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Soap Watch: Big changes at ''Guiding Light''

This week: The longest-running show in broadcast history has made some big changes to its look, plus a ”Days” favorite returns to Salem, a ”One Life” youngster heads to ”Law & Order,” and more…

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The Guiding Light

Today (Feb. 29) is the big day for the folks over on Guiding Light. After more than a year of research, planning, and preparation, fans will finally get their first look at a complete episode featuring the show’s new production model. From the 360-degree sets to the gritty handicam work to the abundance of outdoor shots, the perennially ratings-challenged GL is trying to shake things up and pull in new fans. But with message boards already abuzz with negative reactions to the exterior shots that have aired (”The ‘natural’ light is too harsh? Viewers want fantasy!”) should they be worried about how existing fans feel about the new look?

Executive producer Ellen Wheeler feels that they’ve done right by loyal viewers, keeping the focus on what keeps fans coming back (the stories) while building on what viewers want more of (ways to connect to the characters). ”Our fans love that expanded ability to show where the characters live,” the actress-turned-producer said. ”We ID’ed what fans like about soaps and tried not change to those things. This just changes things so it’s not like they’re watching from the 14th row…. Seeing the guys on the construction site, instead of sitting in the restaurant and talking about when they were on the construction site, really helps set the tone.”

Location shots for scenes like Friday’s between Reva and Cassie outside the cabin used to be a rare thing because of the cost and planning they would have required. But with the handheld digital cameras replacing the large, old-school standards, location filming in the town of Peapack, NJ now accounts for 20 percent of the show, with plans for that to increase.

Meanwhile, ditching the huge, bulky old cameras for the much smaller handicams enables the show to give Springfield homes and businesses a complete overhaul. Company restaurant and the Spaulding study (pictured) still look generally the same, but now there are more details to them because the extra room allows the show to have more permanent sets that don’t have to be broken down for other scenes. That means rooms can have ceilings, hallways actually connect to other rooms, staircases lead to second floors that can actually be filmed, and the plumbing and lighting even work. Forty sets now occupy space that once held eight at any given time.

Wheeler says she’s not really feeling pressure to increase viewership, and though she concedes that ratings are what drive television, no one involved wants to directly tie the overhuals to ratings. ”Of course we hope people will watch GL as it embarks on its new production model,” says Barbara Bloom, Sr. VP of Daytime Programs at CBS,” but more importantly, because it has incredibly compelling stories to tell and we feel the audience’s investment will be richly rewarded.”

So far, Bloom isn’t planning to make such changes at other CBS shows, and sources at ABC say there are no known plans to follow suit on their soaps either. ABC does point to the CGI work being done on General Hospital in today’s wrap-up of the Text Message Killer story as one example of how they’re trying to contemporize the show. (NBC reps did not return emails for comment.) Whatever the other nets plan, Wheeler isn’t concerned about starting a trend.

”It took this dedicated cast and crew to make this happen,” Wheeler said. ”I don’t think any other show could do this.”

Life in the Cast Lane
EW.com has confirmed that Arianne Zucker is returning to Days of Our Lives as Nicole Walker on April 2. She originated the role in 1998 and left the show in 2006…. On the heels of news about Tom Pelphrey’s impending exit from Guiding Light comes word that Ricky Paull Goldin (Gus) is also ankling Springfield. The actor broke the news to fans on the official GL message board that he’ll leave when his contract expires ”in a couple of weeks.” ”Gus has been a huge part of my life and I will really miss portraying him and bringing this character to life for you. My seven years on Guiding Light have been a wonderful experience. Now it’s time for a new adventure, a new chapter in my life. I will especially miss working with Beth Ehlers, since it doesn’t get any better than ‘Gus and Harley.”’ GL’s exec-producer Ellen Wheeler said: ”We had really hoped that Ricky would stay on as a member of the cast of Guiding Light. Unfortunately, we were not able to come to terms on his contract. We are sad to see him go and wish him the best.” Goldin’s daytime resume also includes a run on The Young and the Restless…. One Life to Live‘s Austin Williams (Shane) will appear in an episode of Law & Order titled ”Angelgrove” on March 19…. Ian Buchanan returns to Bold and the Beautiful as Dr. James Warwick and takes the stand at Baby Jack’s custody hearing, on Monday, March 3.