Neighbours fans love a cliffhanger, but this is the outcome they were all dreading. When news broke last month that the Australian soap was facing the chop following Channel 5’s decision to cut off its cash supply, there were hopes that another backer could be found.
But those dreams have been dashed: producer Fremantle Media has failed to find a new partner, so Neighbours will end in June after a near 37-year run.
“Following the loss of our key broadcast partner in the UK and despite an extensive search for alternative funding, we simply have no option but to rest the show,” said a spokesperson. “To our amazing, loyal fans, we know this is a huge disappointment, as it is to all of us on the team.”
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Nostalgists will now go into overdrive and articles will be written about Scott and Charlene’s wedding, the horrors of Nel Mangel’s portrait, Jim Robinson’s fatal heart attack being upstaged by a falling fruit bowl, Bouncer the dog’s surreal dream, and Kerry Mangel’s duck-hunt demise. At its peak in the 1980s, Neighbours was watched by 20 million, but has since seen a fall in both prestige and viewership.
First came the 2008 move in the UK from BBC1 to the less-salubrious Channel 5, which was followed by Neighbours then heading to a digital channel in its home country. In recent years, it’s actually Channel 5 that’s ensured cameras have kept rolling, so that an audience of 1 million remain happy. But the broadcaster now believes that funding Neighbours no longer makes sound business sense.
Recently, the channel has experienced sizeable success after upping its drama game and taking on the big boys at 9.00pm. Its revival of All Creatures Great and Small outperformed the opposition on BBC1 and ITV with debut overnight ratings of 3.3m and is now filming a third series.
And in the wake of James Herriot being seen pootling around Yorkshire, we’ve had classy adaptations of PD James’s Adam Dalgliesh murder mysteries and several potboiler thrillers (The Teacher, The Holiday among them) that have sparked viewer interest after being stripped across weeknights.
Channel 5 has obviously asked itself: why bankroll an early evening soap that nets an audience of 1 million when there’s the potential of tripling that figure in primetime?
The decision also comes at a time when the viability of scheduled TV in general is being called into question. At the peak of their powers, soaps were used to lock viewers in to a channel in the early part of an evening in the hope that they’d stick around through to 11.00pm. But on-demand TV has effectively turned us all into schedulers, as we select shows to watch at a time of our own choosing.
And, yes, those smart new productions such as All Creatures Great and Small can be found at 9.00pm on Channel 5, but they’re also available on the My5 app, ready to be viewed with our evening meal at 6.00pm should we so wish. Over the last few years, the soaps have found themselves competing not only with what’s on at that time on rival channels, but streaming services too. And audiences for soap operas have begun to fall as a result.
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Broadcasters have reacted to this change in circumstances in different ways. Sometimes, they’ve swung the axe, as Channel 5 has done with Neighbours, and BBC1 with Holby City (which is set to screen its final episode later this month).
ITV, on the other hand, has ploughed all its energies into transforming its early evening schedule into the go-to destination for soap, with Emmerdale showing back-to-back with extended hour-long episodes of Coronation Street. Channel 4, meanwhile, has decided to make Hollyoaks episodes available on All 4 prior to them being broadcast on linear TV.
What they all recognise, though, is that the genre of soap is at something of a crossroads. And the two options open to channel bosses are clear: either they fight on in the hope that these long-running shows survive, or they call it a day and allow the final credits to roll. Neighbours, unfortunately for its fans and those who work on it, has become a casualty of that rather brutal decision-making process.
The issue now is whether other soaps will also reach their own expiration date. Yes, there are still ardent fanbases debating each moral quandary and obsessing over the latest will-they-won’t-they romance. But the problem is that newcomers aren’t necessarily being attracted to the likes of EastEnders and Coronation Street.
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Viewers have become too used to watching prestige dramas with serialised narratives and budgets on the scale of Hollywood movies. And what’s more, they can binge these glossy shows long into the night. To someone watching it for the first time, The Crown is, let’s face it, the slickest soap imaginable. How can quaint little Erinsborough possibly compete?
Channel 5 plainly wants a piece of that action, hence it offering its own glossy 9.00pm offerings in bingeable weeknight chunks. What’s regrettable is that the kind of audience to whom Neighbours caters is kind of forgotten about in the process.
There are still those who bask in the glow of the sunny, disposable escapism it provides. They recognise its faults and contrivances but continue to love it. And they’ve found comfort in following the lives of these familiar characters over years and often decades. For its loyal fans, these Neighbours have truly become good friends.
But watchers of other long-running continuing dramas ought to be on their guard as well. After we lose access to Ramsay Street this summer, it feels that there’s every chance that we’ll end up having to say goodbye to other soap neighbourhoods, too.
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