Neighbours A Lesson in Scheduling

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Programme scheduling has been described as one of the ‘dark arts’ of television, because a lack of research into practice and outcomes has resulted in it being one of the least understood tools within the broadcaster’s arsenal. And yet when applied correctly, scheduling can make or break a programme and wield a level of influence that extends far beyond that of the programme and its channel.

The BBC’s experience with ‘Neighbours’ (Seven Network, 1985) is a case in point. The Australian soap got off to a fairly lacklustre start when it was first broadcast in the UK. However, a key scheduling change a year after launch helped catapult the programme into the realms of popular culture and the fabric of everyday life. The programme’s eventual success would go on to influence other broadcasters in their acquisitions and scheduling as well as lead to changes within the soap opera genre itself.

So as ‘Neighbours’ prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary later this month, now seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the decisive role played by scheduling in the early throes of Britain’s love affair with the programme.

Welcome to the Neighbourhood

‘Neighbours’ began airing in the UK on Monday 27 October 1986 as part of BBC1’s revamped daytime schedule. Broadcast on weekdays at 1325 – immediately after the newly-launched ‘One O’Clock News’ (BBC, 1986) – each episode was then repeated the following morning, at times which varied between 0900-1000. These initial broadcasts delivered a reasonable audience for both programme and channel – averaging 4m viewers and said to largely comprise young mothers, housewives and university students.

Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

Shortly after the programme marked its first year on British screens, the decision was taken to move the next-day’s repeat to a new slot – 1735 on the same day (ie: 4 hours after the initial lunchtime broadcast). The tea-time repeat first aired on Monday 4 January 1988, and within weeks ‘Neighbours’ saw a dramatic increase in its viewing figures.

Programme Title Frames

The ‘Neighbours’ repeat benefited from ‘hammocking’ – the practice of scheduling an under-performing programme between two successful programmes to help build audience.

Being sandwiched between the end of children’s programmes on BBC1 and the start of the ‘Six O’Clock News’ (BBC, 1984) meant ‘Neighbours’ was now perfectly placed to take advantage of a sizeable audience of school children inherited off the back of kids TV whilst also attracting the attention of adults returning home from work and tuning in for the channel’s main evening news bulletin.

Grade A

According to TV folklore, this stroke of scheduling genius was the result of an off-the-cuff conversation between the channel’s then-controller Michael Grade and his teenage daughter Alison, in which she had commented upon the growing popularity of ‘Neighbours’ amongst her fellow classmates.

Former BBC1 Controller Michael Grade

As controller of BBC1, Michael Grade was instrumental in the decision to acquire ‘Neighbours’ for the BBC in 1986 © ITV.

Neighbourhood Watch

Whatever the reasons for bringing forward the repeat, once the switch was made ‘Neighbours’ began to pull in audiences averaging 13m per episode and debuted in the Top 10 before month-end, sitting comfortably amongst the heavyweights of home-grown British soap – ‘Coronation Street’ (ITV, 1960), ‘EastEnders’ (BBC, 1985) and even out-performing ‘Emmerdale Farm’ (ITV, 1972).

Rank Programme Channel Viewing Figures
1 EastEnders BBC1 23.6m
2 Coronation Street ITV 17.0m
10 Neighbours BBC1 14.3m
14 Emmerdale Farm ITV 12.7m
Average viewing figures for February 1988 showing Top 20 rankings for continuing drama serials on British television (Source: BARB).

Within a relatively short space of time, the programme had secured its place in the daily viewing habits of the nation, and in November 1988 drew a staggering 19.6m for the wedding of characters Charlene Mitchell and Scott Robinson (played by two of the programme’s rising stars – Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan).

Neighbours: Scott & Charlene Wedding

The wedding of Charlene Mitchell and Scott Robinson provided ‘Neighbours’ with the first of many ‘water-cooler moments’. © Network Ten

But it would be misleading to suggest the programme’s popularity was purely the result of creative scheduling by the BBC. Instead, it is likely to have been a combination of factors being in place that helped ensure ‘Neighbours’ found its audience – from the attractive cast members and family-friendly storylines to the sunny escapsim of its Melbourne setting and yes, that teatime repeat. In many respects, ‘Neighbours’ proved to be the perfect programme in the perfect time-slot – the very definition of successful scheduling.

Keeping Up with the Neighbours

The impact of ‘Neighbours’ was felt elsewhere in British broadcasting. Its rising popularity prompted the BBC’s main competitor ITV to secure UK rights to a rival Australian soap. Similar in format to that of ‘Neighbours’, ‘Home and Away’ (Seven Network, 1988) began airing on ITV in February 1989.

Interestingly, ITV adopted an identical scheduling pattern to the BBC. New episodes first aired at lunchtime before being repeated at teatime. And like the BBC, the repeat was nestled between the end of the channel’s children’s programming strand and its main evening news – whilst conveniently avoiding a direct clash with the ‘Neighbours’ juggernaut in the process.

Home & Away Title Card 2015

Title frame from the 2015 opening sequence of ‘Home & Away’. © Seven Network

‘Home and Away’ delivered decent viewing figures for ITV averaging 8m – but it was consistently out-performed by ‘Neighbours’ by an average margin of nearly 2:1, and seemed to lack the wider appeal of its Australian cousin (both programmes first aired on the country’s Seven Network). Whatever the reason, this failure to capitalise on Britain’s sudden appetite for Australian soap must have been a source of bitter frustration for ITV bosses – given the channel’s much longer tradition of importing Australian programmes:

Programme Year
The Sullivans 1977
A Country Practice 1982
The Young Doctors 1982
Sons and Daughters 1983
Prisoner: Cell Block H 1984
Home and Away 1989
Timeline of Australian soaps imported by ITV and the year of their first UK transmission.

But unlike ‘Home and Away’, these earlier imports had generally been used as cheap fodder by ITV to fill the network’s daytime schedules. And although Grade may have shared these motives when initially acquiring ‘Neighbours’ for BBC1 Daytime, the subsequent decision to broadcast the programme in the immediate run-up to peak-time (1800-2230) is something ITV had never even contemplated during the entire 10 year period of broadcasting Australian soaps. If anything, the BBC’s gamble proved that there was a much wider audience available for the right kind of Australian soap scheduled at the right time – something which ITV had failed to grasp in spectacular fashion, despite its greater experience with the genre.

Love Thy Neighbours

If there is a lesson to be learnt here, perhaps it is that broadcasters cannot always afford to avoid taking risks with programme acquisitions and their scheduling, and that a degree of thinking outside the box can reap huge benefits for a programme and its host channel.

12 March 2015 Programmes