This past week, the American daytime drama Guiding Light celebrated its 70th anniversary with an episode that provides a fascinating historical perspective on another era of media in transition in American history, the cultural move from radio to television.
In the 1930s, the soap opera became a vibrant part of American culture, as radio serials sponsored by soap companies developed the name, and many of the aspects of soaps that remain a characteristic of the drama to this day. Thursday's Guiding Light featured the cast of the show in a tribute to the early history of their own program, as a majority of the cast played the roles of many of the actors and behind-the-scenes players in the early days of the soap, which launched in 1937.
The episode began with the death of a current character on the show, Tammy, focusing on the grief of her loved ones. It launched back to a sermon from the radio show Guiding Light, showing the creative team putting on the show and the way a radio soap opera was done, complete with radio jingles for "Save-All" (would have been great to see a major current P&G product used here, but that's another story). At the helm of the program was Irna Phillips, the creator or co-creator of Guiding Light and several other soaps that are currently on the air.
The focus was on Irna's persona and her auteurship of Guiding Light, how she felt this was a true art form and the way she connected with her fans as a masterful storyteller, while also playing up the blatantly commercial aspects of the genre. I found this to be the most fascinating aspect of the show, the way GL did not hide from the commercial nature of television and emphasizes its artfulness not just in spite of but alongside the blatant "soaps" part of the soap opera. Particularly interesting coming from the only soaps company still in the game, Procter & Gamble.
The episode covered the rise in popularity of Guiding Light and the way the radio show was put together, Irna's idea for write-in campaigns and other ways to connect with her fans, and the launch to television. For a few years, GL aired as both a radio show and television show but eventually became solely a television property, being the only one of the current soaps to have survived from the radio era.
Kudos to the writers for celebrating soap opera history with this program. For anyone who is interested in the current state of soap operas in today's "convergence culture," the episode is worth checking out. I hate it that there wasn't enough promotion for this soap, as the show was fascinating whether or not you are a current viewer or even have ever been a fan of Guiding Light, as it emphasizes the origins of the genre as a whole by showing the trajectory of the history of the genre's oldest show. It could have been a great way to get people watching, but I haven't noticed major significant press about the show's celebration of its 70th anniversary, which is a shame.
Guiding Light, after Passions disappears year, will become the lowest-rated of the current American soap operas. It would definitely be a shame to ever see this longtime part of soap opera history disappear, but one of the things this episode emphasizes is that, unlike As the World Turns, the current Guiding Light bears little resemblance to the show of its origins. The radio show launched focusing on a church, with the "guiding light" being the biblical allusion. Over time--as Thursday's program emphasized--the show switched to a focus on the Bauer family. Unfortunately, there have been a variety of other shifts in the show's history, so that the Bauer family is no longer the major focus and the show's only major link to its great arc of history is through the character of Dr. Rick Bauer (who even dropped to recurring status for a short while a couple of years ago). In fact, they had to consult some of the actors from ATWT because they had actually worked with Phillips. ATWT retains one original cast member now and several others who have been on the show for decades.
70 years is certainly a milestone, and PGP and GL deserve credit for finding an innovative way to pay tribute to their history. With GL at the bottom of the ratings, the episode emphasized to me the long-term power of these shows and the great loss that American television would have if these shows are eventually removed from the lineup. In Allison J. Waldman's article on the show's history in TelevisionWeek, she writes about the ways the show is trying to innovate its storytelling process. "Guiding Light, perhaps more than any other soap, has embraced innovation," she said. "The show has reworked the storytelling by creating special Wednesday episodes called 'Inside the Light.' Each show breaks with the traditional soap storytelling to concentrate on a particular character, relationship or event."
Perhaps the most intriguing quote from the TelevisionWeek article, however, was the following: "One thing Guiding Light can't offer, though, is daily rebroadcasts like the soaps that make up the SoapNet schedule," featuring a quote from GL's head writer, saying, "I think a second SoapNet channel would be great for us, or I wish P&G had its own channel." Considering its soap backlog and the possibility of rebroadcasting daily episodes of GL and As the World Turns, there is certainly plenty of material for P&G to have a "SoapNet" style channel all its own. They already have a mini broadband channel through AOL, as I wrote about in August, and it would give some viable alternatives for continuing distribution for the two current shows if CBS ever drops them from the lineup, if they could establish a channel as a viable alternative. I'm sure the economic model would change considerably if that ever happened, but there might be some possibilities.