April 6th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

As promised last week, here are my thoughts about the potential end of daytime TV mainstay Guiding Light.

When I’ve told people I’d become a GL viewer, they’ve scoffed. Some of them could imagine me watching Days, One Life, GH sure enough, but Guiding Light? Really?

Yes, really.

I’ve known about the show all my life, but only tuned in to it sporadically until last February. That’s when GL abruptly switched to what its PR called a “new production model.” It was an effort to cut costs and gain youth appeal in one fell swoop. Hand-held minicams replaced the big studio cameras. Twangy alt-country guitars replaced the syrupy synth-string background music. Four-walled studio rooms and real outdoor locations replaced the flimsy old sets. The show’s characters were the same, but its whole audio-visual vocabulary completely changed.

Daytime’s oldest, squarest show became an immediate mess.

Which made it a lot more fun.

At first, the crew’s unfamiliarity with the new format made for some of the clumsiest scripted drama this side of the Canadian network CTV (or the dialogue scenes on “Skinemax” late-night cable shows). Because they were making five one-hour episodes a week, they had to leave in a lot of imperfect takes.

It didn’t help that the new GL’s launch coincided with the first “scab scripts,” written anonymously during the 14-week writers’ strike.

After the strike, the show’s writing staff was reshuffled. The “handheld” cameras got attached to mini-tripods and Steadicam-type devices. The lighting and the sound gradually improved. GL again became a competently made show.

None of this affected the ratings, which continued to drift downward along with the rest of the oldline networks’ fare.

The new format had made the show profitable again, chiefly because it needed far fewer crew people. But if the ratings wouldn’t turn around, that profitability wouldn’t last.

At the end of last year, the producers speeded up the show’s plot pace and brought back several fan-favorite actors. The ratings stabilized. The gossip on GL message boards implied the show might make it to another year’s renewal by the network.

It didn’t.

Procter & Gamble, which has owned and sponsored the show all this time, says it’s shopping GL around to any other broadcast/cable channel that might be persuaded take it. P&G is U.S. television’s biggest single adversiser, so it’s got more than a little clout in that department.

At TV Guide (the magazine, not the online listings service no longer affiliated with the magazine), an exec with Telenext (the ad-agency-owned production company that produces GL and As the World Turns under contract to P&G) says they really are working to find GL a new broadcast or cable home. Fans on online message boards are trying to make their own voices heard in this regard.

The thing is, daytime soaps have a business model that’s just as last-century as that of daily newspapers. Talk shows, judge shows, game shows, and “reality” shows can be made for as much or as little money as a channel’s got. Daily soaps are different.

GL’s on-screen credits list 127 names, including those of several veteran (and presumably well-paid) actors. Anything resembling “fat” in its budget was excised with the new format. GL can’t be made much cheaper and still maintain both its stars and its staggering productivity.

GL produced 253 episodes last year, with only one rerun episode (at Christmas). Until the Internet, there was no domestic aftermarket for these episodes. New episodes now stream on CBS’s site. Past installments from before the full switch to the new production model are on Hulu.

If you look at these older GL episodes (and the many more posted by fans on YouTube), you can see how much slower and duller they were before the new format.

The new GL looks and moves a lot more like my all-time favorite soap, the British workhorse Coronation Street. The look is more naturalistic (when characters are outside in the snow, it’s the real outsides and real snow!). The dialogue is more intimate, less histrionic.

It’s still an American soap with your basic American soap plot themes–treachery, betrayal, crime, adultery, emotional turmoil, and the lot. But it’s been evolving a new approach to these formulae, an approach more suited to modern TV/film tropes.

That’s a feat for the world’s longest continuously running dramatic production. Then again, it’s continually reinvented itself since it began on radio 72 years ago. There were several total cast turnovers even before the switch to TV in 1952. (GL was on KIRO-TV’s first-day schedule in 1958.)

With a new home, and perhaps a more rerun-friendly production schedule, GL could shine the way toward a new future for drama on TV.

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