Soap Gets in Your Ears

Janet Morrison, digital producer for the CBS soap opera
Janet Morrison, digital producer for the CBS soap opera "Guiding Light," records her podcast narrative of the show in her Manhattan office. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

NEW YORK Olivia nearly shoved Ava off a balcony during a catfight. Alan is trying to prove that Jonathan's marriage to Lizzie is a farce. The cops took Dinah in for questioning about the fire at the Beacon Hotel, but lacking any evidence of arson they had to let her go.

Slow month at "Guiding Light," television's longest-running soap opera. A little ho-hum compared with years ago, when one character traveled back in time, lost her eyesight, regained her eyesight and was cloned. What sets apart recent events on the show isn't the message -- keep your enemies close and your ex-wife closer, nobody dead is actually dead , the daddy is never the husband -- it's the messenger.

Specifically, it's Janet Morrison, a 25-year-old from Michigan who has become the online docent for "Guiding Light's" snarling zoo of backstabbing animals. It's her job to take each episode of the TV show, snip out ads, transition shots and dagger-eyed pauses and post a streamlined, audio-only version of the program on the Web (downloadable at iTunes and CBS.com). She also narrates a quick intro recapping events, and during the show she briefly reappears to tell listeners where a scene is set.

"Previously on 'Guiding Light,' " goes a typical Morrison voice-over, "Dinah confessed to Harley that she worked with Alan-Michael to try and bring Harley down at Spaulding. Lizzie was determined to keep the real paternity of her baby a secret. Reva kept her chemotherapy from Josh. Jonathan found himself in trouble again when Ashlee turned out to be the D.A.'s daughter and the D.A. decided to press charges against him."

Bring on the drama!

"I used to be self-conscious about it. Now I'm just like, okay, time to do the announce," says Morrison. She's sitting in her office one recent morning, in front of a huge computer monitor, microphone in hand, getting ready to record about a week's worth of introductions and segues. She turns down the ringer on her phone and clears her throat.

"This is a long list," she says, looking down at a yellow legal pad, where she's scribbled line after line of narration.

We're in the "Guiding Light" offices in the CBS building on West 57th Street, a few stories above the set where the show is filmed. There are copies of Soap Opera Digest on the coffee table and a couple of impassive guys on a couch, apparently here to audition. The hallways and cubicles look like regular corporate America, but the work here is anything but common. This is where the latest torments and traumas are dreamed up and scripted for the benighted souls of Springfield, a fictional Midwestern town where hobbies include relentless psychological warfare and vicious double-crossing.

It's a pretty chilling world, and unfortunately for its creators, fewer and fewer viewers seem to care about it. Like all soaps, "Guiding Light" -- which marked its 15,000th TV broadcast a few weeks ago -- has been shedding Nielsen rating points in recent years: Nearly 5 million viewers checked out the program each day back in the '94-'95 season, and about half that number tune in today. The soap craze of the '80s, when millions of high school and college kids were following the travails of Luke and Laura on "General Hospital," was many hankies ago.

The culprits cited by TV executives and soap-related magazine scribes include the growth of cable programming and the rising number of women in the workforce.

"When I was growing up there were three networks and nothing else to watch in the afternoon and mom stayed home," says Carolyn Hinsey, editor of Soap Opera Weekly. "Now there's a couple dozen shows to watch, and mom is either working outside the home or ferrying the kids to a soccer game."

Like any soap heroine with a problem, "Guiding Light" is fighting back, craftily. The podcast was the brainchild of Ellen Wheeler, a former soap actress who is now executive producer of "Guiding Light." ("It's like being the dictator of a small country," she jokes.) She dreamed up the concept when her stay-at-home husband noted that he could follow the action of the show while he cleaned the house -- if he kept the volume of the TV high enough.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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