Leaving the “Light” on for 65 years

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It isn’t difficult to find baby boomers who recall racing home after school to catch either “Dark Shadows” in the ’60s or “General Hospital” in the ’70s and early ’80s, in those now seemingly unwieldy days before the advent of VCR-facilitated soap opera viewing.
Those two shows earned their places in history books by captivating older children and teenagers as well as adults.
I recently learned that another serial once engaged young and old alike to such an extent that kids would dash home from school to enjoy it-all the way back in the ’40s, even before television. That franchise is “Guiding Light,” and the person who recalls racing home for the show is my mother. The circumstances were somewhat different: “Guiding Light,” now a long-running CBS TV soap, was at the time a radio serial. My mother would listen to it every day with her mother on the radio in their kitchen.
Just as to this day I remain interested in both “Dark Shadows” and “General Hospital,” my mother still watches “Guiding Light.” Her interest in the show has waned from time to time throughout its long television run, but she always comes back to it, if only to follow the adventures of the descendants of the characters who used to fascinate her during the radio daze of her youth.
Currently, she’s caught up in the story of Rick Bauer, a descendant of the Bauer family she remembers well from the ’40s. Rick spent much of 2002 hovering at death’s door in dire need of a heart transplant. In grand soap opera style, Rick’s prayers were answered last month when another character on the show died in a car accident, conveniently providing Rick with the needed organ.
It is the Bauers and other core families and the complexity of their relationships that have kept “Guiding Light” going longer than any program in American broadcasting history. “Guiding Light” began its existence as a daily 15-minute radio serial on Jan. 25, 1937. It crossed over to television on June 30, 1952. Throughout its first four years as a television program, the show’s cast performed each script twice daily: first on live television and later live on radio.
This has been a year of multiple milestones for “Guiding Light.” The franchise marked its 65th anniversary with its 16,293rd episode on Jan. 25, 2002. Six months later, on June 30, “Guiding Light” celebrated its 50th year on television. Currently, it is television’s longest-running drama and the second-longest-running television program, behind NBC’s Sunday morning news fixture “Meet the Press,” which premiered Nov. 6, 1947. Later this month, “Guiding Light” will celebrate yet another major achievement: The addition to the cast of ’80s prime-time-soap diva Joan Collins as the wealthy and power-mad Alexandra Spaulding, matriarch of another core family on the show.
Also distinguishing “Guiding Light” is its unique status as an enduring example of a bygone tradition in radio and the early years of television, when programming was created and maintained by advertisers. Procter & Gamble has produced “Guiding Light” since it began. P&G has also produced “As the World Turns,” another CBS soap, since 1956.
As is true of every soap opera on television “Guiding Light” has over the years altered its dramatic focus and storytelling style to accommodate shifting trends within the genre. It has been periodically infused with teen and 20-something characters throughout the past two decades in an ongoing effort to capture some of the demographic magic “General Hospital” enjoyed during the long-ago Luke and Laura story arc. “Guiding Light” has also indulged in the occasional over-the-top story line (another contemporary soap staple), often involving science-fiction or the supernatural and calculated to attract young viewers who may otherwise shy away from watching a program they generally perceive as their mother’s or grandmother’s soap.
There might be something to this theory: “Guiding Light” is my mother’s soap and was one of my grandmother’s favorites, and I have never watched it on a regular basis. But I have tuned in during high-profile bizarre stories, most notably in 1998, when the show’s much put-upon heroine, Reva Shayne, was cloned and eventually kidnapped by her dysfunctional duplicate, Dolly.
Such stories always generate publicity, but for “Guiding Light” they haven’t always generated lasting success. According to Nielsen measurements, “Guiding Light” is currently one of the three lowest-rated soaps among adults 18 to 49, and in households it has recently ranked No. 8 out of 10 on the Nielsen charts. (It ranked No. 5 out of 10 on Nielsen’s household chart during summer 2001.) Whatever the numbers, it’s clear from P&G’s longtime sponsorship that the show serves the needs of the packaged-goods giant.
My own experience suggests that the show’s taller tales don’t do much for longtime (meaning older) viewers. My mother thought the clone story was ridiculous-perhaps not as silly as a more recent story, in which Reva traveled back to the Civil War by somehow moving through a painting, but close. Additionally, mom’s tired of the show’s mob story line. She often leaves the room during scenes of mob drama and general lunacy. But bring on a Bauer or a character-driven, gimmick-free story of genuine substance, which has kept “Guiding Light” going for so many decades, and she’s there.
To its credit, “Guiding Light” hasn’t just followed soap trends; early in its television history it initiated them and advanced the genre in the process. The show broke new narrative ground in 1962 with the story of Bert Bauer having a pap smear and the early detection of her uterine cancer, a controversial story that educated women as to the importance of early detection. In 1966 “Guiding Light” challenged daytime’s color barrier by introducing the first African American characters in a soap opera, Martha and Dr. Jim Frazier. Martha through the years has been portrayed by Cicely Tyson and Ruby Dee, Jim by Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones.
How significant is the 50-year endurance of “Guiding Light” on television? Consider the sad realization that only four new daytime soap operas have been introduced during the past 10 years-ABC’s “The City” and “Port Charles” and NBC’s “Sunset Beach” and “Passions”-and of these four, only “Port Charles” and “Passions” remain.
More than any other show on television “Guiding Light” connects the present with the past. It stands as nothing less than a tribute to its genre, its producers and the generations of viewers who have embraced it through two mediums.
Ed Martin has been writing about TV programming for more than a decade, first at Inside Media and currently for The Myers Report.