to bring you... It's only April, and so far 2009's been a rough year for viewers in the New York metropolitan area who watch Guiding Light on WCBS. Last week, it was live coverage of the installation of a new archbishop that enraged GL fans in general, Otalia fans in particular. Actually, I think it was the press conference preceding the ceremony - doesn't matter. Earlier, Phillip Spaulding's return to Springfield had been interrupted so viewers could watch Captain Sullenberger, the pilot who made the emergency landing in the Hudson River, receive the key to the city.
While I'm largely in agreement with Carolyn Hinsey's take on whether or not Timothy Dolan's installation actually constituted news, neither the archbishop nor the captain comes even close to what was perhaps the single most egregious intrusion into a soap by a local affiliate. Read on.
It was ten years ago, Patriot's Day 1999 - Minutemen and Red Coats recreating the "shot heard ‘round the world" on Lexington Green, tens of thousands running the Boston Marathon - that I was watching a tape of that day's General Hospital and reaching for a tissue as Lieutenant Taggert started to tell Elizabeth Weber that her boyfriend, Lucky Spencer, has died in the fire that had started the previous Friday when all of the sudden I was watching a runner cross the finish line. Since GH airs at 3PM, long after the winners had crossed the line, I was a little... Well, let's say, confused.
Turns out the runner completing the race was a reporter for the local ABC affiliate, WCVB. I get that the people in the newsroom were excited for their colleague. But they were watching the feed in the studio. What, beyond a staggering combination of hubris, narcissism and self-aggrandizement, never mind complete disregard for viewers, could have possibly convinced the news director that this event was so important to the community that it warranted live coverage? I called the next day to ask; given the events that unfolded that afternoon at Columbine, I didn't take it personally that she never returned my call.
It had only been a couple of minutes, but when GH returned the moment between Taggert and Elizabeth had passed, never to be repeated. It's hard to explain to people who don't watch soaps just how powerful those small moments can be. How did Elizabeth react? Was she hysterical? Stoic? Confused? Did she cry? Scream? Or did she listen in silence, struggling to comprehend the words? What about Taggert? The reactions shots? No SOAPNet back then.
I was reminded of this as I was ff'ing through As the World Turns yesterday. Late in the episode the screen split, and while Craig was taking about nothing that interested me, I watched 68-year-old Dick Hoyt push his 47-year-old wheelchair-bound son, Rick, across the Boston Marathon finish line, an event, it pains me to say, I found more touching than anything I've seen on ATWT in a good long while. But at least WBZ gave me the option to decide what I wanted to watch. And for that I'm grateful.
As for the networks, while 1994 will forever be known as the year O.J. ate the soaps, the silliness actually began with Jeff Gillooly, a name that even 15 years later, former ATWT executive producer, Laurie Caso, hasn't forgotten. One day in January 1994, just as Lily and Holden are about to make love in the bell tower (for many viewers the first time that counted because sure Lily and Holden had been married, and Heather Rattray was a nice girl and all - but Martha was back) when CBS broke in with live coverage of Jeff Gillooly's arraignment - yup, I said arraignment - in the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. For those of you who've forgotten, Gillooly was at the time married to Kerrigan's rival, Tonya Harding.
It was a pivotal episode that set up Lily's kidnapping. So Caso prevailed upon CBS to rerun the entire show the next day, which they did; the first and last time that's ever happened. From there the silliness escalated. I can't remember whether it was before, after or during the O.J. coverage that Tom Brokow thought it imperative that viewers watching Days of Our Lives be provided live coverage of the Olympic Committee announcing that Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Winter Olympics. Some day someone will have to explain to me exactly what defines "breaking news."
C. Lee Harrington (co-author of Soap Fans), considered the impact of the networks' "non-routine news coverage" in a 1998 article, "Is anyone else out there sick of the news?!: TV Viewers' Responses to Non-Routine News Coverage." But in recent years, the affiliates have been far more intrusive than the networks. Now, it goes without saying that there are legitimate reasons for affiliates to break into regular programming (though it's funny how they only seem to do during the soaps. I'd love to know what the criteria are for interrupting primetime and sports) but not because the Red Sox hired a new manager or a crane collapsed in downtown Boston. Those events can wait for the regularly scheduled news. A miles-long traffic back-up on Route 128? - I'm really not making this up - run a crawl. Raining, snowing? Run a crawl - or maybe viewers can just look out the window and see for themselves.
© 2009 Lynn Liccardo
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