New "Light" shines on veteran soap opera

Fri Feb 29, 2008 2:43am EST
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By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - A quick look around at the "Guiding Light" set -- a mall in fictional Springfield, a swanky hotel bedroom or the Spaulding family's grand study -- and you could convince yourself, if only for a moment, that you're not at CBS' West 57th Street Broadcast Center in New York.

Unlike soap operas since the dawn of the TV era, the sets have four walls, a ceiling, lighting that gets shut on and off like a normal house and water that runs out of faucets. Gone are the big clunky cameras that gave daytime TV a look that has little changed since the 1950s, the live-to-tape production method and the control room that in the digital era is quickly becoming a dinosaur. In their place are hand-held video cameras, small lighting blocks that take the place of the big overhead contraptions and a portable control panel that captures the audio and video into a format that can be edited via laptop.

"For 50 years, daytime TV has been three pedestal cameras and three walls sitting on a proscenium set," said Ellen Wheeler, the show's executive producer. "It was time for us to catch up and move ahead."

The oldest soap opera still on the air -- it recently celebrated its 70th birthday -- "Guiding Light" on Friday takes the wraps off a makeover that moves the daytime drama into the 21st century and closes the gaps between the sometimes-anachronistic daytime drama production model and the techniques that have been used for decades on primetime TV.

"If a primetime show was produced the way a soap opera is, no one would watch it," she said.

Beyond the new look to the sets, "Guiding Light" is making other changes to set itself apart from its rivals, including fellow Procter & Gamble soap "As the World Turns." Soaps have drastically cut back their on-location shots, mostly because it's expensive. But what it saves in production costs, the shows lose in realism -- having to either base all of its action on a limited amount of sets or use props to simulate everything from snowfall to summer grass.

That's not the case with the new "Guiding Light," which now shoots two of three days a week in and around the small town of Peapack, N.J., about 40 miles west of its Manhattan studios. Wheeler said the town is the living embodiment of its Springfield locale, bringing the viewers closer to the action and allowing the show the ability to use real-life locations instead of having to simulate them in the studio.

So the Peapack municipal building is, for "Guiding Light" viewers, Springfield's municipal building. The same goes for a town police car, the park in the middle of town, even the dugouts of the ballfield where the show filmed a scene recently. A local tavern is Springfield's Company's bar come to life, and the show is renovating a house and use a local mansion for interior and exterior shots.   Continued...