Script: Going back to their neighbourly roots

Executive producer Susan Bower has led the renovations at Ramsay St. She told Genevieve Tait how to bring some life back into a show that has seen better days.

Neighbours is getting a makeover. The show first aired in 1985 and is Australia’s longest running serial drama. However in 2007 the ratings were suffering and the creative team was accused of concocting sensationalised plots foreign to the relationship and community based drama that Neighbours was known for. This sensationalising of storylines was added to by Network TEN’s excessively dramatic advertising that often left viewers expecting a mountain but only finding a molehill.

In February 2008 Susan Bower joined the crew as Executive Producer. Whilst change was in motion before her appointment, she has led the larger technical and creative renovations. Bower describes the task of rejuvenating Neighbours as “turning around the QE2”, but with methodical progression, she believes the show has clawed its way back to its roots and audience.

The Neighbours story process has undergone significant change over the past year, attempting to generate realistic plots with a community focus. “What audiences like overwhelmingly about Neighbours is heart, humour and heroes. Before I arrived there were a lot of sensational type stories with stalkers and things like that. The audience didn’t like that at all, that’s not Neighbours” said Bower. The program’s storylines are inhibited by its 6.30pm time slot, however this also forces them to eliminate material that may be too sensationalist or provocative for their loyal audience.

“[Now] there is a lot of research put into stories and dialogue, in order to make them – with the strict boundaries that we have- more realistic and contemporary.” In addition to satisfying existing fans, Bower also hopes to bring the show out of the shadow of the term soap. “In Australia the term soap and soapie is used as a derogatory term.” Bower believes the genre is more respected in the UK, the US and Europe. “I always refer to Neighbours and Home and Away as serialised drama, because if you say it that way then you are treating it as [legitimate] drama.”

This update of storylines is accompanied by an upgrade of technology (Encore, December 2008) . “From the character arcs and the story lines is where all the production changes come from, it’s serving the story,” said Bower. Fremantle Media, the production company behind Neighbours, has funnelled significant resources into upgrading the Neighbours technical facilities.

The change in technology is partnered with a change in shooting style. Neighbours was a largely studio-filmed production with a generic shot list’ they now film eight television minutes outside and have evolved their style to best exploit their technology. “When I first started, it was all about shooting quickly. We’re now using a lot of tracking shots and split screens. It sounds very simple and obvious, but it had not been done on Neighbours before”.

The show has always had both domestic and international appeal, screening in 86 territories around the world. The UK is still the most enthusiastic international follower, even if the British broadcast recently changed hands from BBC1 to the less-watched Channel 5. The change of broadcaster could suggest that the viewer dismay and ratings drop seen here have been mirrored there, where the full steam of Bower’s facelift is yet to be seen. However, 5 has acquired ten years of broadcasting rights, website hits continue to increase, and its commercial share in the 25- 54 demographic has grown by 7%. The QE2 seems to be turning around slowly.


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