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Soaps scrubbing old look

They are using new camera shots and locations to draw younger viewers.

January 29, 2008|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

This is not your Grandma's soap opera.

Faced with dramatic viewership declines and a graying audience, Procter & Gamble Productions, which owns one of television's pioneering shows, "Guiding Light," is scrapping the model that it helped invent to try to appeal to a new generation of viewers.

"Soap operas have been shot, by and large, the same way since the 1950s, the same way that 'I Love Lucy' was shot -- with pedestal cameras, in just a few interior sets," Ellen Wheeler, executive producer of "Guiding Light," said in an interview Monday. "Our audience is sophisticated enough to understand that's old-fashioned, and it isn't working for them anymore." Beginning Feb. 29, viewers of "Guiding Light" will see their favorite characters in a different light. The show will be shot using hand-held cameras. Its sound stage on the second floor of CBS Studios in midtown Manhattan, which for decades has accommodated eight large sets, has been carved into more than 30. There will be more outside locations -- shot from a town in New Jersey. The show's executives also have lent their offices to serve as additional backdrops.

"My office also functions as an office and a church -- there are pews lined up behind my desk," Wheeler said. "Another executive's office is a nail salon, another one doubles as a hotel room, and then another has what we call, 'the seedy motel room.' "

"Guiding Light" plays a role in U.S. broadcast history. Procter & Gamble Co. created the show for radio in 1937 to sell its soaps (thus the name "soap opera"). As television became more popular, the company in 1952 moved the show to the CBS television network, where it has aired ever since. The company, the maker of Ivory, Tide, Mr. Clean and Crest, said the show holds the Guiness World Record for being the longest running in broadcast history, with 17,836 episodes. P&G Productions also owns "As the World Turns," which runs on CBS.

But like other daytime dramas, "Guiding Light," has been plagued by falling ratings and budget cuts. Ten years ago, the show attracted an average 4.8 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen Media Research. This season, it averages about 2.6 million viewers.

In addition, the median age of its audience is now nearly 56 years, which poses a dilemma for the producers and network executives, who are interested in reaching younger viewers that advertisers covet. They must figure out how to keep loyal fans of the show tuned in, while attracting a generation weaned on reality fare such as MTV's "Real World" and ABC's "The Bachelor." It's the intimacy of those programs and the edginess of movies shot with hand-held cameras, such as "The Blair Witch Project," and more recently "Cloverfield," that soap opera producers are trying to duplicate.

"Ellen's challenge has been, 'How do I preserve what's working and at the same time make the show more visually relevant and current for viewers who have so many other choices,' " said Barbara Bloom, CBS' senior vice president for daytime programs. "This is all about continuing the evolution of the show so that it will have longevity."

The "Guiding Light" changes were probably driven by the need to reduce costs, said Ed Martin, a soap opera expert and television editor for industry publication JackMyers.com. The whole industry has been struggling, he said. NBC Universal in recent years has canceled some of its daytime dramas, and other networks have let go veteran actors or scaled back their screen time in an effort to stay within their shrinking budgets.

"People who have watched these shows for years have been turned off by that," Martin said. "Soap operas are suffering from the same problem that most of TV faces, which is that they keep going for younger and younger viewers at the expense of the grown-ups."

The show will continue to provide loyal fans with characters and plots that they have come to expect, Wheeler said.

For more than 50 years, soap operas have had limited flexibility in production because of the demands of their rigorous schedules, having to shoot 260 episodes a year. Although Wheeler acknowledged that the changes will save money, budgetary constraints were not the primary motivation, she said. Rather, technology has advanced so that crews can now use hand-held cameras, leave the building and still maintain their tight shooting schedules.

With wireless hand-held cameras, producers can get by with nine or 10 people, whereas in the past a location shoot would require 60, Wheeler said.

Now, at least 20% of the scenes will be shot in Peapack, N.J., which plays the part of Springfield, the fictional Mid-western town where "Guiding Light" takes place. Instead of scenes in living rooms and bedrooms, the front yards and porches of houses will be shown and "everyone will have a place to live and work," she said.

"Guiding Light" is not the only soap trying to reinvent itself.

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