Revamped ‘Neighbors’ brings in auds

Network Ten makes changes to popular soap

SYDNEY — Network Ten unveiled the revamp of 22-year-old soap “Neighbours” last week, and attracted more than 1 million viewers to Ramsay Street, the highest figure this year.

Australia’s longest running series, “Neighbours” has sold to more than 50 territories. It became so popular in Blighty that an Australian inflection was recognized in Estuary English, the accent commonly spoken in southeast England.

However, back home, the shine had come off the residents of Ramsay Street, which regularly attracted auds of 2 million in the 1980s.

Viewership had sunk below 700,000, and the soap was no longer a water-cooler topic, eclipsed by U.S. hits like “Grey’s Anatomy.”

So Ten, in conjunction with producer FremantleMedia, thought it was time for renovations.

“The show’s early evening slot is really important for us to launch our primetime schedule,” says Beverley McGarvey, Ten’s network head of programming. “Also, I think it was just time — not that there was anything wrong with the show, but anything that has been around that long just needs a bit of a shake up.”

Changes for “Neighbours” are wide ranging. There are new opening credits and theme song, a range of new, often younger, characters, but there are also the staples — a wedding and a cliffhanger tragedy.

The first challenge on a soap with several storylines in the air was to wrap most of them up so viewers could come in fresh to the “new” skein on the back of a big wave of publicity.

And come they did.

“We had expected to see small, incremental ratings increases as people became aware of the changes,” McGarvey says. “We truthfully weren’t banking on a big jump on Monday night, but we got a significant lift.”

Also lifted is “Neighbours” budget, courtesy of FremantleMedia and new Blighty affiliate Five, the RTL-backed web that stole the show from the BBC.

There will be more exteriors to help it compete with rival soap “Home and Away,” and the show will move to high definition in the new year to boost overseas sales.

“Neighbours” changes will continue to roll out over 12 months, but that was always Ten’s aim for a show that has become part of Down Under’s cultural landscape and one of its most successful TV exports, making stars of Kylie Minogue and Alan Dale (“24,” “The O.C.”), among many others.

“With a show like this, it isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” says McGarvey. “We have been here for 22 years, and we hope to be here for many more years.”

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