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.
"I came in and asked [CBS and Procter & Gamble, the show's owner] if we could do a podcast," she recalls, "and literally the answer was 'What is a podcast?' " After a quick tutorial -- it's a way to distribute multimedia files online, people -- and further discussion, Wheeler rounded up equipment and recruited Morrison. Since October, "GL," as it's called on the spiffy digital-age-ish logo, has been podcasting every episode, which is about 25 minutes long once the edits are done. (The TV show is 39 minutes, with the rest of the hour taken up by commercials.) A month later, Wheeler launched "Guiding Light Lite," a 10-minute download that follows one strand of the story and typically ends with an interview with an actor. Both podcasts are available at 3 p.m. the day the show airs, and every episode, archived right back to the first podcast, is free.
This isn't "GL's" only attempt at digital up-to-dateness. Written into the plot is the existence of a local gossip blog -- http://springfieldburns.com/ -- whose creator is a source of nonstop and fruitless speculation among "GL" characters. Embarrassing photos of Springfield's most villainous keep turning up on the site, causing humiliation and much tut-tutting. The postmodern twist here is that when fans of "Guiding Light" type "springfieldburns.com" into their real-life Web browsers, they visit the very site that the characters in the show appear so vexed by. So anyone can log on and see what is ostensibly mortifying Reva, Cassie and everyone else.
"Family first, huh?" read a recent Springfieldburns.com home-page headline, with hellish flames flickering behind the head of a character. "Not for this Springfield mom."
"As the World Turns," Procter & Gamble's other soap, now podcasts, too. Are these high-tech extra-credit projects roping in viewers? Barbara Bloom, who is in charge of daytime programming for CBS, says daily downloads number in the tens of thousands, though "Guiding Light" remains next to last among the soaps in TV ratings. (Only NBC's relative newcomer, "Passions," performs worse.)
Just as telling, Morrison has yet to achieve the cult status that she richly deserves. Her vowel-flattening Midwestern accent and gift for condensing tragedy into haiku is one of the podcast's best features.
"There have been some questions on fan sites, like 'Whose voice is that?' " Morrison says. "But the only person I really hear from about the podcast is my dad."
Maybe if she identified herself at some point during her narration, her profile would rise. But the point isn't to make Morrison famous. It's to introduce a somewhat fusty medium to the Internet. Though forever packed with marital and extramarital intrigue, the soaps have seldom truly pushed the envelope when it comes to mores. In the soaps of the '50s and '60s, married couples slept in separate beds and divorce was considered a sin.
"If a woman had an affair, not only did she not get the man, he usually died," says Julie Poll, co-author of "Guiding Light: The Complete Family Album." "Boating accidents and car crashes were favorite punishments."
"Guiding Light," which began on radio in 1937, is racier than ever, though certain boundaries remain. Nowadays, if a "GL" character gets pregnant, she might mention abortion, but if the baby can't be shoehorned into the plot, bet on a miscarriage.
What hasn't changed much in recent decades is the core feel of the show: the real-time pace, the square-dance approach to coupling and uncoupling, the endless churn of tantrums and make-ups, the passion-related crime sprees. The atmosphere of stillness and doom that is the genre's hallmark is unchanged, too. Everything seems to take place in some windowless netherworld where background noise has been muted and conversations end with a wounded, quizzical squint.
In reality, "Guiding Light" is taped in a studio where a director has to shout for silence before every take. During a recent visit to the set, a dozen or so stagehands and cameramen fluttered around a bed where Kim Zimmer (who plays Reva) and Jordan Clarke (Billy) were supine and awaiting their cue. Someone asked Clarke to scootch further down the bed.
"I feel like a mouse that's been glued to a board," Clarke muttered dryly, staring up at the ceiling, willing the strength to scootch and angling for a laugh.
Watching, you're struck with this rather basic thought: It's a job, working on a soap. People get bored. People cut up. With five shows a week, the pace is kind of grueling. (Two takes, says a stage guy, is pretty much the max.) It looks exotic enough to an outsider, but everyone here seems like a salaried worker engaged in the classic American enterprise of selling a product. The product just happens to be a story that will never end.
" 'Guiding Light,' Episode 15,013, Scene 5!" shouted the stage manager. Then a countdown, then a very brief bit of action and dialogue, which, per request of the show's publicist, will not be revealed here.
Once the scene was finished, there was a brief moment of quiet. Then Clarke, still lying on his back, slowly raised his arm, elbow bent, middle finger extended. The crew erupted with laughter.
Yes, the gap between the solemnity of the characters and the ironic detachment of the actors playing them is gloriously immense. At one point, Zimmer played a teary, earnest scene in which Reva mulled over her cancer and yearningly stared into the heavens, wishing upon a star. Between takes, she chatted with a sound guy about the gas mileage of her new SUV.
"Sixty-five dollars to fill it up," she sighed, in her nightgown. "Can you believe it?"