicago



The essay originally appeared as follows:

Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, 'Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance', Psychiatry 19: 215-29, 1956

It is here reproduced by kind permission of the editors and publishers of Psychiatry.  The Journal Psychiatry may be accessed via the website of its publishers, Guilford Press