Sudser uses handheld cameras, real locations

Guiding Light,” TV’s longest-running dramatic series, is freshening up its approach.

The 71-year-old soap opera has implemented a new production model. Pedestal cameras, limited sets and the traditional control booth have been replaced with handheld cameras, 40 permanent sets and a faster editing process. “Light” now produces 20% of its weekly footage with location shooting in Peapack, N.J., which doubles for the show’s fictional setting of Springfield.

The reason for the new model is twofold: It’s intended to create a more modern experience for viewers while being cost efficient for Procter & Gamble Prods. and CBS.

“It’s become widely accepted that soaps need to do something (in order to survive),” says Ellen Wheeler, “Light’s” executive producer who began her daytime career as an actress on “Another World” in 1984. “This is an opportunity to reach out to people who never would’ve considering watching a soap because of its look.”

“Light” is no stranger to embracing technology. The Irna Phillips-created drama was among the first soaps to segue from radio to TV (1952), switch transmitting from black-and-white to color (1967), expand from 15 to 30 minutes (1968) and become available via podcast (2005).

“The new format allows the characters to live in a 360-degree universe as opposed to a proscenium stage,” says Barbara Bloom, senior VP of daytime at CBS. “We hope that this will increase viewership.”

“Light’s” new model has challenged and invigorated the cast.

“It’s exciting to be part of this evolution,” says Beth Chamberlain, who has played heroine Beth Raines since 1989.

Adds Crystal Chappell, an Emmy winner for her role as the engaging Olivia Spencer: “As an actor, you have a lot more freedom. (Shooting in Peapack) gives a sense of truly being in a town.”

Other soaps, including ABC’s “The City” and NBC’s “Sunset Beach,” incorporated some elements of “Light’s” model. Both were short-lived.

“Technology has changed

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changed a lot since ‘The City,’ ” notes Bloom, a former ABC daytime exec. “We’re trying to deliver Springfield in the most compelling and impactful way possible.”

“Everyone agrees that something needs to be done to save these shows,” says Michael Bruno, a talent manger who specializes in daytime. “CBS and Ellen are to be applauded for trying this.”

Reps at NBC and its lone soap, “Days of Our Lives,” opted not to comment on the possibility of following “Light’s” new format. They may not need to, however: “Days” has experienced a ratings increase since changing its creative team last year, re-emphasizing core characters and giving viewers a payoff to a storyline that began decades ago.

“If we felt that reworking our model would be successful, I’m sure we would,” says Brian Frons, president of daytime at Disney-ABC Television Group (home of sudsers “All My Children,” “One Life to Live” and “General Hospital”), who feels that soap fans gravitate toward shows with the strongest storytelling, no matter how they’re shot.

“If you have a great story and you shoot your show in Hawaii, you can have a terrific episode of ‘Lost,’ ” says Frons, “but if the script and story aren’t good, all you have is a show that shoots in Hawaii. There’s a graveyard filled with those in primetime. It’s no different in daytime.”

“It always comes down to the writing,” concurs Wheeler, who hopes “Light” fans follow the show in its new format just as they did when the drama moved from radio to TV. “We can’t just sit back and do nothing. We’ve vowed to do everything we can in order to be around for as long as we can.”

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