It happened 10 years ago this week. This week in 2009 the longest-running program in broadcasting history, “Guiding Light,” ended its 72-year run.
“Guiding Light” started out in 1937 on the NBC Red Radio Network. (Radio aficionados will know NBC “Red” lives on as the television network, while NBC “Blue” is known today as ABC.)
The original stories were about a minister named Rev. Ruthledge, which gave the show its title. The sponsor was Oxydol, a Procter & Gamble product, which led to the coining of the phrase “soap opera” to describe the type of programming.
In 1952, the series moved over to CBS television and focused on the Bauer family, still part of the fabric of the show at the end. “Guiding Light” became a top-rated soap in the 1970s and 1980s and featured some of the greatest writing and performances in daytime history, particularly with characters such as the nefarious Roger Thorpe. Look up Roger and Holly on YouTube and be amazed at the dynamite quality of their scenes.
The end game for “GL”began in the winter of 2008 when Procter & Gamble cut the budget of the show so deeply longtime actors were placed on recurring status and the show’s New York City studios were sacrificed in favor of outdoor location shoots in Peapack, New Jersey.
The show began to take on a reality-type appearance with claustrophobic close-up shots, profanity-laden dialogue and a soundtrack that The Hollywood Reporter called “MySpace reject music.”
Forever came to soon for “Guiding Light” but I thought “my show” would survive. Within weeks, Procter & Gamble brought the hammer down on “As the World Turns,” which was the last remaining P&G soap opera as well as the last soap to carry on the tradition of having its own announcer.
The last episode of “As the World Turns”aired this week in 2010, and because that show had more time to wrap up its final storylines it mostly did a good job of featuring conclusions to stories that had taken years to develop. It was a far classier end than what “GL”had endured. It also showcased the talents of its veteran cast members.
Don Hastings had played Bob Hughes since 1960; similarly, Eileen Fulton had been on the show as Lisa for that period too. John Dixon was played by the legendary Larry Bryggman from 1969 onward while Kathryn Hays had played Kim since 1972. Those actors, as well as several others who had been featured in storylines for four decades or more, all had their final weeks in the spotlight as “ATWT”concluded.
Since then the American soap opera has gone from life support to a death rattle with two more serials canceled since then: “All My Children” which ended in September 2011and “One Life to Live” which ended its run in January 2012. So from the period between 2009 to 2012, half of the networks’ daytime soap operas were canceled.
The networks built their schedules around the soaps for years and rode these profitable cash cows to the bitter end. Some would say the networks’ interference in the management, direction and storylines of the shows over these past few years was the leading cause of death — a point with which I wholeheartedly agree.
The honest truth is reality television killed the soap opera. Why pay an out-of-work Broadway actor enough money to buy soda crackers and pork and beans when you can have the “real” housewives of wherever for free?
I protested cancelation of “ATWT” by not purchasing Procter & Gamble products. Petty, perhaps, but I found P&G’s heartless destruction of the building block that launched its vast empire to be classless.
To wit: In “ATWT’s” last year, it was nominated for several Emmys. P&G declined to pay the travel costs of the actors and writers to attend the awards ceremony. Cheap! It also kicked the program out of its Brooklyn studios forcing it to speed up production by taping a week’s worth of shows in one day. No wonder people complained about the quality of these programs.
Today four soap operas remain. A dear friend of mine is a composer of the background music for “The Young and the Restless.” He is sworn to secrecy on storyline security but it’s still a cool job. And for those who work behind the scenes and in front of the camera on that show, as well as on “Days of our Lives,” “General Hospital” and “The Bold and the Beautiful,”I think what happened 10 years ago has made them all appreciate their jobs a little more than they used to.