‘Guiding Light’ Changed the Face of Broadcasting

Created by women for women, it laid the groundwork for Shonda Rhimes, Tina Fey — and Anne Sweeney.

 

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’re probably aware that “Guiding Light," the iconic, longest-running grandmother of all soap operas, is ending its 72-year run (including 57 on CBS) on Friday.
 
Much ink has been spilled about the soap’s demise (timely or untimely, take your pick), including blood, sweat and tears from fans, journalists, actors and analysts. But most of the articles, blogs, obituaries and letters, awash in blame and/or rose-colored nostalgia, fail to completely capture the fact that this show — which began life as a crudely produced radio drama created to sell soap and preach family values — changed the face of broadcasting and the very fabric of this country.
 
This is a show that was created by women for women — long before modern showrunners like Shonda Rhimes and Tina Fey.
 
Sure, the groundwork laid by pioneering writers Irna Phillips and Agnes Nixon, and producers Lucy Rittenberg and Gail Kobe (among hundreds of others) changed the way the American public viewed female characters, but their immeasurable contributions also paved the way for real-life execs like Disney/ABC’s Anne Sweeney, CBS’s Nancy Tellem and Nina Tassler, and NBC/Universal’s Lauren Zalaznick, to name a few.
 
Let’s take a moment to honor a show that built a bridge for thousands of women to march into positions of power in broadcasting.
 
Just as important, the conventions that made “GL” famous — overly talky scenes, complicated family relationships, lush romances, corporate intrigue and gut-wrenching medical emergencies — are still alive and well on current shows like “Mad Men," “Grey’s Anatomy," “Big Brother," “The Bachelor” and “Law & Order,” among many others.
 
And don’t forget that “GL” is, at its heart, the story of immigrants (the feisty, upstanding German-American Bauer family) and their neighbors overcoming adversity, finding romance, searching for wealth, happiness and a brighter tomorrow.
 
Stories and characters have touched chords and broken hearts for decades, and even the simplest plots from the show’s earliest days resonate today thanks to universal themes of love, acceptance and success in a new and foreign land.
 
Anyone who feels television is out of touch with the American melting plot needs to study “GL's" early days for inspiration. 
 
In fact, themes like immigration and ethnic diversity have been soap staples for decades. If you think the soaps are nothing more than muscles, miscarriages and steamy musical montages, you haven’t been paying attention to the quality storytelling these shows provide.
 
“GL” in particular has a rich history of telling responsible-yet-escapist stories about characters who could be your friends, family or neighbors. There will likely never be a show — on radio, TV or online — that is so firmly ensconced in the American consciousness on so many levels.
 
And that’s, perhaps, the most important thing to remember as we bury this aging warhorse of a show.
 
At its best, “GL” taught us how to be more loving, more accepting, more confident, more creative and more hopeful. And in a town like Hollywood in a year like 2009, that is something we should all celebrate.