The cancellation of long-running Australian soap “Neighbours” has resulted in a multi-generational outpouring of nostalgia among audiences in the UK, where the show has aired since 1986. In the run-up to its Aug. 1 finale, “Neighbors” has received a ratings boost that’s made it one of the most popular programs on its Paramount-backed broadcaster Channel 5. Not only that, but a nationwide tour featuring some of the show’s most famous characters has been announced. Why go visit the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough, when Erinsborough can come to you?
Having aired for 36 years, the majority of them on the BBC, “Neighbours” has all the hallmarks of a modern-day soap: affairs, hospital visits, plane crashes, explosions, marriages that result in explosions, marriages that accidentally result in the bride and groom driving off a cliff and the bride being lost at sea, before turning up decades later to avenge a lookalike stealing her identity. And of course, the time Susan Kennedy (Jackie Woodburne) slipped on spilt milk, she banged her head and thought she was a teenager. Yet the level of fanfare isn’t quite what you would typically expect for the cancellation of a daytime television show.
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Perhaps it was down to the fact that for many years, you couldn’t really avoid “Neighbors.” Repeated twice a day at a time when there were far fewer channels, the show became required viewing at home and the break room at school or work. More than 20 million people watched the wedding between two of its most popular characters, Charlene (Kylie Minogue) and Scott (Jason Donovan). Their on-screen relationship and subsequent wedding back in 1987 (pictured) not only helped to launch their respective decades-long music careers, it was also one of the most defining moments in British 1980s pop culture.
Bizarrely, even my name can be related to its legacy. Shortly after I was born, my Mum asked my three older sisters for name suggestions. Obsessed with their relationship, my eldest sister suggested Scott and the name stuck. (I reached out to my Mum for a comment on this column. Her response her: “I have always liked the name Scott and this is all coincidental. Also, did you receive that post we forwarded you?”)
There were also other memorable, ludicrous and surreal storylines. There was the time Daphne Clarke (Elaine Smith) somehow managed to give birth without taking 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 disaster, and when Cheryl Stark (Caroline Gillmer), who was visiting her son abroad, was kidnapped by Ecuadorian rebels and had an affair with one of her captors. And who can forget the episode when we saw what the dogs were dreaming?
Tonally, “Neighbors” also felt at complete odds with other British soaps. Whilst everyone got murdered in “Hollyoaks” and after Christmas dinner in “EastEnders,” “Neighbours” always felt like it was a warming and upbeat watch, even when the storylines weren’t. The Australian sunshine always fooled you into thinking things were constantly better than they actually were and lifted viewers during those cool, wet, miserable British days.
Compared to other soaps, “Neighbors” also made strides in becoming more inclusive. Weeks after same-sex weddings became legal in Australia, “Neighbors” celebrated its first gay wedding. The soap also introduced its first transgender character, Mackenzie, played by Georgie Stone, who has said in interviews that she works closely with story editors to ensure fair representation. And not long after the announcement that the soap was going to end, “Neighbors” cast its first non-binary character, portrayed by Kathleen Ebbs. (It’s a shame that such diversity wasn’t always the case behind the cameras, with an investigation launched after allegations of racism were made on set last year.)
So why has “Neighbors” been canceled? A lot of it is down to its unique distribution model. “Neighbors” receives far more viewers in the UK than at home in Australia. Channel 5, which in recent years has been aiming for an older and more upmarket demographic, decided not to renew its contract so that it could spend more money on its primetime lineup. A British broadcaster or streamer needed to swoop on the show to keep it sustainable — but none stepped in.
A lot of that feels like a matter of bad timing. Long gone are the days when a television broadcaster would snap up a soap from a rival, such as when Channel 5 reportedly paid £300 million ($367 million) to snatch “Neighbours” from the BBC back in 2008. The streaming wars have created unprecedented competition and hundreds of (very expensive) originals, but these services tend to go for limited series that streamers can simply cancel if the program doesn’t get the immediate surge of subscriptions or ratings they anticipated.
Even if the streaming wars had settled down and were able to make longer term commitments on their programs, the ability for a streamer to commit to more than 240 episodes per year right now is probably too much for them to stomach, even though millions would likely watch the initial episodes. It doesn’t help that the soap is mostly watched in the UK, rather than in Australia, and fails to reach significant viewership in many other countries. A streaming buy would effectively mean propping up a year-round production on the other side of the world, which is exactly what Channel 5 is doing right now.
When many shows get canceled, they never get the chance to say goodbye. For “Neighbours” many of the show’s most notable characters are able to return to the last set of episodes, including Scott and Charlene. Although the news of a cancellation is always hard for fans and the crew, at least they can take solace in the knowledge that very few shows leave us with near universal adoration, even from viewers who haven’t seen an episode in years. “Neighbors” gets to have a proper goodbye, and perhaps that can be part of the show’s legacy.
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