Neighbours' UK fans have been dealing with a Christmas bombshell this week – the show will be off air on Channel 5 for the entirety of the festive season. Boo!
Channel 5 bosses have announced that the final episode of the year will air on Wednesday, December 23 and the soap won't return until Monday, January 4.
As well as leaving fans without their festive fix, the shock decision will further extend the already-controversial transmission gap between UK and Australian broadcasts. It's safe to say that the news hasn't gone down too well, with fans expressing their frustration online and campaigning for a rethink.
But what is all the fuss really about? Here, we delve deeper into the Neighbours scandal that could even rival any of Fake Dee's dastardly plots...
Back in the days when Neighbours aired on BBC One, fans were used to the show taking frequent breaks. Wimbledon, the World Cup, Euros, Bank Holidays or random whims from the schedulers were enough to throw the Ramsay Street residents off our screens for a while.
When Neighbours moved to Channel 5 in 2008, the show was more of a "jewel in the crown" in the schedule and treated accordingly. The daytime soap would only take one break per year and the channel even started commissioning late-night specials for big storylines.
Channel 5 also worked closely with the Neighbours team throughout the year, ensuring that the final episode of the year at UK pace (the so-called 'UK finale') would contain multiple dramatic cliffhangers.
By 2016, things got even sweeter for UK fans as Channel 5 played catch-up and started airing Neighbours episodes on the same day as Australia. This meant that the annual season finale finally fell on the same date in both countries.
More good news followed as Neighbours was promoted to an all-year-round soap from 2018 and even aired on Christmas Day for two years running. Fans had plenty to be happy about – but not for long...
Where did it all go wrong?
Neighbours on Channel 5 stayed perfectly in line with the Australian broadcasts until this year, even occasionally pulling ahead of the fans Down Under for rare occasions like late-night specials.
Everything changed back in March when the COVID-19 pandemic led to uncertainties surrounding the production of soaps. As episodes of Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks began to be rationed by their respective broadcasters, Channel 5 followed suit by cutting the weekly output of Neighbours to two episodes per week.
10 Peach in Australia announced that it had no intention of cutting down in the same way, confidently continuing to air five episodes per week. This led to Australia pulling ahead of the UK for the first time in four years.
Neighbours briefly paused filming during the pandemic but soon became the first suspended drama to resume shooting, with strict social distancing measures in place and cast members separated out into cohorts.
Neighbours bosses received praise for leading the way here, with shows like Emmerdale even consulting with them to pick up tips before returning to work themselves.
When it became clear that Neighbours filming would stay on track, with no interruption to delivery of episodes, Channel 5 increased its weekly editions to three, then later back to five. However, by this point, Australia were three weeks ahead and it was harder to avoid big storyline spoilers online.
Eager fans began campaigning for Channel 5 to get back in line with Australia, using the Twitter hashtag #NeighboursCatchUp.
Alas, the worst was still to come…
How did it all get worse?
The timing seemed perfect with a 30-minute timeslot now free, but not according to the schedulers. Neighbours remained at one episode per day, while the gaps in the schedules were filled with festive films and, err, repeats of Friends.
This week, Channel 5 went a step further by dropping the bombshell that Neighbours will go off air at Christmas this year.
Once again, 10 Peach in Australia is not expected to take a break, meaning that unlucky UK fans will soon be four weeks behind rather than three.
In a statement released this week, Channel 5 told Digital Spy: "Currently, Channel 5's full schedule means it is unlikely that we will be able to catch up with the transmission of episodes in Australia in the near future.
"Neighbours will return to UK screens on January 4, 2021 and we hope that viewers will continue to enjoy watching Neighbours with the profound affection that we know many of them hold for the soap."
Why are fans upset and can it be fixed?
To give credit to Channel 5, the main problem is arguably that the station is being judged by its own high standards. In the BBC days, fans thought nothing of transmission gaps or Neighbours having an erratic schedule, but they clearly now expect better due to the positive way Channel 5 has treated the iconic Aussie soap over the years.
It's also understandable that Neighbours isn't the channel's only priority. Channel 5 has actually enjoyed a very successful year, with its All Creatures Great and Small reboot pulling in more than five million viewers and original new dramas like The Deceived helping to boost the station's reputation for scripted shows.
Ratings for Neighbours have also remained stable year-on-year, despite now being three weeks behind.
In fairness to the fans, though, big Neighbours changes such as same-day broadcasts and airing all-year-round were announced with great fanfare by Channel 5 at the time. Now that they're no longer in place, it's understandable that loyal viewers will have questions and become frustrated if they feel they're not being answered properly.
After all the fanfare the last few years of going all year round and being on at Christmas - that didn’t last long did it. ☹️ https://t.co/hjmAeXtS8Y
— Mark Rawlins (@MarkRaw) December 1, 2020
Huh?! We're already behind due to an unnecessary covid break. At this rate we'll be watching them celebrate Christmas in March. https://t.co/MOwEtjDhRm
— Victoria (@beaneee) December 1, 2020
Very disappointing @channel5_tv. The COVID measure we understood, and appreciated you ensuring the show stayed on air, but why make it worse now by getting further off course? Please could you reassure us that we needn't be concerned for your long-term commitment to #neighbours? https://t.co/PqnTObM7vm
— SoapAddict91 (@soapaddict91) December 1, 2020
So Channel 5 created this mess of putting UK viewers 3 weeks behind Australia and now it will be about 4-5 weeks 🤦♀️ has gone down as well as expected... https://t.co/3yPlFKIGK2
— Tracey Davies (@miss_traceydav) December 1, 2020
Channel 5's communication here could probably have been better – its statement this week doesn't explain why Neighbours is taking a Christmas break, or whether it's a permanent shift away from all-year-round broadcasts in the future.
The boast of a "full schedule" preventing a catch-up also seems a little strange, given that part of this schedule includes 26-year-old Friends re-runs and repeats of Can't Pay? We'll Take It Away! There's a sense of not quite getting the full story, perhaps for confidential commercial reasons.
The most immediate knock-on effect from the latest scheduling drama will mean Neighbours' UK fans have to watch the Ramsay Street residents celebrating Christmas in January, long after we've all taken down our tinsel and trees.
Neighbours' final episode of the year for UK fans also doesn't contain a specially-written cliffhanger for the occasion, which hints that the latest break was scheduled in abruptly and without the usual strong communication between Channel 5 and the producers.
Soap viewing is also all about the cliffhangers, twists and turns as we follow the daily lives of our favourite characters.
There's been a shared viewing community on Twitter and Facebook over the past four years, as fans on both sides of the world have reacted to the latest Erinsborough shocks and scandals together. Now this isn't possible for those who want to avoid spoilers.
Right now, it's unlikely that there'll be any rethink from Channel 5. Schedules for Christmas have already been confirmed and TV magazines covering the festive season have been sent off to print, meaning that the listings are pretty much set in stone.
The best fans can hope for is probably that the latest outcry gets noticed by the station bosses and a plan to catch up is factored into 2021's agenda.
Here at Team Digital Spy, we also wonder if it might be a good idea to simply run Channel 5's on-demand service My5 at Australian pace for Neighbours, giving die-hard fans a legal place to watch the episodes at the same time as those Down Under.
In an era where linear schedules are getting less important anyway, perhaps this is a forward-thinking approach which could keep everyone happy. Hollyoaks adopted a similar tactic in 2019 by releasing its Christmas episodes online early, before they went out on Channel 4 or E4.
Can Channel 5 and Neighbours HQ find that all-important perfect blend to get us back in sync one day? Only time will tell.
Neighbours airs weekdays at 1pm and 5.30pm on Channel 5 (UK) and 6.30pm on 10 Peach (Australia).
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