After more than 50 years of surrogate births, shotgun weddings, sordid divorces, steamy affairs, and myriad multiple-personality-disorder diagnoses, it seems the most unthinkable scenario is about to play out: TV soap operas are edging toward a dramatic death. Perhaps that’s why Ellen Wheeler is praying in church.
Wheeler is the executive producer of Guiding Light, CBS’ long-running soap. In fact, it is the longest-running show in broadcast history. And this quiet former Episcopal church with a few remaining pews is actually part of her midtown office, which doubles as a television studio, with crosses and votive candles strategically positioned by production assistants. A place of hope is the ideal location for Wheeler’s show, which, like all soaps, is losing viewers faster than All My Children’s Erica Kane goes through husbands. But Guiding Light is pulling in the fewest viewers of all (2.5 million daily viewers, down more than half from ten years ago).
“I get teary, and I hate that,” Wheeler says. Her tendency to choke up in the middle of a conversation could be attributed to either her nightly four hours of sleep or to her former career as a soap star. (Her portrayal of good-and-evil twins Vicky and Marley Love Hudson on Another World earned her the 1986 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Ingénue in a Drama Series.) “If you listened to the New York Giants throughout [last] season, they really believed in themselves when no one else did. We also believe in ourselves. We have nowhere to go but up.”
The villain in this piece is the reality show. When veteran soap-opera producer Mary-Ellis Bunim created The Real World for MTV in 1992, soap opera’s exclusive grip on emotionally manipulative programming began to loosen. “They’re closer cousins than most people realize,” says TV historian Ron Simon. “If you look at the Internet chat boards for soaps and reality shows, the audiences are asking the same question, ‘Why is the character doing this?’ They’re both a way to measure your own life.”
Recently, however, in true dramatic-plot-twist form, Wheeler came up with a plan (cue swelling synthesizer music)—a plan she thinks could not only save Guiding Light but quite possibly be the biggest thing to happen to soaps since Guiding Light made the jump from radio to TV in 1952.
Where other daytime producers are amping up the supernatural plots and onscreen text messaging to attract viewers, Wheeler has given her show an extreme makeover, reality-show style. For the first time, fans can see the actual streets of Springfield, a midwestern town in an undisclosed state—which look suspiciously like the streets in Peapack, New Jersey, where one-fifth of the scenes are being shot, all with handheld cameras. “We finally get to come into their world,” says Wheeler, who was inspired by shows like Laguna Beach and Friday Night Lights. The result is a film-schoolish mishmash of extreme close-ups and shaky, occasionally seasickness-inducing long shots filmed through window frames or the leaves of a houseplant.
Gone are the generic and cheap-looking sets, the static filming, the heavy makeup. Even that cheesy synthesizer music has been replaced by scruffier cheese: Matchbox Twenty–style rock.
“CBS has the oldest median age of a broadcast network, and reality shows draw a much younger target audience than daytime dramas,” says Brad Adgate, a New York media analyst who studies the women’s market for advertisers. “If there’s a magic bullet, this is probably going to be it.”
The stereotypical soap viewer is the older housewife, but the shows have historically picked up a lot of fans on college campuses. With its face-lift, Guiding Light is banking on pulling in a whole new generation of viewers. “I do think if you were flipping through the channels you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is a soap opera, I’m not going to stop,’ ” says Wheeler. “You wouldn’t know what it was.”
Going outside the soap box is nothing new at Guiding Light, which has pushed plots into the outer limits of ridiculousness. In an attempt to boost ratings at the turn of the millennium, the much-beloved “Red Hot” Reva, who had recently been cloned, began using an oil painting to travel to Civil War New Orleans and Edwardian England. As delightful as that sounds, ratings began to fall. By 2007, the show was ranked No. 8 out of nine daily daytime dramas (ahead only of the now-canceled Passions, whose cast included a witch and an orangutan).
When Wheeler started as executive producer in 2004, she wasted no time ejecting the supernatural plot twists and B-stories (one of which featured a mobster and a fiendish royal family on the mythical island of San Cristobel) and planted the show firmly back in the Midwest. This is not to say that the family tree (and yes, in the great tradition of soaps, many of Springfield’s residents are connected by one family tree) is not mind-bogglingly Byzantine. “It’s like trying to learn all the kings and queens of England,” concedes Wheeler, who continues to champion such soap standards as split second marriages, overlong pauses, and characters who dramatically recite their text messages as they compose them.