In Depth

Adalian Column: CBS Could Benefit From Making the Tough Call on ‘Light’

If there were a “Profiles in Courage” for network executives, it would probably be a pretty thin tome.

Guiding Light

After all, the folks who run TV outlets, broadcast and cable alike, usually aren’t inclined to go out on a limb when making decisions. And it’s hard to blame them, since in most corporations, the only thing worse than failing is defying conventional wisdom … and failing anyway.

Nobody remembers when a standard-issue police drama like “Ryan Caulfield” fades away after a handful of episodes. But greenlight something as audacious as Steven Bochco’s “Cop Rock” and you’ll never hear the end of it.

So that’s why CBS’ decision last week to end its iconic soap opera “Guiding Light” was so stunning. Because while the 2 million or so people who still watch the show every day will surely disagree, CBS actually made the brave call by choosing to turn off “Light.”

Even though the show was a clear ratings loser—down 25% in the last year alone—“Light” was not a prohibitively expensive production for CBS. And Leslie Moonves has far bigger problems on his hands right now than a low-rated soap opera.

By canceling “Light,” CBS risks the wrath of the loyal soap audience, a group whose loyalty makes “Jericho” and “Moonlight” die-hards seem almost casual in their devotion. Some of the wackier voices in the soaps blogosphere have already predicted CBS’ decision will prompt a domino effect, with other daytime dramas falling faster as a result of “Light’s” demise.

Living with the last-place soap for a few years would have been a lot easier than dealing with the teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling CBS executives will face in the weeks, months and decades to come.

What’s more, there’s no guarantee that whatever CBS puts on in “Light’s” place will draw better ratings. It almost certainly will be more profitable, but CBS’ overall daytime average could very well suffer.

Despite these downsides, CBS engaged in an admirable bit of Band-Aid ripping by sending “Light” to soap opera heaven.

Guiding Light

Without having to worry about promoting “Light,” CBS can focus its energies on its three remaining soaps, all of which could use some extra hype. NBC’s decision to get rid of “Passions” doesn’t seem to have hurt “Days of Our Lives,” which finished the first quarter of 2009 with better ratings than it had a year ago.

And if producer Procter & Gamble is smart, it will find a way to transfer the strongest actors and writers from “Light” to “As the World Turns,” hopefully boosting the latter show in the process.

The biggest downside in all this, of course, is that dozens of people will lose their livelihoods in a few months, when “Light” tapes its final episode. That’s never a good thing, and particularly sad in the current small-screen economy.

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While CBS made the right decision by moving on from “Guiding Light,” it remains to be seen whether it will be as wise in choosing a replacement.

The network would do well to rule out at least a few options. Any executive who suggests another court show should be fired on the spot. And resurrecting any failed talk show ideas from the syndication world would be equally lame.

As it stands, I’m encouraged by the first real contender to emerge: a Michael Davies-produced revival of the “Pyramid” format. The Sony-based Mr. Davies is a game show junkie with strong respect for the genre; left to his own devices, I’m pretty sure he can find a way to make the show feel relevant—or at least fun— for 2009 audiences.

I hope CBS considers limiting “Pyramid” to a half-hour, thus allowing the show to be paired with another game. “The Joker’s Wild,” also owned by Sony, would be a great candidate; it’s got a tinge of “Deal or No Deal”-style randomness that could work well again.

“Sale of the Century” is another format prime for a comeback, particularly with its strong product-placement possibilities.

If CBS decides to go the talk show route, it might consider rolling the dice on Jeff Probst.

The “Survivor” host comes off a bit prickly, but he knows how to cut through the bull and get people to shoot straight. A format that mixed “Donahue” and “Live With Regis and Kelly” would suit him well.

Finally, while I generally abhor programming clones, stealing a page from ABC’s playbook and ripping off “The View” might not be such an awful idea.

Oprah Winfrey already has done just that, turning her Friday shows into a “View”-style roundtable. If daytime can play home to a dozen different judge shows, why can’t CBS put together its own current events-driven, female-friendly talk show?

It could be based in Hollywood, immediately giving it a different tone than the New York-based “View.” It might even mix male and female panelists, differentiating it further from ABC’s show. Perhaps Katie Couric could be a rotating panelist, much as Barbara Walters floats in and out of “The View.”

And if Ms. Couric’s not game, why not ask Ms. Winfrey if she’d like to spin off her “Friday Live” show into its own five-day-a-week franchise?

The worst she can do is say “no.”