When the globalization phenomenon burst into our lives a few years ago, numerous academic debates on the matter arose.
The most pertinent writings I read contained the following ideas: it was necessary to begin from the fact that globalization was already a reality whether we like it or not, and therefore the intelligent approach sought to know how to make the most of it.
I want to apply the same reasoning to the “series addiction” phenomenon: the massive and constant consumption of television series. The number of television series and viewers who prefer them over other formats has been increasing over the last decade.
In my opinion, it is possible to take advantage of this new addition, but to do so it is important to know why the series hooks us and the emotional consequences that come from its consumption.
My focus is positive; I define myself as a viewer of TV series out of obligation- as I research the values of the characters- as well as for enjoyment.
I believe there are five key points behind the success of television series: production quality, thematic diversity, the type of study, distribution, and the characters. First of all, series have copied the masters of film production, which means a greater quality and attention given to the construction and realization of the history (for example, building up the characters, the setting, music, etc.). In the second place, series offer a broad range of issues. In fact, the variety of television channels allows for the production of series for specific niche markets. Regarding the story, television series have a similar format to “serial literature”, which keeps the viewer in suspense and forces him to see the next chapter. In the fourth place, technological development today allows us to enjoy our favorite series through any channel- broadcast television, pay TV, Internet TV, renting and buying episodes- and at any moment.
The ultimate success factor deserves special attention: the characters. Series tell the story of a group of characters- main and secondary- over an extended period of time. This long narrative arch offers the possibility to create complex characters that are well constructed and presented in detail over the course of the various seasons. This depth to the characters lets us “get into” the characters, to know them, and due to our very nature, to establish empathetic relationships with them.
I think that this empathy with characters is a process that can have different stages, which can increase or not. The first level is the cognitive empathy that consists in understanding the main characters and their circumstances, which in colloquial speech translates to “putting yourself in their shoes”. The second level is emotional empathy, which refers to the affective involvement, in other words, to worry about their problems, to experience joy with the character’s stroke of good luck, or to feel anguish upon seeing a danger that awaits the series’ heroine. It is important to specify that this emotional empathy goes beyond whether the character has an entirely good or entirely bad moral code.
A higher level is what I call evaluation empathy: a basic evaluation and approval of the characters. This can translate to “I like this character and therefore he is good”, not insofar as a moral judgment, rather insofar as the character provokes positive feelings. (Let us not forget, however, that we are still at an emotional level). The highest level is a projective empathy: the capacity to fantasize, to “become the character”, “as if” you were one of the stars while you are watching the series. This fantasy makes the viewer capable of anticipating situations that the characters will face or inferring what will be the consequences of their actions.
Progression through these levels of empathy makes it possible to reach an identification with the characters. This identification can be had in two distinct modes. The first is as perception of similarity, which consists in evaluating to what extent the viewer resembles the characters. This similarity will be facilitated if the character and the audience share characteristics such as sex, age, social class or cultural proximity. The second identification is aspirational. In this case, attraction for the characters wouldn’t be explained by the perception of similarity, rather by a general admiration or attraction, and are chosen as models that reflect that which one desires to be or achieve.
Because of all that has been explained above, it is very important to choose well the series that one will watch, since a great number of hours will be dedicated to watching and “accompanying” these characters. To share time with them leads to establishing empathetic relationships, which may result in the identification process. We could paraphrase by adapting the old adage as “tell me what series you follow and I’ll tell you who you are”…
* María Teresa Nicolás Gavilán is Head of the master program of the Communication Department at the Panamericana University (Mexico D.F.)