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Monday, July 4, 2022
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Why the Cancellation of ‘Neighbours’ Also Marks the End of An Era for Global Soaps (Column)

A multi-generational outpouring of nostalgia among viewers in the U.K., where the show has been broadcast since 1986, has followed the demise of the long-running Australian drama “Neighbours.” “Neighbours” has seen a rise in popularity as it approaches its August 1 finale, making it one of the most watched shows on its Paramount-backed broadcaster Channel 5. Additionally, a tour around the country with some of the most well-known characters from the programme has been announced. Why travel to the fictitious Erinsborough in Melbourne when Erinsborough can be brought to you?

“Neighbours,” which has been on television for 36 years, most of them on the BBC, has all the elements of a contemporary soap opera: affairs, hospital visits, plane crashes, explosions, marriages that end in explosions, marriages that unintentionally result in the bride and groom driving off a cliff and the bride becoming lost at sea before turning up decades later to exact revenge on a lookalike who stole her identity. And of course, there was the incident where Jackie Woodburne’s Susan Kennedy stumbled on some spilled milk, hit her head, and mistook her for a teenager. However, the amount of celebration surrounding the termination of a daytime television programme isn’t nearly what you might anticipate.

Maybe it was because “Neighbours” was something you couldn’t truly escape for a long time. The programme became obligatory viewing at home and in the break room at school or work since it was broadcast twice daily during a time when there were far fewer channels. More than 20 million people watched the marriage of Charlene (Kylie Minogue), one of the show’s most well-liked characters, and Scott (Jason Donovan). One of the most pivotal events in British 1980s pop culture, their on-screen love and eventual marriage in 1987 (above) not only helped launch their individual decades-long music careers.

Strangely, my name can be connected to its legacy. My mother requested name options from my three older sisters shortly after I was born. My oldest sister came up with the name Scott because she was fixated on their relationship, and it stuck. (I asked my mother for her opinion on this column. Her response: “I have always liked the name Scott and this is all accidental. Also, did you receive that post we forwarded you?”)

There were many more noteworthy, ridiculous and strange storylines.

There was the occasion Daphne Clarke (Elaine Smith) somehow managed to give birth without putting off their tights. There was the time Paige Smith (Olympia Valance) had sex with a Catholic priest in the middle of a hot air balloon tragedy, and when Cheryl Stark (Caroline Gillmer), who was visiting her son overseas, was kidnapped by Ecuadorian rebels and had an affair with one of her captives. Who could ever forget the incident where we witnessed what the dogs were dreaming?

Tonally, “Neighbours” also felt at utter odds with other British soaps. Even when the stories weren’t happy or heartwarming, “Neighbours” always felt like it was a comforting and pleasant watch. In contrast, everyone got killed in “Hollyoaks” and after Christmas dinner in “EastEnders.” When it was cold, rainy, and dreary in Britain, the Australian sun always deceived you into believing that everything was better than it truly was.

Compared to other soaps, “Neighbours” also made steps in being more inclusive. Weeks after same-sex weddings became legal in Australia, “Neighbours” celebrated its first homosexual wedding. The serial also included Georgie Stone’s portrayal of Mackenzie, the show’s first transgender character, who has stated in interviews that she collaborates closely with story editors to guarantee equitable depiction. The first non-binary character on “Neighbours” was played by Kathleen Ebbs not long after it was revealed that the soap opera would terminate. (It’s a shame that such diversity wasn’t always the case behind the cameras, with an investigation conducted after charges of prejudice were made on set last year.)

Therefore, why was “Neighbours” cancelled? A lot of it is down to its unique distribution model. In comparison to Australia, “Neighbours” draws a lot more viewers in the U.K. In order to spend more money on its primetime lineup, Channel 5, which has been targeting for an older and more affluent clientele in recent years, decided not to renew its contract. The show needed a British broadcaster or streamer to step in and save it, but none did.

A lot of stuff feels like a question of lousy timing. Long gone are the days when a television broadcaster would snap up a soap from a rival, such as when Channel 5 reportedly spent £300 million ($367 million) to snatch “Neighbours” from the BBC back in 2008. The streaming wars have produced unprecedented competition and hundreds of (very expensive) originals, but these services tend to go for short series that streamers can quickly cancel if the programme doesn’t achieve the first spike of subscriptions or ratings they anticipated.

The capacity for a streamer to commit to more than 240 episodes each year at this time is probably too much for them to stomach, even if millions would definitely watch the early episodes, even if the streaming battles had subsided and they were able to make longer term commitments on their shows. It doesn’t help that the soap is primarily seen in the UK rather than Australia and doesn’t draw large audiences in a lot of other nations. A streaming deal would effectively entail propping up a year-round production on the other side of the world, which is exactly what Channel 5 is doing right now.

They never get the chance to say goodbye when many concerts are cancelled. For “Neighbours” many of the show’s most recognisable characters are able to return to the concluding series of episodes, including Scott and Charlene. Although the news of a cancellation is always terrible for fans and the crew, at least they may take solace in the knowledge that few few series leave us with almost unanimous affection, even from viewers who haven’t seen an episode in years. A suitable farewell for “Neighbours” is given, and perhaps that will be remembered as part of the program’s legacy.

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