Soap Opera Turns 50

Guiding Light
Soap operas seem to be as old as the television. CBS News Sunday Morning takes a look at one show that has entertained families for decades.

"Guiding Light," the great-grandfather of soaps, began on CBS 50 years ago this week and has now run longer than any entertainment show in history. Before that, it was on radio for 15 years.

"To think that this show has been around for 65 years; I think is astonishing," said Robert Newman.

Newman and Kim Zimmer have played Reva Shane and Josh Lewis for some 20 of those years.

"People will walk up … with four or five generations of 'Guiding Light' viewers," explained Zimmer. "You know the great-grandmother, the grandmother, the mother, the mother's daughter."

Like other shows of its type, "Guiding Light" was dubbed a soap opera because it was created expressly to sell cleaning products to housewives.

The "opera" part came because …. well, just take Reva and Josh. On the show, they were married seven times each, sometimes to each other. The soaps entice audience with melodrama.

The Beginning Of Soap Operas

So who came up with this enduring idea? A little-known Chicago woman named Irna Phillips.

"Her idea was to come up with this daily story that was just completely ensconced in the domestic life of women," said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"In radio, she comes up with these daily serialized things and then she goes on to create most of the soap operas that we watch for the next half-century."

Phillips created at least six or eight soap opera still on air today, including "The Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns."

For "Guiding Light," she created families like the Bauers. Crusty old Papa Bauer was a key figure at the beginning.

Today, his great-grandson Rick is still living in the fictional town of Springfield, where he recently gave his fiancé some surprise news about the fifth Bauer generation.

It takes a whole team of writers to keep up with the goings-on in Springfield. They put out 262 brand new episodes a year, featuring 30 main characters and hundreds of extras.

Milee Taggart, a former soap opera actress herself, is the chief writer — the one who keeps it all organized.

"In each scene and every day … like there's usually 24 pieces in a day," said Taggart. "Little different scenes. You have to plan each one."

Taggart says the opera is all about the characters, families and relationships. Steamy relationships like the one between Reva and Josh.

"We've grown up together. I mean, Josh used to be a bad guy and Reva was spoiled rotten," said Zimmer, who plays Reva. "And just kind of took what she could from him and his family."

Reva has died…and come back. At one point, she was even cloned in the show. Josh was crippled, and confined to a wheelchair, but miraculously recovered.

"I think part of the enjoyment of a soap is that its own utter stupidity on some level," said professor Thompson. "Every now and then, while you're watching a soap at the edge of your chair, really into it, it'll hit you that, 'man, this is really stupid.' And that's part of its appeal."

But "Guiding Light" and other soaps have also dared to address issues that were once taboo on television. The soaps has tackled topics like a baby born with Down syndrome, breast cancer and prescription drug abuse.

Soaps were among the first television shows to take minority actors out of servants' uniforms and put them in white collar roles. Billy Dee Williams played a doctor on "Guiding Light," as did James Earl Jones.

The '60s marked just the beginning of that attempt to bring diversity to television. Asians, Latinos and others were eventually brought to the table.

They Started Somewhere

And look who else has turned up on "Guiding Light." Calista Flockhart was a baby sitter, before she became Ally McBeal. Kevin Bacon played a troubled teen-ager.

But 50 years may have taken its toll. The soap opera audience is shrinking down 19 percent in the last five years.

"Syndicated talk shows are so much cheaper to do and they get good ratings," said Thompson. "The soap opera, five days a week, an enormous cast … it is really something of a miracle that it has lived as long as it has."

Thompson believes that soap operas are an endangered species.

But if their numbers are smaller, soap fans' devotion is still huge — even among working women. They are drawn to the very same themes that attracted earlier viewers.

Fans talk about characters, like Reva and Josh, as if they really know them. In honor of the show's 50th anniversary, the writers had Riva and Josh get married for the third time. They've done it so often that they performed the ceremony themselves.

But, something will happen soon to disrupt their lives and separate them. Of course it will…because that's what's kept "Guiding Light" going for more than a half-century.