“It’s like a grandmother who’s in her 90’s and has been sick awhile and you know she’s sick and you know she’s going to die, but when it happens, it’s still quite a shock.”
That’s how long-time Marco Island businesswoman Pat Berry describes the feelings of many of the The Guiding Light cast members on learning that the TV soap opera is being cancelled.
Fans will see the final episode of the longest running daytime drama on Friday, September 18, after 72 years and more than 15,700 episodes on television and radio.
Berry said she was so upset she hoped fans would rally by protesting and not watching the CBS TV network.
The soap opera was a springboard to stardom for many actors, including James Earl Jones, Calista Flockhart and Kevin Bacon.
Berry has been a Guiding Light fan since she was in high school in Chicago.
Now, she’s personally acquainted with many of the cast members because of the Southwest Florida SoapFest, which she started 10 years ago.
The 11th Annual SoapFest includes a weekend series of events allowing soap fans to get up close and personal with their favorite stars. Ticket sales benefit local children’s charities including the Marco Island YMCA theater program, the Art League of Marco Island’s summer art program, and new this year, Eden Florida’s recently opened Eimerman Center, which provides educational and outreach services for children with autism.
“At our first SoapFest in 1998, we had five actors from The Guiding Light. They had such a good time, they asked to come back again,” Berry recalls.
“They were so enthusiastic that we started inviting other soap stars from the shows that are based in New York. They love to come to Marco.”
This year’s event, May 2 and May 3, will be something of a swan song for participating Guiding Light actors such as veteran Kim Zimmer, who has played Reva Shayne Lewis on the show off and on since 1983.
“They’re having a tough time, especially the actors who have been on the show for much of their adult lives,” says Berry.
“I talked with Kim (Zimmer) the other day and she said ‘I don’t want to face the public just yet. I’m not quite able to answer people’s questions.”
What viewers will see instead of the soap opera on WINK-TV at 3 p.m. is only conjecture, even at the TV station.
“CBS has not announced a replacement for it,” says Program Director Greg Stetson.
“There is a lot of speculation that it’s going to be a game show of some sort. But, I’ve heard nothing official and probably won’t until late May or early July.”
For the network, it’s all about ratings, Stetson explains.
“CBS has been batting around the idea of canceling the show for years because it actually is the lowest rated soap opera on TV today,” he said.
Stetson says that the ratings locally are not in freefall like the national ratings, but they still are on the decline.
“Ratings for that program went from 5.3 in 2004 to 2.6 in November 2008. Even in a strong market like Ft. Myers, one of the top ten CBS affiliates in the country, it dropped that far. Guiding Light had almost 14 percent of the audience in 2004 and now it’s down to 6 percent,” he reported
“But there are a lot of loyal viewers here in Southwest Florida. A lady called me, last week after the announcement, crying because she had been watching the program since 1952, when she and her grandmother used to enjoy it together,” Stetson said.
WINK-TV will continue to air As the World Turns as well as The Young and the Restless, which Stetson says is “the number one daytime program in production right now.”
“It’s the money,” says Pat Berry. “The network can put a reality show or talk show in that Guiding Light spot for next to nothing. Soap operas are expensive because so many people are involved - actors, writers, producers and primarily union crews.”
WINK TV’s Greg Stetson explains that the producers tried to save money and the program by moving from the more expensive studio setting to shooting scenes outside at a production site in New Jersey.
“It was less formal. The director would say ‘we’ve got one or two cameras on you, now start your lines.’ And they were actually editing the show on-site, saving post-production costs,” Stetson said.
Berry believes that plot changes also may have cost some viewers.
“The Guiding Light is unique because the story involved families interacting. When the show cut the budget, it also cut that family element from the show. I think that lost them quite a few fans,” she said.
Islanders can meet many of the stars of All My Children, As the World Turns, One Life to Live and The Guiding Light at the upcoming Southwest Florida SoapFest, May 2 and 3, on and around Marco Island, hosted by Walt Willey, well known as the heartthrob Jackson Montgomery on ABC-TV’s All My Children. Events include dancing, eating, drinking, golfing and making art with the stars.
For ticket or sponsorship details, visit www.soapfest.com or contact SoapFest Director, Pat Berry at 239-394-0080 or e-mail SoapFest@vsm.net.