Since its premiere on March 18, 1985, for more than 8780 episodes – and still counting – Neighbours has gradually become a cultural monolith, an echo of Australia’s suburban roots turned into a nightly stage play about the mundanity of everyday life.
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 program 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.”
In contrast, the sun is still shining on Australia’s other nightly soap, Home and Away. With a brighter colour palette and more location filming, its survival is a combination of better brand management and clearer positioning in the Australian market, Manning says.
“Seven keep Home and Away on a primary channel, and they arguably do a better job of promoting it and investing in it,” Manning says. “There is a confluence of things. They believe in it a bit more than maybe the different owners of Ten over the last couple of years believed [in Neighbours].”
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 signaled 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 luster 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 luster 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 legalization 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 neighbors” to “everybody eats their neighbors.” (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 are all stories that are, in some way, recognisable to us,” says Mercado. Bellbird was about small-town life. The Sullivans was a chronicle of a nation at war. And Number 96 was a glimpse into the sexual revolution of the 1970s.
“Even Prisoner was relatable, as the story of ordinary women behind bars,” Mercado says. “Each of those shows talks a cultural moment. And Neighbours and Home and Away, in tandem, reflect a sort of modern Australia, lived on the coast, or lived in the suburbs. They are stories of us.”
The final episode of Neighbours will be filmed in June and will air in September.