Ellen Wheeler knows a thing or two about reinvention and survival.
In the 1980s, the Emmy-winning actress portrayed twins Marley and Vicky Love Hudson on the soap opera “Another World.” She moved to “All My Children” as one of the first characters on TV with AIDS. In the late 1990s, she reprised her role as Marley Hudson on “Another World.” Because she didn’t resemble her on-camera twin, the writers decided that Wheeler’s Marley would be crushed in a car wreck and then, while recovering, burned and disfigured in a horrible hospital fire.
Wheeler is still blazing soap opera trails.
Now working behind the camera, the 46-year-old executive producer of “Guiding Light” early this year ditched the format used since the 1950s to produce soaps: three large pedestal cameras to shoot scenes in a handful of studio sets. As part of her gutsy gambit, “Guiding Light” crews now use hand-held digital cameras to rove the three dozen small sets constructed within the hulking CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan and outdoors in nearby Peapack, N.J.
Wheeler is trying to create a more modern look to attract younger viewers -- and keep the show alive.
“This is all about making sure that soap operas stay vital,” Wheeler says, sitting in a wooden pew in her sparse New York office, which has been converted into a set. “We just couldn’t sit quietly and let ourselves slide away into the night.”
As the world turns, so do the soaps. They’re struggling. Audiences are shrinking, and getting gray. There is more competition for viewers’ attention, including the Internet, a myriad of TV channels and everyday chores.
MTV’s docu-soap “The Hills,” network hits like ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and even such real-life dramas as Britney Spears’ escapades contain themes that soap writers have long used to hook viewers.
Daytime mainstays “Another World” and “Santa Barbara” have been canceled, and in August final credits are set to roll for “Passions.”
“Guiding Light” itself has seen brighter days, especially considering its history. It holds the record as the longest running television drama. Owned by Procter & Gamble, it was created for radio in 1937 to help sell the company’s soap -- giving the genre its name. It moved to CBS television in 1952 and has been there ever since.
Recently, production budgets have been cut and beloved characters have departed. A decade ago “Guiding Light” averaged 4.8 million viewers five days a week, according to Nielsen Media Research. But during the TV season that ended last month, it was tied for sixth place among soap operas, averaging 2.6 million viewers. The median age of its audience is nearly 55.
“It’s been difficult for them, and they are sort of damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” says Linda Marshall-Smith, chief executive of Soapdom, a website based in Santa Monica. “They have a base of loyal fans who have watched the show 35, 40, 50 years. But if they don’t try to attract younger viewers, the show will die.”
In addition to more of a reality-show look, the switch to digital equipment allows producers to edit episodes on their laptop computers for quick turn-around. Recaps of episodes are posted online. “It’s very much like making a movie on speed,” Wheeler says.
The show’s eight large sets have been dismantled, carved into 30 standing sets. On another floor, producers’ and writers’ offices now double as a doctor’s exam room, a nail salon, a church (hence the pews in Wheeler’s office) and a seedy motel room.
Not all viewers have been happy with the results.
“You’re killing this show!! We as fans need the older sets and the history that went along with them,” wrote one viewer on CBS’ website. “I want the old show back and I don’t think I am alone in this.”
Wheeler acknowledges that there have been glitches. At first the camera action was jerky and the audio quality uneven. The changes were rolled out in February, and Wheeler says many of the early technical difficulties have been fixed.
“It has been challenging to attempt something so big and so public,” she says. “It was almost like we were putting on a play, but we never had a chance to have a rehearsal.”
Wheeler has been performing for most of her life.
The oldest of seven children, her parents owned a small community theater in San Bernardino when she was young. “That’s all I knew,” she said. “I thought all families had rehearsals at night.”
When she was 9, her family moved to Utah. After high school, she returned to Los Angeles to launch her career. She lived in a small theater in Glendale and sold tickets when she wasn’t acting or waiting tables.
She got her big break in 1984 on “Another World” and still loves the genre.
“Soap operas are fascinating. People have to be so skilled at their jobs,” she says. “The talent is immense for people to be able to turn out the amount of product that they do.”
She isn’t worried that the soap bubble will pop.
“Soap operas have had to weather a lot of changes over the decades, and they will continue to,” she says. “People will accept change as long as you give them good story lines. We are just happy to be part of figuring out how we fit into this new media environment.”
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Soaps get in her eyes
Who: Ellen Wheeler
Job: Executive producer of “Guiding Light”
Residence: New York
Family: Married, two children, 14 and 10
Emmy Awards: 1986, for her portrayal of Marley and Vicky Love Hudson on “Another World”; 1988, for her role of Cindy Chandler on “All My Children”
Favorite soap opera couple: Josh and Reva on “Guiding Light”
Favorite role: Cindy Chandler. “It was the first major AIDS story line on television, and at that time people didn’t know much about the disease. I was proud to participate in something that handled with special care and that increased people’s awareness about AIDS.”
Favorite Procter & Gamble product: Tide