First things first: what is comfort TV?
Well, the etymology of comfort presents a useful starting point. Comfort is about consolation, support and giving strength. Applied to television, comfort refers to those programmes or viewing routines that help to strengthen the position and resilience of the viewer in daily life. This might be because they allow the viewer time in which to recover, reflect, or share the event with others. Equally, the comfort text (or situation it provides) might stir more appealing emotions; feelings of joy, recognition, togetherness, reassurance, to name a few.
Viewers constantly use TV to regulate emotion, whether consciously or not. It enables them to (albeit temporarily) ‘step aside’ from their daily lives and concerns to experience something other. In my research, I’ve been looking at those moments when television is turned to specifically for comfort, considering different experiences of comfort from TV and the effectiveness of this mode of self-care.
With the approval of the NHS, I carried out an original audience study called the Comfort TV Research Project (the Ronseal of research titles!). The study involved three groups, including 5x family units (comprised of 6x adults and 8x children), 10x first-year undergraduate students and 10x hospital patients from Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. I selected these groups as each faced quite different situations and pressures: everyday life in the domestic, life away from home for the first time, and life in a medical institution, entirely removed from one’s day-to-day world.
Throughout the project, I asked participants to reflect on their use of, and in several cases their reliance on, particular television texts and viewing routines for comfort. While I collected various forms of data (surveys, journals, interview audio), in this blog I focus exclusively on the initial viewing survey completed by all participants and what it suggests about the comfort TV text.
Next question: what constitutes a comfort TV text?
There are various factors beyond a text which can contribute to its comforting appeal or lack thereof; most notably, the situation of the viewer that instant (their physical location and sense of place, their emotional and psychological wellbeing, etc.). The circumstances of the viewer’s arrival at the screen can amplify their need for comfort and influence their programme choice. This being said, when participants were asked to identify their ‘go-to comfort TV show’ in the survey, a number of trends, some formal (i.e. a part of the text) and some experiential, started to emerge.
First, when it comes to comfort, comedy is king. Over half the 34x programmes listed by participants were comedy genres, with the US sitcom accounting for almost 40% of all shows identified. Asked to account for their selection of comfort TV text, participants highlighted the significance of humour and comedy value to them, as well as light subject matter and notions of ease.
Comedy, especially the sitcom, presents as ‘straightforward’, reliable and repeatable. Viewers will often share long histories with these shows, accumulating meanings and circulating memories over time. As such, the predictability of the sitcom negates any sense of risk, of potential for disappointment or discomfort. If anything, predictability can enrich a text’s comfort value and make particular moments all the more rewarding. In addition, comedy texts tend to be comparatively short and self-contained, resolving stories by the end of each episode, which puts minimal obligation on the viewer and guarantees closure.
Second, comfort TV is social. All of the comfort TV texts identified by study participants either feature depictions of familial interaction and social dynamics, stir some sense of involvement or feelings of community, or are shows viewers share with others and have developed routines around. For instance, a 54-year-old husband and father of two from one family identified The Graham Norton Show (BBC, 2007-) as his comfort text simply because he enjoys watching it with his wife. He explained: “[It’s] because we share it; I wouldn’t watch it on my own. We talk about it. It brings us together at the end of the week, tells us it’s the weekend and we’ll be together till Monday morning.” The comfort television text often has some wider significance or personal meaning attached to it.
Comfort TV is also social in that it tends to feature quite everyday, normal concerns that centre around discussion, like dating, socialising, even watching TV. In the case of sitcoms like Friends (NBC, 1994-2004) and Frasier (NBC, 1993-2004), the viewer is presented with fictitious family and friend dynamics which they can observe, laugh at, relate to and gossip over. Marked by ‘excess’, however, there is at once this relatability and disconnect from reality; characters are easy to engage with, but viewers can also laugh at their behaviour or misfortune as there is no sense of lasting consequence to their actions.
Third, comfort TV is not the same as favourite television. When participants were asked to identify their favourite shows, only 21% of the 34x programmes listed were comedies, while 59% were drama-based (teen drama, medical drama, soap opera, horror, crime, etc.). Favourite television is marked by ‘concern’ (see Scannell, 1996), which is to say TV favourites often excite a more explicit feeling of enthusiasm and anticipation as viewers become caught up in them. Favourite television usually demands close attention and incites specific behaviours (e.g. no discussion while watching, no snacks or drinks, etc.).
However, the comfort text is safe, dependable and controllable – a familiar resource as opposed to a viewing event. Comfort TV is in a sense more malleable; it can be on in the background, changing the atmosphere of a room, or it can be something more involving and responsive, addressing a need to feel connected to others or to remember (or to forget).
Finally, the comfort TV text is usually marked by intimacy. This might be an intimate knowledge of a programme and its characters, inspiring feelings of recognition, attachment and closeness – one female student, aged 19, chose supernatural drama In The Flesh (BBC, 2013-14) as her go-to comfort show because “[it] feels like it’s mine”. Alternatively, the comfort text might recall certain experiences or relationships. Shows like Friends and The Simpsons (Fox, 1989-) were often highlighted because they inspire memories of home and family. For one participant, a 50-year-old widower and father of two, particular texts enable him to “recover” some sense of his wife in the present, to feel connected to her/them as they used to be once again. Comfort TV allows for such moments of vulnerability and reflection, a means of working through emotion.
I hope to have illustrated just some of the ways in which different TV texts provide comfort to different audiences. What becomes more apparent in my research is the importance of television in day-to-day routines of self-care, as this reliable remedy to external threats and a form of mood repair. While it is important to distinguish there are different kinds and experiences of comfort from TV – it is not a case of one size fits all – the trends presented here suggest that narrative simplicity and familiarity, (the illusion of) sociability and feelings of intimacy most often make for comforting television.
Kerr Castle is a Television Studies PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. His research with the NHS analyses uses of television for comfort by different audience groups. He is set to complete his doctoral thesis at the beginning of 2019 and is pursuing publication opportunities.