By Chuck Barney
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — This Friday, “Guiding Light,” the longest-running scripted program in broadcasting history, will go dark after 72 years when CBS pulls the plug on the daytime drama.
Disgruntled devotee Judy Ryne knows exactly how she wants it to end.
“I’d love to see all the cast members come out to the center of the stage,” she says, “and then turn around and moon the CBS executives.”
You’ll have to excuse Ryne’s enmity. A Brentwood, Calif., resident who has watched “Guiding Light” for about 62 of her 65 years, she has been ticked off since April, when CBS announced it was canceling the low-rated show.
And she isn’t the only one finding it difficult to let go. “Guiding Light” debuted on NBC radio in 1937 and moved to television in 1952. So, for many viewers who followed the citizens of the fictional town of Springfield, it was much more than a soapy serial. It was a cherished daily ritual — a family tradition passed on from one generation to the next.
Says Ryne, “I don’t remember much from my childhood, but I can distinctly recall sitting in a big overstuffed chair with my mother and following ’Guiding Light’ with rapt attention. That shared time with her is priceless.”
Most longtime fans cling to similar memories. Myrna Bachiochi, 69, of San Ramon, Calif., was introduced to “Guiding Light” by her mother and grandmother before she started school in 1944. Decades later, her son watched the show during lunch breaks in his college dorm room.
“I am filled with a sense of emptiness now that it’s going,” she says.
Such are the ties that bind fans to their daily “stories.” Through seven decades, they’ve faithfully followed the many marriages, divorces and funerals — as well as the fairy-tale romances, sexual shenanigans, murder mysteries, fake deaths and drawn-out cliffhangers — that fueled “Guiding Light.” Along the way, they’ve taken to members of Springfield’s Bauer, Spaulding, Lewis and Cooper clans as their own.
But the family apparently wasn’t large enough. According to Nielsen, “Guiding Light’s” audience has fallen to 2.7 million viewers this season — down from 5 million in 1999. And the show has come to epitomize the collective struggles of the daytime drama.
In the 1960s and ’70s — the heyday of the genre — as many as 19 soap operas dotted the daytime landscape. After “Guiding Light” ends, it will be down to seven. Blame competition from the Internet and cable, as well as prime-time television, which offers its own brand of melodrama via shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives.” Reality TV has also posed a stiff challenge with its ongoing dramas that offer soapy elements.
“Viewers have discovered that real-life drama can be a lot more intriguing and fun, in some cases,” says Victor Miller, who wrote for “Guiding Light” during the ’90s. “Meanwhile, the networks have seen that reality TV can be done for a lot less money. Think about it: With ‘Judge Judy,’ you only have to worry about one set, one star, one assistant ...”
Considering the sad state of soap operas, Miller isn’t surprised that “Guiding Light” is going off the air, but that it lasted as long as it did. The genre, he points out, has failed to cultivate the next generation of fans.
“Soaps aren’t grabbing the young girls,” he says. “Mothers and wives are too busy to be a captive audience anymore. And Grandma’s out working at Wal-Mart. So who’s there to put the kid on their lap and watch ‘Guiding Light’?”
Owned from start to finish by Proctor & Gamble, “The Guiding Light” (the “the” was dropped in the ’70s) was created by soap-opera legend Irna Phillips as a 15-minute daily radio drama. Its remarkable run on television yielded 15,762 episodes.
The show also was a proving ground for several big-name stars, including Kevin Bacon, Calista Flockhart, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones.
None, however, attained the same heights of popularity as Reva Shayne while on the show. Played by multiple Emmy-winner Kim Zimmer, Reva began life on the soap in 1983 as a free-spirited vixen who would fall in and out of love with Josh Lewis (Robert Newman), and in a classic scene, once baptized herself the “Slut of Springfield.”
But even Reva couldn’t rescue “Guiding Light.” In recent years, executive producer Ellen Wheeler tried to reverse the ratings free-fall — and save money — by experimenting with hand-held digital cameras and filming on location in Peapack, N.J. The move gave the show a more realistic appearance but didn’t boost the ratings.
“To me, it just looked kind of tacky,” says Miller.