'Guiding Light' ends a 72-year run; the future of TV soaps is a cliffhanger (2023)

CBS is extinguishing its "Guiding Light," which has been selling soap and telling tales for more than 72 years and 15,700 episodes. And when this "Light" goes out, it will cast a dark pall over the once-mighty daytime soap opera.

The great-grandmother of daytime serials wraps up its sprawling Springfield story lines and its historic run with a finale airing at 3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, on WOIO Channel 19.

"I've been so gosh-darn busy that it really hasn't sunk in yet," said Akron native Frank Dicopoulos, who has played Frank Achilles Cooper Jr. on "Guiding Light" for more than 22 years.

"When it does, it will hit pretty hard. The stories were coming around again, and we felt we had another two years at the very least. We want to keep working."

The end of "Guiding Light" is a cliffhanger moment that should be underscored by melodramatic music and worried looks all around. Can the daytime soap opera survive?

The numbers are alarming. The peak season for soap operas was 1969-70, when the three broadcast networks aired a record 19 daytime serials. When "Guiding Light" wraps things up, the three networks will be left with just seven, and CBS already is talking about dumping the next longest-running soap opera, "As the World Turns."


Guiding Light

What: The soap opera ends its unprecedented 72-year run.

When: 3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18.

Where: CBS (WOIO Channel 19).

CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler set the soap blogs buzzing this summer when she told the New York Post that "As the World Turns" is "also having ratings challenges" and may stop spinning after 53 years on television. That would leave ABC's "General Hospital," which premiered in 1963, as the record holder among the six remaining soaps.

"It's an incredibly troubling time for soap operas, and there's no reason to think this isn't going to continue," said Michael Logan, the resident soap opera expert at TV Guide. "Soaps come and go, but this loss is so big, it can't be understated."

Bulk of viewers
just aren't home

The numbers tell the sad story. "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light" were the most-watched soap operas during the 1963-64 season, attracting 15.4 percent and 14.2 percent of all the nation's TV homes. Those are comparable to the ratings that made the Wednesday and Tuesday editions of Fox's "American Idol" the No. 1 and 2 prime-time shows last season.

But by the end of the 2007-08 season, "As the World Turns" was attracting just 2.4 percent of TV homes and "Guiding Light" was down to a mere 1.8 percent (ranking eighth among eight daytime soap operas).

"The main problem is that the soap opera was created for a demographic that hardly exists anymore -- the stay-at-home housewife," said author and TV historian Robert Thompson, a professor of communication at Syracuse University.

"You had this enormous chunk of the population at home, raising kids. And we've never been able to adapt the five-day-a-week serial to prime-time television."

Lynn Leahey, editorial director for the magazines Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly, agrees: " 'Guiding Light' isn't going off the air because it was a bad show or that it didn't keep up with the times. It stayed incredibly relevant. There just wasn't the audience at home anymore."

As the demographic shifted, viewers started to look elsewhere for their soap fixes: prime-time crime and medical dramas, cable programs and even reality shows using classic soap-opera techniques.

"Most prime-time dramas now are serialized with season-finale cliffhangers," Logan said. "That's right out of the soap opera. What are 'Mad Men' and 'The Sopranos' if not soaps? And the reality show has taken over the back-stabbing and tune-in-next-week hit that were soap specialties. That's the power the soaps used to have."

The daytime soap opera frequently is called a dinosaur, but any paleontologist will tell you that dinosaurs should not be used as a metaphor for failure. They were incredibly successful, ruling the Earth many millions of years longer than humans have (so far).

Like the dinosaurs, the soap operas have been incredibly successful and durable -- none more durable than "Guiding Light."

Telling a story 'that
went on forever'

Franklin Roosevelt had just started his second term as president when "Guiding Light" began its radio run Jan. 25, 1937. That was the year Joe Louis became heavyweight champion and Disney premiered the first feature-length animated film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

It was the year Amelia Earhart disappeared and the Hindenburg exploded. It was the year Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty were born.

There have been 13 different presidents in office during the run of "Guiding Light," which jumped to television June 30, 1952.

"Never mind television history," Thompson said. "It's the longest-running continuing story in American history. It's the longest story ever told, and that's something the soap opera could do that no other TV genre could do -- tell a story that went on forever."

Created by Irma Phillips, "Guiding Light" originally focused on minister John Ruthledge and his neighbors in Five Points, a fictional suburb of Chicago. The recent story lines are set in Springfield and revolve around the Cooper, Lewis and Spaulding families. The series has received 69 daytime Emmy awards, including three for best drama.

Dicopoulos joined the show in 1987. Four years later, he welcomed a friend from Akron, Melina Kanakaredes, to the cast. She played Eleni Andros before moving on to such prime-time dramas as "Providence" and "CSI: NY."

"The Frank-Eleni story was just the best, but I really think we're as on top of our game now as we were then," Dicopoulos said.

"The cancellation of 'Guiding Light' brings both sadness and a wonderful nostalgic feeling to my heart," said Firestone High School graduate Kanakaredes, now in her sixth season as detective Stella Bonasera on "CSI: NY." "What an unbelievable run! I feel fortunate to have been a part of history, and I know many fans will forever miss that one hour a day where they can go to Springfield and let all those deliciously complex characters guide them away from their own troubles."

Another Ohioan, Youngstown native Victor Slezak, played Andy Ferris on "Guiding Light" in the mid-'80s. During the same decade, a young actor named Kevin Bacon played Tim Werner on the program.

Soaps are down, but
probably not out

The cancellation of "Guiding Light" doesn't necessarily put the daytime soap opera on the road to extinction. A few experts think there always will be an audience for daytime serials, and that the remaining programs could reinvent themselves to keep pace with changing technology and viewer habits.

"The ones that are left are still in the game, fighting the good fight," Logan said. "I can even see this form coming back stronger. I wouldn't count it out."

"Maybe it's [the format] too long at an hour," Leahey said. "People will DVR 'Lost,' which is an hour once a week, but five hours a week is too cumbersome. Time-shifting doesn't really work for the soap."

Still, the future is difficult to ponder when the present loss is so great for soap fans.

"I've run into families with four or five generations of 'Guiding Light' viewers," Dicopoulos said. "We still have a couple of million viewers who are extremely loyal, and they're devastated. This is a form that needs to survive. It provides a storytelling experience that's different from anything else on."

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