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HARD TO SAY GOODBYE

As Guiding Light ends its 72-year broadcast run, fans feel like they're losing family.

Her mother has been gone for a few years now. But St. Petersburg native April Grant still fondly recalls many days spent watching the classic soap opera Guiding Light with mom Margaret - continuing a tradition that started with her grandmother, who first heard the 72-year-old program when it was a radio broadcast.

That's why it's so hard for April Grant - who now lives in Vancouver and maintains an online fan site devoted to the show called Big Purple Dreams - to face today's final broadcast of the show.

"It's like a death in the family ... losing the last tangible piece of a grandmother or parents," said Grant. "It's a little more emotional than I had prepared myself for - it feels like losing my mother all over again."

Fans across the globe have faced similar feelings, since CBS announced back in April that Guiding Light would end today after more than 15,000 episodes and a well-earned spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Started initially as a 15-minute radio broadcast in 1937, the show moved to television in 1952 and became an hourlong daytime drama in 1977. Grant, now 41, recalls watching characters such as Philip Spaulding and Beth Raines head to their proms right before she went to hers; now those characters are veteran names.

Felled by technology and social progress:The powerful forces that finally ended Guiding Light's run include a female daytime audience increasingly drawn into the work force, increased competition from cable TV and unscripted shows, and the digital video recorder.

"The industry couldn't adapt to a changing audience," said Grant, who lamented young viewers lining up to watch Gossip Girl remain unaware of the daytime show that started it all. "People don't sit in front of their TVs to watch a soap anymore, they use a DVR to watch it on the weekend."

Famous faces started there: Guiding Light's famous acting alumni include Christopher Walken in the 1950s, Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones in the mid '60s, Kevin Bacon in the '80s and Heroes star Hayden Panettierre in the mid '90s.

Tampa Bay area natives Brittany Snow and Crystal Hunt got their first showbiz jobs on Guiding Light. Hunt, now 24, landed on the show's set straight from classes at Palm Harbor University High School, playing troubled teen Lizzie Spaulding from 2003 to 2006.

"Being on a soap opera is like getting paid to get the best acting training ever," said Hunt, who now plays Stacy Morasco on the ABC soap One Life to Live. "In my first five months, I was sent to boarding school, burned it down, then came home and had a nervous breakdown. ... I loved that challenge."

End of an era - perhaps for a reason: To cut costs, producers last year began using hand held cameras in outdoor locations, which make many scenes look like a college film school project. Still, Grant remains hopeful that plans to take two gay characters from the show, Olivia and Natalia, into an online series called Venice might point the way to a new future for soap operas.

Until then, those connected to the show have to finish grieving. "My mom watched it yesterday, and my grandfather on the show died," said Hunt, referring to the character Alan Spaulding, a longtime villain. "It's just so sad to see all this TV history ending like this."

If you watch

Guiding Light

The show caps 72 years on air with a final episode at 3 p.m. today on WTSP-Ch. 10.

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