While others toil at mundane jobs, Rex M. Best titillates as he works.
He cozies up to the three Emmys in his Greensboro home and dreams up ways for the Newmans, Abbotts, and Forresters to fall or jump into or out of love or mayhem.
The Stantonsburg native has been a scriptwriter for 2009 Emmy-winning daytime drama, "The Bold and The Beautiful" for the past seven years, after 15 years with "The Young and the Restless."
"We don't get paid as much as they do in nighttime," Best says. "But I've had a great job I love for over 20 years."
He may not make it to 30. When "Guiding Light," the longest-running soap opera in TV history at 72 years, including its radio run, airs its final episode at 3 p.m. Friday, seven soaps will remain.
"Honestly, all of us fear for our jobs," says Best, 53.
Started with a spoof
The thing that attracted viewers in the past, "the long continuous middle" of a serial, hooked Best in college. While Best was co-editor of The Hilltop at Mars Hill College, he and his friends stole an idea from the San Francisco Chronicle and began writing their own soap opera.
"We had so much fun coming up with these crazy characters and antics about a college paper," Best says. "It was based on the Norman Lear show 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.' We called it 'Pauline Pratt, Pauline Pratt.' It was a shameless rip-off. We had a lot of fun."
Best, who also has a graduate degree from Appalachian State, was teaching at a special education school in Greensboro and following shows such as "The Edge of Night" when he was introduced to Kay Alden. Alden became a co-head writer at "Y&R" in 1998, the same position she now holds at "B&B."
"No one knew I [wrote soaps] on the side," Best says. "[Alden] would send me old outlines of shows that had already aired, and I'd write scripts and send them to her for feedback."
Best did that for 18 months. Then "B&B" began airing on CBS in 1987. Writing slots opened up at "Y&R," and Best got a six-month trial and his foot in the door.
Money is the key
When Best started, soaps made buckets of money and bankrolled prime time. Now an overhauled version of "Let's Make a Deal," cheaper to make than a soap, will replace "Guiding Light" starting Oct. 5. (Watch "Price is Right" reruns until then.)
Ratings for daytime serials have been declining for years, and advertisers are losing interest. When Best started at "Y&R" in 1987, "General Hospital" had the best Nielsen rating with an 8.3 share. "Y&R," the ratings champ for years, pulled in a 3 in 2008.
"If I had the solution to bringing in new viewers, I'd tell you," Best says. "I don't think anyone really knows at this point. In a way, I think [the crisis] has taken people by surprise. Networks have been in a never-ending quest to bring in new viewers, and they tried a lot of different things that I don't necessarily think were well thought out."
Money is still driving the daytime bus, albeit in the wrong direction. NBC's "Days of Our Lives" is signed through September 2010 only. ABC is moving "All My Children" production to Los Angeles to save money.
"Networks just aren't going out on a limb," Best says. "Everyone is cutting. We have to adapt and change."
Soaps run five days a week, 52 weeks a year, with no reruns. For those who work in the industry, that has meant job security that peers in prime time and movies could only dream about.
The sheer amount of work can also feel like a trap, but Best thinks soaps can break out of it.
"I think the solution will always be good storytelling," he says. "I hate to see this uniquely American art form die out. It would be sad and sort of tragic."
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