There's nothing soap fans hate more than change. Whether a show's longtime leading teen is recast with a skinnier actress or the show suddenly changes dramatic style with the entrance of a new headwriter, viewers freak out because what they have always prized about daytime drama is its continuity and constancy. Now, in 2007, soaps have shrinking budgets to correspond with miniscule ratings. So some soaps have to make big, big changes - or they will face cancellation.
This week Procter and Gamble announced its two classic soaps, 55-year-old Guiding Light (70 including radio) and 51-year-old As the World Turns, both on the "bubble" of cancellation (that's programming talk for "maybe , may not") will institute new, cheaper production techniques. New, smaller (and less expensive) digital cameras and other technology will be used to shoot the new soaps partially outdoors on location in real towns around the New York City area and on sets with four walls instead of three.
Will this kind of radical production change save GL and ATWT? Artfully executed, opening up stuffy old studio-bound soaps like ATWT and GL could have its benefits. American fans of the cult British soap Hollyoaks rave about the realism of the show, which is regularly produced on outdoor locations. Plus, GL executive producer Ellen Wheeler and ATWT executive producer Christopher Goutman (who started their soap careers as actors twenty five years ago on P&G) have always been careful, intelligent producers whose shows are produced meticulously. In contrast, Soapnet/ABC's latest soap General Hospital: Night Shift, put together cheaply, was a sloppy production nightmare. ATWT's Goutman has done a superb job with recent location work shot with digital cameras (such as Luke's accident and three other storyline events, all shot on Staten Island over a three-day period). The casts of both ATWT and GL are both solid, trained acting veterans who could perform anywhere under any circumstances.
Can't you just see GL's Kim Zimmer (Reva, in fur, of course) mushing a dog sled through the frozen New Jersey tundra in the middle of a February blizzard? "Buck, Buck...!"
On the other hand, one of the major mistakes that can be traced down through soap opera history is penchant survival-threatened producers and networks have for changing the surface values of a show rather than review and change key elements of its core drama such as writing quality and style. When ABC reworked its failing soap Loving into The City in 1995, network executives crowed about the hip, modernizing benefits of moving the cast of a Midwestern-based soap into a hip Soho, New York City, loft. The show was canceled in 1997. When ABC'sPort Charles (originally a General Hospital spin-off) faltered, in 2001 several of the key characters were turned into vampires and the show became quasi fantasy/sci-fi. It was canceled in 2003.
These two late soaps are extreme examples of soaps that made stylistic changes and failed anyway. By the time both original shows were reworked, neither soap was older than twelve years. GL and ATWT are iconic American classics that have been around for decades. Can the radical production changes planned by Procter and Gamble save these shows? Or will soap fans, who historically hate change, just tune out?
Can I be the first? Although we've only heard super Mafioso villain Anthony Zacchara's voice from behind the closed double doors of his mansion on GeneralHospital, actor Bruce Weitz already seems sublime to me. Just the high-pitched tone of his crazily agitated voice suggests many entertaining scenes to come. His skill as an Emmy-winning character actor (he played barking detective Becker on Hill St. Blues) portends all kind of hilarity and solid drama as he faces down mob rival Sonny and everyone else in Port Charles. (Zacchara comes face to face with Sonny on October 19). Marlena sincerely hopes that Zacchara's madness is of the comic kind, and not an excuse for one of those preachy mental health stories