CBS is turning off its "Guiding Light." After nearly three-quarters of a century on TV and radio, the serial drama about the intertwining lives of fictional families from different classes in the bucolic but placeless town of Springfield, will end its run in September. It is the latest example of the fragmentation of television.
Created as a 15-minute radio show in the grip of the Great Depression for a sponsor to sell soap to housewives -- hence the name "soap operas" -- "Guiding Light" struggled in recent years as its audience grew older, smaller and, for advertisers, less desirable. Show producers recently tried to revamp the program to give it an edgier, reality-show hipness, but the makeover couldn't stop the ebb of viewers.
"Talk about a grand old oak falling in the forest," television historian Tim Brooks said. "But there's not much forest left."
Once a mainstay of TV and one of the industry's most reliable and profitable genres, daytime dramas have slowly been getting scrubbed out of the network picture. Gone are a playbill of soaps with evocative names such as "Another World," "Santa Barbara," "Sunset Beach," Port Charles" and "Passions" -- all victims of a redrawing of the American workforce and the makeup of the daytime audience.
The target audience of soaps -- stay-at-home moms busy with the ironing and other chores -- has eroded as more women have joined the workforce. About 60% of women age 20 and older -- nearly 68 million women -- have jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fifty years ago, 63% stayed at home.
And when they are home, most women are tuning in elsewhere.
Soap operas' favorite themes of love, jealousy, betrayal and riches are now mined more sensationally on cable television, which doesn't contend with the same regulatory restrictions as broadcast television. Sassier reality shows such as MTV's "Dissed" and "Sex . . . With Mom and Dad," which borrow the pathos of soaps, are increasingly attracting the younger audience that advertisers want to reach.
"The real shift in daytime drama came in the 1990s," said Sally Sussman Morina, a former head writer on "Days of Our Lives" and creator of the soap "Generations," which ran for two seasons on NBC. "Daytime dramas used to be ahead of their time by tackling important social issues as part of their stories."
Daytime soaps delved into topics once taboo for prime-time, including adultery, rape, abortion, homosexuality and AIDS. The shows hit their zenith in the early 1980s when 30 million people tuned in for the marriage of Luke and Laura on ABC's "General Hospital."
"But then all of these other shows came along, 'Jerry Springer,' and 'Oprah,' and all the reality shows, and suddenly they were interviewing your next-door neighbor who was a transvestite sleeping with his sister," Sussman Morina said. "Cutting edge got away from us."
And daytime themes moved into prime time, first with "Dallas" and "Dynasty," and currently "Desperate Housewives" and "Brothers & Sisters." That offered women a weekly dose of their serialized drama.
"Guiding Light" is owned by Procter & Gamble, maker of Ivory, Tide, Mr. Clean and Crest toothpaste. P&G;'s TeleNext Media, which produces the show, said Wednesday that it would try to find a new home for the program, which was created in 1937. The radio show made the switch to CBS television in 1952, and in 1977 expanded to one hour.
Along the way, "Guiding Light" has helped open the door for several show business careers. Actors such as Kevin Bacon, James Earl Jones, Calista Flockhart, Taye Diggs and Hayden Panettiere got early breaks on the show. One of its pioneering writers, Agnes Nixon, went on to become the doyenne of soap operas, creating "One Life to Live" and "All My Children."
CBS executives said they agonized over the decision to end the longest-running drama in broadcasting. The final episode will air Sept. 18.
"We held off as long as we could out of respect for the show because of its place in CBS history as well as the history of television," said Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group. "But neither P&G; nor we could make sense of it financially as the ratings continued to decline."
Ten years ago, "Guiding Light" was attracting nearly 5 million viewers an episode. This season, it has been mustering a mere 2.17 million. The median age of its audience is 56.5 years, according to Nielsen, an age group that has fallen out of favor with advertisers.
In addition, unlike daytime talk shows, soap operas are more expensive to produce because producers and writers must churn out an hourlong episode five days a week -- a punishing schedule that can lead to burnout.
Despite an ambitious overhaul of the show's production -- including switching to hand-held digital cameras, and outdoor location shots from the New Jersey horse country of Peapack -- "that didn't reflect any bump in the ratings," Tellem said. CBS is gambling that "we could put a new show in that time period, which could have the potential to grow, and we could do it at a much lower cost."
Still, Tellem believes, soaps are not washed up. Not all daytime dramas are on life support; CBS still makes a profit in daytime, she said. The network's "Young and the Restless" attracts an average of 5.26 million viewers an episode and "Bold and the Beautiful" has been fetching an average 3.65 million viewers. Walt Disney Co.'s SoapNet cable channel just posted one of its best quarters in the ratings.
For soaps, it has come down to survival of the fittest.
The "Guiding Light" staff of about 100 learned their show was being canceled Wednesday morning when they showed up for work. For the show's cast and crew who deal with fictional deaths and trauma on a daily basis, the sense of loss was suddenly real.
"This show has been here since before World War II," said executive producer Ellen Wheeler. "It has gone through wars and tragedies and triumphs -- man walking on the moon, and the dawn of the computer age. This show chronicled all these changes in society. It has been our mirror on society for generations, and when you lose something that is part of the fabric of society you lose something precious."