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An era ends when ‘Guiding Light’ turns off

“It’s been reflecting American life back at America since before World War II,” said “Guiding Light” executive producer Ellen Wheeler.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Until not so long ago, Stage 42 at CBS’ Broadcast Center held a honeycomb of chambers where “Guiding Light” was shot.

Here stood a life-size dollhouse whose rooms (the Spaulding study; the Company restaurant; the Beacon hotel) fit together, snug as a Rubik’s Cube, providing multiple locations and ease of production.

Except that, by a Friday in early August, half of Stage 42 was a void. Roughly half of the set had already been dismantled. This was the last day shooting here at West 57th Street. Then two final days on location in New Jersey. Then lights out for “Guiding Light.”

You don’t have to be a fan of the show, or of the soap opera genre it pioneered, to feel a sense of gravity at the demise of “Guiding Light.”

“It’s been reflecting American life back at America since before World War II,” said “Guiding Light” executive producer Ellen Wheeler.

“We are the history of so many people,” added veteran leading lady Tina Sloan. “They watched it for so long.”

But Friday, Sept. 18 (check local listings for time), they will watch its final hour, after 72 years and more than 15,700 weekdays on television and radio. It’s a run, an institution, that has never been matched and never will.

“I was just packing up my dressing room,” said a wistful Robert Newman, who began on the show 28 years ago, and, with only a couple of sabbaticals, has played colorful, oft-wed Josh Lewis ever since.

“I’ve got a lot of junk in there,” he mused.

As he spoke, a corridor outside the dressing rooms was jammed with racks of clothes and other costumes being put up for sale to the “Guiding Light” troupe.

“I took my nurse’s uniform,” said Tina Sloan, who began her run as nurturing Lillian Raines in 1983.

She made a joke about wearing the uniform at home and waiting for emergencies to handle, like she did at Cedars Hospital as Lillian.

“I’m mourning her,” Sloan said, turning serious. “They’re putting ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ in our place. All I can say is: BIG deal!”

Yes, a revival of the what’s-behind-the-curtain game show, this time hosted by Wayne Brady, will inherit the slot left by “Guiding Light” beginning Oct. 5. (Repeats of “The Price Is Right” will air in the interim.)

Glory days are over for soaps
It’s the latest chapter in the doomsday scenario that has plagued soaps for decades and has now claimed “Guiding Light.”

Used to be, at any given time there were a dozen-odd daytime dramas on the schedule. Soon there will be only seven. The oldest now becomes CBS’ “As the World Turns,” which began in 1956 (and, like “Light,” is owned by Procter & Gamble, whose line of household cleaning products inspired the “soap opera” term).

“Light” was created by soap matriarch Irna Phillips (who also masterminded “As the World Turns” and “Days of Our Lives,” now NBC’s lone daytime drama). It debuted on NBC radio in 1937 as a 15-minute serial, then came to CBS television on June 30, 1952. (Yet another Phillips creation, “The Brighter Day,” began on radio in 1948, then began its eight-year TV run in 1954.)

In 1968, “Guiding Light” expanded to 30 minutes and, in 1977, it became a full hour.

Those were the glory days of “Light” and daytime drama overall. Huge, faithful audiences flocked to their TVs at the appointed time each day, knowing each installment of their chosen soaps was a now-or-never proposition — thus not to be missed.

The genre was a cash cow. Time magazine in a 1976 cover story noted that the networks relied on profits from daytime to bail out their costly, deficit-financed prime-time shows.

Then, within a few years, soaps had peaked.

If the power of the soap has been its knack for reflecting changes in the culture, it painfully exhibited a range of cultural changes with its own steady loss of viewer support.

More women had jobs out of the home, away from TV sets, during daytime hours. Meanwhile, other TV genres were stealing soaps’ thunder as rival showcases for racy behavior and emerging social issues. How was even the scrappiest soap supposed to outpace the anything-goes world of daytime talk, reality shows or premium-cable dramas?

In the 1991-92 season, top-ranked soap “The Young and the Restless” was drawing 10.3 million viewers, with “Guiding Light” seen by 6.5 million.

By the 2006-2007 season, “Y&R” was still No. 1 — but with roughly half as many viewers. “GL,” in the cellar, had 2.75 million viewers.

Do-or-die timeBut “Light” wasn’t going down without a fight, and a couple of years ago, it launched a do-or-die effort to save itself.

“We were given the directive to save money and be innovative,” Wheeler said. “We held onto the characters and the story and the history and the relationships. But we tried to change the style. It was time to deliver the stories in a more intimate way.”

By then, the narrative had gone through decades of evolution, leaving far behind the Chicago suburb of Five Points (where “Light” was first set) and its protagonist, the Rev. John Ruthledge, who placed a lamp in his window to welcome parishioners.

Now it takes place in the bucolic midwestern town of Springfield, and revolves around the sprawling, commingling Spaulding, Lewis and Cooper clans.

Their world was abruptly transformed in February 2008. Production changes for the show included ditching pedestal studio cameras and three-walled interior sets.

Hand-held video and realistic four-walled, ceilinged sets were suddenly the rule. And the whole production company began spending part of every week — a two-hour bus ride from West 57th Street — in leafy Peapack, New Jersey, which was cast in the role of the program’s Springfield hometown.

The show looked better than ever — more cinematic and contemporary. Still, its ratings continued to slide (this season, “Guiding Light” has logged an average viewership of less than 2.1 million).

Last April, the word was handed down: “Guiding Light” was axed.

Lights out for ‘Light’“It’s sad,” Newman said, “but not entirely unexpected. I’m worried about the other shows right now. The economics of trying to produce 250 episodes a year, with 25 contract players full-time — it’s a difficult thing.”

But Newman’s cast mate Frank Dicopolous said he was caught off-guard by the bad news.

“I think the show had reinvented itself and we were on fire,” he said. “I think it was working again.”

Dicopolous, a regular on the show continuously since 1987, plays family man and law-enforcement officer Frank Cooper.

He started with a three-year contract, but said he loved the work and the stability, even as he reeled off a few “Light” departees: Kevin Bacon, JoBeth Williams, James Earl Jones, Allison Janney, Brittany Snow, Hayden Panettiere and Melina Kanakaredes (whose character, he noted, had been married to Frank Cooper).

Dicopolous acknowledged twinges of sadness in recent weeks.

“When will I have a full blown-out reaction? I can’t answer that.” But as he spoke of the “Guiding Light” company, he said, “It’s such a cohesive group, and we’re all realizing that we pretty much will never have this again.” His eyes moistened.

So what would he like to do next?

“Host a game show,” he said, and burst out laughing.

A few days after that, production wrapped forever. Speaking by phone from her receptionist’s desk (her own office already vacated) executive producer Wheeler described the challenge of bringing in this saga for a landing.

“We wanted to be sure we tied up both the characters’ current stories and their history,” she said. “And yet we wanted to leave them in a place where they weren’t finished. We want to let the fans know that, while they may not be able to tune in, the lives of these people in Springfield will continue.”

But how much longer can the soap opera genre that “Light” championed evade extinction?

“What we call soap operas is actually serial storytelling,” Wheeler said, “and it existed way before the term ‘soap opera.’ Serial storytelling will go on. And since I consider that to be what soap operas are, I don’t think they’ll ever die