CBS 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 GL 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. Everyone reading this column has a relative, living or deceased, who either listened to GL during its run on radio beginning in 1937 or watched it since it transitioned to television in 1952. Some of our parents can actually say that they first enjoyed this show on radio with their parents and still follow it on TV.
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 GL 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.
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 bullshit. 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. 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 GL 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 GL 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. 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!
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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