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GUEST BLOG #5: Ed Martin on CBS Dimming Its "Guiding Light"
April 2, 2009  | By Ed Martin
 

Tonight NBC devotes three hours to a farewell to ER, the drama series it has presented in prime time for 15 years. Yesterday, CBS announced its intention to say goodbye to a daytime institution it has broadcast for nearly five times as long: Guiding Light, a soap opera that predates TV. Its potential imminent demise has prompted a passionate response from our new contributor Ed Martin...

CBS Plans to Extinguish Its "Guiding Light"

By Ed Martin

guidinglight_cast630.jpgCBS made history today in a bad way. It cancelled Procter & Gamble Productions' classic soap opera Guiding Light, the longest running scripted franchise in the history of modern media!

I have during the last ten years written many times about Guiding Light for Jack Myers Reports and other publications, and whenever possible I used those platforms to remind executives at CBS and P&G that it isn't simply another soap opera -- it's an American institution, and a national treasure at that.

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Everyone reading this column has a relative, living or deceased, who either listened to Guiding Light during its run on radio beginning in 1937, or watched it since it transitioned to television in 1952. Its former cast members include James Earl Jones and Calista Flockhart, Kevin Bacon and James Lipton. Some of our parents can actually say that they first enjoyed this show on radio with their parents and still follow it on TV.

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It isn't sufficient to refer to this achievement as rare. This is a success story unparalleled in the history of modern media. Think about this: With few exceptions (most notoriously the marathon daily news coverage of the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial), Guiding Light has been in continuous daily production through eight decades! The durability of this franchise makes it way too significant to fall victim to the current recession, when desperate short-term thinking and a sudden scarcity of valuable thought-leadership are making everything worse for all of us.

I understand that these are tough times for soap operas, which are threatening to drop like ducks from the sky during hunting season. Critics blame the storylines, networks cite the numbers, and everybody loses. With a uniquely American success story as noteworthy as Guiding Light the latest to be shot down, it's time for everyone to halt their respective declarations of self-fulfilling damnation and acknowledge what is really going on, and what should happen next.

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First, the numbers: With all due respect to the fine folks at Nielsen, daytime audience measurement is, at its very best, irrefutably flawed. We're told that ratings for every soap have been in precipitous decline since the mid-Nineties, but you cannot go anywhere in this country (or dozens of others) and not find people who watch at least one soap opera with some degree of regularity.

The very idea that viewership for soap operas would decline in direct proportion to the ever-expanding increase in viewing options is utter bull****. If there had been mobile viewing devices in the Sixties, millions of people would have watched Dark Shadows on the go, and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of breathless tweens and teens would not have had to run home from school every day to see the latest installment in the supernatural saga of the Collins family.

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And just imagine how much larger the record-holding audience for General Hospital would have been during the fabled Luke and Laura years if young people from grade school to grad school could have watched it on their own terms! We didn't even have VCRs back then!

Second, the storytelling: Yes, there is room for improvement on every soap opera, though I would argue that CBS' Young and the Restless and As the World Turns and ABC's One Life to Live are currently more exciting than they have been in years. As for Guiding Light, its production model was completely redesigned early last year, to mixed results. (P&G saved a lot of money, but the end product looked cheap, at least at the start. There have been improvements since that time.)

Sadly, the show's storytelling hasn't really improved. I'm not going to go into specifics about what should or should not have been done with every character and storyline, but I think it is fair to say that Guiding Light hasn't been as sexy or youthful or suspenseful as it was in the early years of this decade, and that it has lost some of its edge.

Recently, neither veteran Guiding Light viewers nor those all-important young newcomers have been particularly well served. But it is possible to have it both ways. Just check out As the World Turns, which is also produced by P&G and happens to be the second-longest running scripted series in television history.

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Rare is the episode of ATWT that does not include dynamic appearances by long-time veteran cast members in their beloved roles, and yet the stories it tells about its younger characters are almost as forward thinking and contemporary as those on MTV's The Real World: Brooklyn, currently the best drama about young people on TV. This is especially true of the tumultuous romance of teens Noah Mayer and Luke Snyder, daytime’s first male super-couple and one of the most popular soap couples in every industry survey, especially among young women.

Many fans are following the story of Luke and Noah on YouTube and elsewhere online, where their scenes are lifted from the rest of the show and repackaged as sequential video clips. (There are almost 300 at present.) Might the networks consider separating out specific stories from all the soaps in this manner on their own Web sites? Would advertisers respond accordingly? This is one small out-of-the-box possibility for the future of soap viewing and packaging, but there must be soaps with which to do so!

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Which brings me back to Guiding Light: Are there out-of-the-box opportunities for this venerable property that might rescue it from CBS' death grip? If not, there ought to be. Here's one: How about turning it into a primetime series that runs once a week, 52 weeks a year? I like to think CBS of all networks could pull this off: This mighty broadcaster was once home to Dallas, the most successful primetime serial in television history.

If a pumped up version of the current GL couldn't cut it, how about one in which the detectives and police officers on its canvas are moved to the forefront, thereby turning it into an ongoing serial filled with elements of CBS' successful procedural crime dramas? If that isn't an option, a customized primetime version of GL could be produced for a basic cable network.

I realize we will all survive without Guiding Light. But does it have to die? I can't help wondering: Has the franchise truly run its course, or did it simply fall victim to the mindsets of current executives at CBS and P&G? They're holding history in their hands. Can they handle it?


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Ed Martin is the television critic and programming analyst for the media industry Web site JackMyers.com. The former senior editor of the award-winning, much-missed television and advertising trade magazine Inside Media, Ed has also written for USA Today, Advertising Age, Television Week, Broadcasting & Cable and TV Guide.
Earlier in his career, Ed was publicity director for the independent feature film production and distribution company Vestron Pictures, where he orchestrated publicity campaigns and produced electronic press kits for dozens of movies including the one and only Dirty Dancing. The fact that it is now referred to as a "classic" makes Ed feel old.

 

10 Comments

 

A Shiraz said:

I am very dismayed at CBS's lack of foresight. Not only is this show an American tradition, but the current writing and performance is the best it has been in its 72 year history. I have watched for roughly 25 of those years, and my family has watched and listened from the beginning.

Like many other GL fans, I am passing the tradition on to my children. There are no other shows with this sort of a history or endurance.

I really hope that CBS reconsiders. If not, then I hope another network picks up the show. I will continue to watch, as will the next generation.

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 4:39 PM


collins said:

the cancellation of Guiding Light should put the fear of God in soap fans everywhere. this is yet another indication of the demise of daytime programming. until a new media model is developed for these shows, hardly any show is safe. As The World Turns, All My Children and One Life to Live should be looking over their shoulders. and if general hospital's writing doesn't get better even the most ardent "liason" fans are gonna jump ship.

we fans of GL and the show's Otalia storyline are making a concerted effort to have this matriarch of daytime serials find a permanent home on another network or in another medium. we have hope that the light has not gone out, it has just simply been blown briefly by the winds of change. it will come back.

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 4:46 PM


Brenda said:

It would be a shame to lose Guiding Light which has been on such an upswing. I am a 41 year old college educated woman with extra spending cash to buy any sponsor's product if they want to pick up GL!! TV finally has a beautifully written, intelligent, thoughtful, heart wrenching love story (Go Otalia!!!), and I don't want to see it ended and replaced with mindless fluff. Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia are brilliant actresses and have been putting their all into this storyline!

70+ years of TV history cannot end like this! Save Guiding Light and its brilliant cast! Soapnet are you listening??? Because there are a lot of rabid demographically worthwhile fans out here looking for hope of a new outlet for the show!

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 4:50 PM


skyz said:

I enjoyed this article. I thought that you had some really good ideas to keep Guiding Light going. Since P&G seems intent on shopping the show to a new network, though I'm loath to say it, SoapNet might be the best option. The fans are out here ready and willing to help anyway they can, be it calling, writing, and spreading the word that GL alrleady has a built in audience that has a very youthful audience ready and willing to spend money. Thanks for writing this insightful article.

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 5:05 PM


Nicole said:

I am completely sick over the fact that this happened. Sure the storytelling hasn't always been great in the past, but they are slowly, but surely improving especially regarding the exceptionally written and acted Otalia storyline. E-mail P&G, showrunners, anybody you can to keep the Light shining!

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 5:19 PM


Laurel said:

While I agree wholeheartedly that the cancellation of Guiding Light is one of largest programming mistakes in the history of television programming, I have to disagree about your point that the storytelling hasn't improved (and given GL's repeated budget cuts over the last few years, a miracle). I didn't consider myself a soap watcher until about a month ago, and now I'm completely and utterly hooked on the show. In particular I was drawn in by the story of Otalia, which (similar to Nuke, but with a shorter timespan in which to build a fanbase) has a wildly growing fanbase of its own that's doubling in number every few weeks or so. The care by which this story is being told, crafted and performed is one of the most stunning depictions of two people falling in love that I've ever seen. And I love the outdoor scenes, I love that there's this immediacy to GL that you don't get with other shows, and on top of that, you have this deep, deep history upon which to build all these stories. Much of the GL's new fanbase is younger, certainly not the traditional stay at home moms, but they are also not very well tracked by traditional means- most internet phenomenons rarely are. GL's loss is not just a loss to television history, but its a loss to the medium, a loss for soap fans, and especially for this particular storyline that so many are incredibly captivated by. I sincerely hope, someone at CBS figures out they've just made a decision that will one day be referred to as the New Coke, if they don't reconsider. But if they don't, then hopefully another venue will because this show is too good to die at 72 years young.
Thank you for your story, we need more people to call attention to this show's premature demise before its too late.

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 5:20 PM


Diane said:

Good for you Ed, for seeing the value in Guiding Light and it's historical significance.

I'm a fan of As The World Turns (one soap is enough for me) and have watched it since it's inception in 1956. I've even interviewed Helen Wagner - television history's longest playing actress in the same role.

But I did listen to Guiding Light on the radio in the 50's.

I hope it will be able to return, be revived, in some form. Keep up the good work.

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 6:02 PM


Mitzi said:

What a shame that this wonderful and history making show has been canceled by CBS. What were they thinking,or were they? I am a college educated professional and have enjoyed GL for years. I have no interest in watching a mindless game show or some boring talk show.If the Light goes out so will the light of CBS in this household.

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 10:27 PM


Kelly said:

Thanks for the article, Ed. I must take issue with your assertion that Guiding Light's writing hasn't improved. I recently was drawn back to watching because of the Otalia story line and I can tell you that the writing as well as the performances of Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia are fantastic. I say this as someone who stopped watching Guiding Light a few years ago after over 20 years as a fan. I know that the writing is better.

CBS's loss can be someone else's gain. There is a loyal, fired-up fanbase just waiting to give allegiance to a new outlet and money to new advertisers.

Comment posted on April 2, 2009 11:25 PM


EricW said:

I'm not a soap person by any means, but American television without Guiding Light just feels wrong. Any show can have a history, but I really like the idea of a show that actually has a multigenerational legacy. Guiding Light is the fixed point in a changing, rootless media age, and it makes me sad, if not a little angry, that American television isn't allowed to have at least one. After all, the Grand Old Opry can't be allowed to grab all the glory.

I hope to God that after the storm passes, there's not a judge show standing in GL's place. That'd be the cruelest cut.

Comment posted on April 8, 2009 2:06 AM
 
 
 
 
 
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