Seeing the 'Light' in a new way


NEW YORK -- 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 -- "GL" 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, "GL" 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 "GL," 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 "GL" 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.

"People were saying we love these shows, we love these characters, but there are some things that are distracting to us, don't seem real or authentic," said Brian Cahill, senior vp and managing director of Televest Daytime Programs. "The germ of all of this is trying to find a way to connect with our audiences at an even deeper level." Televest runs "GL" and "ATWT" for Procter & Gamble, which owns the shows.

At the same time, CBS was wondering whether there was a new approach that might help rejuvenate the show in the ratings. CBS daytime president Barbara Bloom said she has been impressed so far.

"What she did was make Springfield an authentic place to the viewers because it so lives with them and resonates with them," Bloom said.

Bringing Springfield to life is one reason why Wheeler's so high on the hand-held cameras, which capture the scene closer than a pedestal camera ever could and allow for tighter shots and more realistic movements by the actors.

"I want the audience to be in the room with the characters so it's not like they're outside the window looking in," Wheeler said.

For Robert Bogue, who plays Mallet on "GL," it means that there's less playing to the far-away cameras and more realistic acting, both in the new sets and in Peapack.

"Sometimes it's challenging enough convincing yourself that you're in a real environment, let alone the audience, when you're slamming the door in a rage, but the whole set shakes; or running and skidding to a stop in a grassy yard that's really Astroturf. All of that takes you out of a scene."

But now, Bogue said, doing more locations shooting has made the experience much more real for the actors. So real, he said, that during the winter months the actors have stocked up on the portable hand warmers and shoved them all over their bodies during location shoots.

While the production setup hasn't changed drastically since the 1950s -- and no one has yet embraced technology the way "GL" has -- some shows like ABC's "General Hospital" have used green-screen technology to give a more realistic look to their dramas. One serial-killer cliffhanger story line on "GH" used the same green-screen technology that primetime shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ugly Betty" employ.

Televest's Cahill and CBS' Bloom both said that if the "GL" transformation succeeds, that doesn't necessarily mean that all of daytime show's will follow.

"It would be a huge mistake for everyone to say, 'We want to look what 'Guiding Light' looks like," Bloom said.

ABC daytime president Brian Frons gives a lot of credit to "GL" for being willing to make changes. He thinks there might be an initial bump in the ratings, but it's not the production quality but the quality of the story that ultimately determines a daytime drama's success.

"If it works beyond anybody's expectations -- and CBS' and Ellen's -- within six months to a year everybody will be doing it," Frons said of the changes. "Then it'll come back to who has the best story."

Bloom agrees that it's about the story more than anything else.

"None of this works if you don't have the storytellers," she said.