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 intelligently, scheduling has the power to make or break a programme and wield a level of influence which 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 lackluster 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 fabric of everyday life.
The programme’s eventual success would go on to influence other broadcasters in their programme acquisitions and scheduling as well as lead to changes within the soap opera genre itself.
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: four 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.
Being sandwiched between the end of children’s programmes on BBC1 and the start of the ‘Six O’Clock News’ (BBC, 1984) meant the ‘Neighbours’ repeat 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.
In his autobiography ‘It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time’ (Macmillan, 1999), the channel’s then-controller Michael Grade reveals that this stroke of scheduling genius was the result of a casual conversation with his teenage daughter Alison who had commented upon the programme’s growing popularity amongst classmates.
Love Thy Neighbours
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).
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 viewers for the wedding of characters Charlene Mitchell and Scott Robinson (played by two of its rising stars – Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan).
Although it would be misleading to suggest the programme’s popularity was purely the result of creative scheduling (family-friendly storylines built around an attractive cast clearly helped) the fact is ‘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.
It’s worth noting that 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 and Away’ delivered decent viewing figures for ITV averaging 8m – but it lacked the wider appeal of its Australian sibling and was consistently outperformed by an average margin of 2:1.
One imagines that this failure to capitalise on Britain’s sudden appetite for Australian soap must have been particularly grueling for ITV bosses, given the channel’s much longer tradition of importing Australian programmes. But unlike ‘Home and Away’, these earlier imports had generally been used as cheap fodder by the channel to fill the network’s daytime schedules.
|A Country Practice||1982|
|The Young Doctors||1982|
|Sons and Daughters||1983|
|Prisoner: Cell Block H||1984|
|Home and Away||1989|
Although Grade may have shared similar motives when initially acquiring ‘Neighbours’ for BBC1 Daytime, the subsequent decision to broadcast the programme in the timeslot immediately prior to peak-time (1800-2230) is something ITV schedulers had never even contemplated during the 10 years they had been broadcasting Australian soaps.
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 despite its greater experience with the genre.
If there is a lesson to be learnt here, perhaps it is that broadcasters should be less risk-averse when it comes to scheduling, and that at degree of thinking ‘outside the box’ (pardon the pun) can pay huge dividends for both programme and channel.