Well, at last a political topic on which I am something of an expert. My husband, actor Tom O’Rourke, played Justin Marler on the Guiding Light for seven years and many years later came back to see about working as a director. At that time, the show was struggling to survive the downturn in TV viewership, just like all the other soaps and TV shows.
How well I remember his early days working on the show as an actor. In those heady days, the show sometimes had as many as 15 to 20 million viewers on any given weekday and the show was on five days a week. Every week the ratings came out, causing some story lines to fade and some to get beefed up. A good villain was the best ratings ticket for a soap opera. The Guiding Light had Roger Thorpe for a villain played magnificently by Michael Zaslow, who took great delight in constantly scheming to ruin every character on the show’s life. The fiendishly convoluted and conniving traps he enmeshed the most innocent of characters in and their long-suffering struggles to escape his devilish clutches provided endless hours of soap suds. At last, usually when his contract was up, someone would manage to defeat him somehow or accidently kill him. But, no matter how many times he seemed to be dead and gone forever, (while he stuck up the show for a bigger pay check), miraculously he escaped his untimely death to come back to torment the residents of Springfield again, creating daily misery for all.
Every good soap opera needs a rip-roaring villain like Roger. Enter the highly creative writing team at CNN who have devised an outrageous story line of high level perfidy and treason, casting President Trump as their villain, complete with secret Russian spy contacts. They are working hard to sell this story line, with new episodes of Trumpian villainy every day. Hillary is the soap sob queen, robbed of her rightful place in Springfield, I mean, Washington DC.
The CNN soap opera reminds me a great deal of the last days of the Guiding Light. They’d cast a rather strident woman to play a character named Reva. This character was a much maligned, long-suffering, outspoken feminist type, who had harsh words for just about everyone. Her confrontational manner was, of course, always justified by some new wronged woman plotline. While I certainly can understand why some women were gratified by and identified with Reva, that kind of character is not to everyone's taste. But for a while, the novelty of a feminist female soap lead did get good ratings, so they threw more and more of the show to that character.
The problem was that the Reva character was so aggressive and polarizing that many of their loyal old fans would turn on the show, see that it was going to be all about Reva that day, and turn to another channel. The result was that eventually the audience consisted only of people who really got off on seeing an angry woman. They'd lost everybody else. Then the novelty of a feminist soap queen wore off, and they had nothing else.
I suppose you could say they'd put all their eggs in one basket, but it was more complex than that. They'd been desperate for ratings and when the new and somewhat shocking Reva story lines got a pop, they threw the whole show that way. It turned out that once they'd lost their loyal viewers in exchange for short term ratings pops, those viewers, who regarded Springfield as their fantasy hometown, never came back.
CNN and the networks have made the same type of error. They have hung all their hopes on the President Trump is a Russian spy story line. That story line initially had tremendous shock value, so they gave up on all their loyal viewers, who’d trusted them for the real news for years, and went for the short-term pop, and perhaps they will end up just like the Guiding Light: cancelled. Their loyal viewers are learning that they can no longer get even a little bit of real news, like they'd always turned to CNN to see, and may just change the channel, never to return.