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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Gwilym Mumford

The Guide #45: Neighbours’s sad end signals the death of daytime TV’s golden age

A Neighbours cast portrait including legendary characters such as Harold and Madge Bishop.
A Neighbours cast portrait including legendary characters such as Harold and Madge Bishop. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Put the “for sale” sign up on Ramsay Street, pack up the tuba, send the bulldozers into Lassiters. Neighbours, that unlikely Aussie soap mainstay on British TV, is no more.

The phrase “end of an era” usually feels a bit meaningless, but really does apply here. Neighbours has been on our screens for just shy of 40 years, and many of us can’t recall a time when it wasn’t occupying the teatime TV slot (literally in my case – it first aired in Australia a week or so before I was born). But Neighbours’s demise also feels symbolic, delivering the final shovel of dirt on the grave of daytime TV.

It’s strange to think now, in the age of streaming, but daytime TV was, for a period in the 1980s and 90s, a market worth fighting over. Until the mid-80s two of the four channels – BBC Two and Channel 4 – didn’t even bother to broadcast for the entirety of the day, but that soon changed. Network heads noticed the potential value of that unloved chunk of airtime between 9am and 6pm, and set about wooing a burgeoning demographic – retirees, housewives, unemployed people, people off sick, home-workers and, of course, students – with a smörgåsbord of shows.

It was a strange melange to reflect the jarring tastes of those groups: live light entertainment programmes, imported US chatshows, educational TV, a flotilla of Aussie soaps and dramas (The Flying Doctors, eternal bane of all children stuck at home with the flu), gameshows, gardening shows, renovation shows, repeats of 50s US comedies and basically anything else schedulers could inelegantly cram in. In the large, it was never terribly edifying stuff – the subject of endless newspaper columns bemoaning it as the end of western civilisation – and even those tuning in did so with some shame.

But tune in they did. There’s a great quote from a BFI project marking 50 years of TV, (recounted in Joe Moran’s history of television, Armchair Nation), where a housewife from Worcestershire notes that “daytime viewing must be the most socially unacceptable mass participation sin of the 1980s. We all watch, we all pretend we don’t”. In the boom times that meant that ratings were strong: Neighbours famously reached up to 20 million viewers a day after BBC One controller Michael Grade started repeating it at teatime at the urging of his teenage daughter.

But it couldn’t last. Digital TV and freeview, with its endless conveyor belt of syndicated shows, chipped away at the terrestrial daytime ratings, and then streaming came along to offer an even more compelling alternative: brand new primetime-quality shows that you could watch whenever you fancied. These days it’s hard to imagine any student opting for an ironic viewing of Homes Under the Hammer over a box-fresh season of Stranger Things or another skip through TikTok. Daytime TV’s main appeal was as a space-filler amid a dearth of other options, the opposite is true today.

The retiree audience is another story, of course – more loyal to broadcast television, more likely to be at home in the daytime. For vulnerable older people it is a crucial companion, and the schedules have been tweaked to reflect that: more well-made rural shows like the handsomely shot A Countryside Summer, more cosy detective dramas like Father Brown. But aside from the odd breakout hit like The Repair Shop, or This Morning, which has moved impressively into the social media age, the days of daytime TV targeting a wide cross-generational swathe of the viewing public have largely gone.

So should we mourn its demise? A lot of it was pretty dire – air-headed talkshows, rickety-backdropped dramas, inane imports. Still, there were moments of innovation born from the low-budgets and lack of media attention. You occasionally got a great show like the anarchic Light Lunch, which launched the careers of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, or Jimmy McGovern’s anthology series Moving On, which boasted better storytelling and casts than a lot of the primetime shows.

And if nothing else there was a surreal energy to daytime TV that felt compelling, at least to student eyes. You’d be watching chintzy light entertainment show Pebble Mill and suddenly Bill Hicks would rock up, pointing out he “found it ironic that Christians were against the death penalty, because if it weren’t for capital punishment there’d be no Easter.”

That was the thing about daytime TV: you’d tune in out of hope of something decent rather than expectation, and if you were greeted with wall-to-wall dross, well at least it passed the time. You didn’t watch it because it was good – you watched it because it was there.

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