Why soaps like Neighbours are finally making a splash on streaming

jackie woodburne and alan fletcher as karl and susan kennedy in neighbours
Why soaps are finally making a splash on streamingFremantle

Soaps and streaming have often seemed as compatible as oil and water. As big-budget services like Netflix and Prime Video grew, so did the narrative that they'd eventually cause the death of long-running shows like Coronation Street, EastEnders and Emmerdale.

The situation seemed particularly bleak in the early months of last year, as Holby City disappeared from our screens after a 23-year run on BBC One and Neighbours was dropped by Channel 5 in favour of shorter-run drama series that could air in prime time.

Fears for the future of the genre are well-founded. Soaps have spent decades as linchpins of linear TV schedules and were beneficial to the broadcasters for their ability to hook in a large audience every evening, keeping them around for other shows afterwards.

Those days are long gone: in recent years, the appeal of linear TV and fixed schedules has declined across the board. The soaps have been no exception, falling from the glory days when they could pull in audiences of 20 million or more.

But with the dawn of the new year, are there early signs that soaps have a place in TV's streaming-focused future after all?

2023 started with the surprising news that classic Channel 4 soap Brookside would be repeated from the start on the STV Player.

Despite gathering dust on the shelf for so many years, Brookside has broken records for the online service, becoming its fastest show ever to reach 1 million streams. In early February, more than 130,000 users had watched one full episode or more.

It's worth keeping these "record breaker" headlines in context, as the STV Player is a much smaller fish than the streaming giants. Most people outside of Scotland wouldn't have heard of the service before it became the new home of Brookside, so a soap rising to the top of its charts wasn't too much of a mountain to climb.

Lime Pictures/STV Player

What's striking, though, is how picking up a classic soap quickly helped the STV Player to achieve one of its main aims. Since early 2020, the player has been trying to rebrand itself as a standalone, UK-wide streaming service, rather than something only available in Scotland. (Being honest, we had no idea.)

In early February, 65% of all Brookside streams had come from outside the Scotland broadcast region – so job done.

New fans will have also seen the other shows that the service has to offer when logging on to watch Brookside – a bit like the 2023 version of soaps boosting the rest of a TV schedule.

Brookside is only back for reruns, so Amazon will undoubtedly be hoping for even bigger success when it launches the new season of Neighbours on its free streaming service Freevee in the second half of 2023.

susan kennedy, karl kennedy and toadie rebecchi in neighbours
Channel 5

Much like the STV Player, Freevee was hardly a household name before it stepped in to save Neighbours at the end of last year. However, by becoming the Aussie soap's new home, the fledgling streamer can soon rely on a flood of new fans who are willing to use the app every day.

The decision to re-launch Neighbours on a streaming service makes more commercial sense than you might think. Soaps audiences are fiercely loyal and highly engaged when it comes to their favourite shows – qualities worth banking on when pursuing long-term success for an online service.

Soaps are known to be expensive to produce due to their high episode counts, but when judged by price tag per individual hour of television, they're actually much cheaper than other shows due to their purpose-built sets and limited location scenes.

For a streamer looking to keep fans on board all year round, a soap can easily provide value for money compared to shorter-run shows which require big budgets.

paul robinson tries to rescue terese willis in neighbours
Channel 5

Amazon Studios' Lauren Anderson told the C21 Podcast in December: "We want to make sure that when you're coming to the service, you have a lot of other titles to watch. So if you're coming for Neighbours, you don't just find Neighbours but you find a lot of other ancillary content to support that experience."

Anderson added: "What soaps allow for is constant engagement with the service. From that standpoint, I do absolutely believe that they're a natural fit.

"I also think, when you take a show like Neighbours, we have the ability to put up thousands of episodes now. For those who've never watched the show, they can join and start wherever they'd like – and choose to catch up, or not."

Over on the traditional broadcasters, Hollyoaks and EastEnders have also taken steps to future-proof their strategies.

embargoed 280223 0001, eastenders

Just days after Neighbours' Channel 5 axe was confirmed last year, Hollyoaks announced a streaming-first model where new episodes would be released on All 4 ahead of their linear transmissions on Channel 4 and E4.

At the time, Channel 4 reported that Hollyoaks was the most-streamed scripted series on All 4 and the second most-streamed series overall.

EastEnders has since followed suit, with most episodes now dropping on iPlayer at 6am each morning ahead of the BBC One airing in the evening. Fond of adding together the figures for hundreds of different episodes, the BBC recently reported that EastEnders was streamed 366 million times on the iPlayer in 2022.

Perhaps more impressive than this "add every episode together" stat: the top seven most-watched episodes of any show on iPlayer over the recent Christmas period were individual editions of EastEnders.

Only time will tell whether a brand-new soap could eventually launch on a big streamer – there's certainly untapped potential to have a serial drama with a global streaming audience, releasing episodes all over the world at the same time. How about it, Netflix?

Neighbours returns in the second half of 2023 with new episodes streaming free on Amazon Freevee in the UK and US. Network 10 will retain first-run rights in Australia for the new series.

Read more Neighbours coverage on our dedicated homepage

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