Neighbours has progressively become a cultural monolith, an echo of Australia’s suburban roots converted into a weekly stage drama about the mundanity of ordinary life, from its launch on March 18, 1985, for more than 8780 episodes – and counting.
You could be forgiven for believing it would have lasted forever if it hadn’t been cut short by a perfect storm of diminishing ratings and shifting business models. However, the conclusion of Neighbours serves as a warning tale about attempting to have your budgetary cake and eat it as well.
In the end, it was a financial model that broke because it relied on a finely uneven production strategy that killed Neighbours. In the UK, it nevertheless drew one million viewers everyday compared to 400,000 for Home and Away. The show was doomed without a deep-pocketed British broadcaster, and with Fremantle and Ten unwilling to make up the gap.
“We’re not talking about a seven-season programme here; we’re talking about a 37-season show,” says television historian Andrew Mercado. “When you consider how it has been viewed by numerous generations of families, people who have watched it as a child and then as an adult. When an institution comes to an end, it’s a sad day.”
The bigger concern, according to James Manning, editor of the trade newspaper Mediaweek for the television and radio industry, is what will replace it. “Prime-time dramas continue to draw audiences in the United Kingdom and the United States. That is not the case in Australia [where reality television is more prevalent]. Has the business forgotten about drama, or are audiences’ tastes shifting? It’s most likely a combination of the two.”
The sun, on the other hand, continues to shine in Australia’s other nightly soap, Home and Away. Its survival is a mix of better brand management and clearer positioning in the Australian market, according to Manning, with a brighter colour palette and more location filming.
“Home and Away is kept on a primary channel by Seven, and they arguably do a better job of advertising and investing in it,” Manning adds. “There’s a convergence of events. They believe in it a little more than the various owners of Ten have believed [in Neighbours] over the last couple of years.”
It’s bittersweet, adds Mercado, who gives Neighbours credit for more inventive narrative over the last decade. “They’ve renovated their sets, added a fourth wall, and they make excellent use of their studio back lot, down to the last blade of grass.” It’s possible that Home and Away has survived because it never changes. To me, it’s a show that doesn’t take any chances.”
Make no mistake: the loss of Neighbours will have a significant impact on the local economy. Since Ten moved it to the 10Peach digital channel in 2011, you might not see it on your TV schedule, but as one of two main incubators of emerging talent in Australian television (the other being Home and Away), Neighbours more than held its own.
Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce, Ben Lawson, Daniel Macpherson, Kylie Minogue, and Jason Donovan are among the show’s alumnae. The directors (Peter Andrikidis, Amanda Brotchie) and writers (Pete McTighe, Marieke Hardy) it handed opportunities to are less prominently marked.
“There are other avenues for talent to be fostered — short-form content, internet and digital stuff,” Manning adds, “but I’m more concerned about what projects those people can go onto.” “It would have been better if [Ten owner] Paramount had signalled their future investment in drama more clearly.” Will streaming fill that void? “I’m not sure.”
According to Mercado, this loss will be felt strongly in Melbourne. (Sydney is where Home and Away is filmed.) “It’s that bit that makes me sick.” Neighbours was a location to break in and learn your trade if you lived in Melbourne. This feels like the end of a film and television school to me. It’s a disaster for the next generation of filmmakers and authors.”
In some ways, Neighbours, which will return in June after a long hiatus, is a show whose lustre has dimmed. Its personalities and tales once filtered into the national discussion, long before aggregation, digitalisation, and streaming disruption.
In 1987, the entire country watched (and wept) as Scott (Jason Donovan) married Charlene (Kylie Minogue). When Harold (Ian Smith) was swept out to sea in 1991, we were shocked. Then there was the time, five years later, when he returned to Erinsborough with amnesia.
Though the show’s lustre waned with time, it can’t be claimed they didn’t give it their all: there was the Erinsborough bushfire in 2008 (and the tornado in 2014), and the wedding of David (Takaya Honda) and Aaron (Matt Wilson) in 2018, following Australia’s legalisation of same-sex marriage.
Then there was Neighbours vs Zombies, a Halloween-themed web spin-off starring Stefan Dennis, Ryan Moloney, Dan Paris, and others that altered the theme song lyric “everyone wants decent neighbours” to “everybody eats their neighbours.” (There was, in fact, one.) It’s on YouTube.)
Also notable are the numerous celebrity cameos, which range from American Idol judge Paula Abdul and British pop singer Lily Allen to Little Britain characters Lou and Andy, who made a fleeting appearance in 2007. Andre Rieu, Human Nature, The Wiggles, Shane Warne, Emma Bunton, Michael Parkinson, and a slew of others will be performing.
Neighbours is a historical chronicle in that way, charting four decades of slightly tele-warped Australian life. And it joins Bellbird, Number 96, Prisoner, and The Sullivans in the pantheon of iconic home-brand dramas: Bellbird, Number 96, Prisoner, and The Sullivans.
“They’re all stories that we can relate to in some manner,” Mercado says. Bellbird was set in a little town. The Sullivans was a storey about a country at war. Number 96, on the other hand, was a window into the sexual revolution of the 1970s.
“Even Prisoner was relevant,” Mercado recalls, “as the storey of everyday women behind bars.” “Each of those shows is about a particular cultural moment.” And, together, Neighbours and Home and Away portray a modern Australia, whether it is on the shore or in the suburbs. They are our stories.”
Neighbours’ final episode will be taped in June and broadcast in September.