On the venerable CBS soap opera "Guiding Light," the fictional Bauer family each year holds a big Fourth of July barbecue. The production crew typically sets up fake smoke, in a fake grill, in a fake backyard.
"That's how it has always been," said Ellen Wheeler, the soap's executive producer. "And we add the sound of sizzling hamburgers."
Now the annual event, set to tape in June, will look a lot different. No more actors in swimsuits with water sprayed on them from bottles. This time, the cast really will be outside, and Wheeler is contemplating the idea of having live sparklers during the scene - an impossibility in a studio setting. "When you really are outside, it changes the feeling for you," Wheeler said.
Soap operas have by and large been shot as if they were an old warhorse like "I Love Lucy," with bulky, 300-pound "pedestal" cameras panning from a distance while actors strut their stuff in front of a three-walled set, Some production tricks are borrowed from old-time radio.
Cue the music: Now, faced with an aging audience, declining ratings, and the loss of ad dollars, the soap opera is getting a major makeover. With viewers proving to be less willing to ignore the obvious rigged techniques, TV networks have begun to move the programs into the 21st century.
At CBS, such efforts are accelerating. Since Feb. 29, CBS's "Guiding Light" has looked a lot more like prime-time fare. The show has dropped those bulky $1 million cameras and now uses eight-pound digital minicams that cost $10,000 to $25,000.
Thanks to the new technology, camera operators can shoot over characters' shoulders, across a table, and follow people as they descend stairways or walk around town. For the first time, 20 percent of nearly every episode will be shot outdoors, in Peapack, a small New Jersey town the show has adopted. Before, the soap was shot in outdoor locations once or twice a year, if the crew was lucky. Now, it usually shoots in Peapack twice a week.
Not to be outdone, ABC has been adding more computer-generated special effects to reliable standbys such as "General Hospital," said Brian Frons, president, daytime, of Disney-ABC Television Group. On the day "Guiding Light" unveiled its new look, ABC used special effects to deliver a scene showing a passenger-packed car balancing precariously on a bridge.
Celebrity guest stars have also become more common on ABC soaps. "Anything we can do to change the picture in the mind of the audience about the genre, that's to everbody's benefit," he said.
Networks certainly have a reason to make their programs look and feel more like a reality TV show. Research shows that audiences found the programs' look outdated, said Brian T. Cahill, senior vice president and managing director of TeleNext Media Inc., which manages "Guiding Light" and "As The World Turns" for Procter & Gamble's P&G Productions, owner of the shows.
"Some of these soap opera-production conventions were distracting for people, and it's because we live in an age where prime-time programming is very authentic," he said.
Years ago, soaps had little daytime competition - aside from each other. Now cable networks run repeats of popular prime-time dramas filmed with high-quality special effects and in realistic settings. Broadcast networks also face new pressures to keep production costs low as viewers find more entertainment on the Web and elsewhere.
When it comes to soaps, Boston ad buyers aren't confident better technology will revive their popularity. After all, marketers who traditionally use soap operas to reach women who spend money at retail stores, or on home goods or recreational and entertainment purchases, are more likely to find them at work, some analysts say, and can reach them better online.
It's certainly no secret that soap audiences have been steadily eroding for years. Nearly 4.8 million people watched "Guiding Light" from Sept. 22, 1997 to Sept 20, 1998, according to Nielsen Media Research. About 2.6 million have watched it live or on the same day between Sept. 24, 2007 and January 13, 2008. Ad dollars - which come from big spenders including P&G, Johnson & Johnson, and Kraft Foods - are ebbing as well. Ad spending on the eight network soap operas has dipped from about $1.15 billion in 2004 to about $1.04 billion in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
"For an at-home audience, that day part is still going to have decent reach, but there just aren't as many people staying at home any more," said Lisa Adams, vice president and media director at A&G, a Watertown ad agency.
Even so, it's hard to find a media property that in one fell swoop can reach one million people who are so devoted to individual programs. General Mills' Cheerios recently ran ads during "As The World Turns" and "Guiding Light" on CBS that made reference to specific characters and plots from previous weeks. The marketer was confident rapt viewers would know exactly what the ads spoke about, said Sara Rohland, marketing representative for Cheerios cereal.
Having devout fans can cut both ways, however.
"I don't know if the soap operas' loyal viewers will adapt well," said Carrie Drinkwater, a Boston-based senior vice president and group account director at ad-buying firm MPG. "It will be interesting to see if they bring in new viewers or if there's backlash. I think it might be both. It might bring in some new audiences, and there might be some old ladies who just don't like it. People get pretty set in their ways."
One person who isn't, surprisingly, is Wheeler, the "Guiding Light" producer. A veteran soap actress and director, she worked for the better part of a year to transform the production of the show. It wasn't easy.
Veteran crew members had to learn to use digital cameras, and scenic artists constructed permanent sets, not just the three-walled backdrops most soaps utilize. Amid her preparations, both CBS and P&G came to her and told her they wanted the show to look more realistic - though it's not lost on anyone that these changes will save money.
Now, the control room is gone, replaced by a portable passel of electronic tools. Even producers' offices have been transformed into such settings as the town church and a seedy hotel room. The new equipment makes it easier for Wheeler to prepare episodes for online video and cellphones and virtually eliminates the necessity to transport bulky sets from a Brooklyn warehouse to the show's New York broadcast center. (Now the sets, from a police station to a courthouse, are all permanent and ready for action.)
More important, said Wheeler, fans can now watch "Guiding Light" and recognize it as a modern TV show, not something from 1960.
"If they turned on 'Grey's Anatomy' one night and it all of a sudden was shot like a soap, they would cease to watch it," she said. "I don't think they look at a soap and say, 'Wow, that looks really bad,' but they do look at it and say, 'Wow, that looks like a soap opera.' Nothing else on television looks like that.' "
Brian Steinberg is the TV editor of Advertising Age.