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‘It’s like a gladiator match’: why Home & Away beat Neighbours in the battle of the Aussie soaps

In March, it was announced that Neighbours had been cancelled after 37 years on the air. But for those in the business, the long-running soap’s demise began years ago, in 2010, when Australia’s Network Ten made a choice that would come back to haunt them.

Steve Allen, a longtime media analyst at Sydney-based Pearman Media, a company that purchases TV ad space, argues that Ten committed a strategic error that may have been one of the greatest in the last two decades.

The effort by Ten to relocate Neighbours from the network’s primary station to its first digital-only channel, now known as 10Peach, failed to attract viewers.

“At the time, digital channels were just starting up. They weren’t all that simple to access on televisions. It was unfamiliar to people, claims Allen. According to him, Neighbours’ ratings “totally dropped” as a result. (Requests for comments on this article were not answered by Network Ten.)

According to viewing figures published by the Seven Network, the average metro audience for Neighbours decreased from 946,000 in 2001 to 337,000 in 2011. (a year after the launch of 10Peach). Home & Away experienced a much lower decline, from 1.395 million viewers to 1.039 million within the same time period.

Allen claims that “basically, they killed Neighbors right there and then.” Since then, the audience has been at half or less of what Home & Away had.

The two titans of Australian soap operas, Neighbours and Home & Away, became enormous cultural exports, launched the careers of some of the country’s biggest performers, and sustained large portions of the nation’s TV business for more than three decades. However, only Home & Away, a native of Channel Seven, has endured, with Neighbours’ final episode airing in Australia on July 28.

The age-old argument over which soap opera is superior has flared up again since Neighbours was cancelled. Was this unmistakable evidence that the Summer Bay shoreline were a more alluring location than Erinsborough, the fictional Melbourne neighbourhood depicted in Neighbours? Or did Home & Away only offer more action-packed plotlines and beach views?

However, the soap operas have long served as chess pieces in larger schemes that started to diverge more than ten years ago.

Channel 5, Network Ten’s UK partner station, has been financing Neighbours heavily since 2008, but this year decided to redirect that investment to regional programming. After its production company Fremantle failed to locate a new UK partner and Ten rejected to fund the production alone, this signalled the end of the show. Australian viewers have always favoured Home & Away, which films its outside sequences in Sydney’s Palm Beach. Neighbours has reportedly drawn in approximately 1 million viewers a day in the UK, compared to Home & Away’s 400,000.

Nevertheless, as Neighbours was moved to 10Peach, Summer Bay’s lead grew. Allen claims that in order for the show to generate enough cash from advertising to cover its costs, Ten would have had to recognise their error and bring the programme back to its primary channel. It’s simpler to say than to do.

Where is it programmed? They are unable to schedule it for Home & Away at 7 o’clock. They invested a lot of money in The Project, which airs in that time slot on Ten, and some of its performers have multi-year contracts, so they can’t put it in before Home & Away at 6.30 p.m. In essence, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, he claims.

For many years, Home & Away has aired at 7 o’clock on Seven. From a programming perspective, it supports the entire evening, according to David Knox, editor of the business blog TV Tonight. Because soap opera viewers are jaded, you can use them to advertise additional content surrounding your next programme.

Throughout its existence, Home & Away has been sold to 145 different nations. According to Knox, the fact that Seven alone has always owned and produced the show offers the channel “international sales and a very big financial and emotional incentive” to continue airing it.

Another reason Seven wants to maintain Home & Away is that it makes it easier for the network to achieve government-mandated quotas for Australian-produced material, which Seven would otherwise find difficult to meet. According to Allen, Ten, who have increased their domestic output over the past ten years, “wouldn’t have much issue these days” meeting such quotas.

However, the audience it appeals to for marketers may be the main reason Seven wants to maintain Home & Away. Due to the fact that viewers have grown up with Neighbours and Home & Away for 30 years, Allen says that they both have considerably wider appeal than one might originally believe.

Both soap operas cater to young and middle-aged Australians, with a more even gender split, as opposed to programmes like Married at First Sight, which have a devoted but narrow audience. Neighbours lost a lot of that when it moved to 10Peach, which increased Seven’s share of ad revenue and gave it more funds to reinvest in other successful shows, aiding the broadcaster in maintaining its lead over Ten in the overall network ratings (Seven raked in 29.1% of the total audience share in the most recent ratings year, ahead of Ten’s 17.8%).

And it is what counts most, according to Allen. He claims that television is entirely supported by advertising. They “get money through the door” in this manner.

Therefore, viewers of Neighbours can at least find solace in the knowledge that the show’s demise has little to do with the content of the show when it airs on July 28 in Australia and August 1 in the UK.

When you step back from it, the dynamics in play make you think, “God, it’s like watching a gladiator [match],” Allen chuckles. And that is.

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