Jason Herbison is such a long term fan of Neighbours that he once wrote to Grundys to give them some ideas for the show. Story Editor Ray Kolle was so impressed he got in touch.
“He said ‘We’ve got your letter. We do realise you’re in school but thought you had some really interesting ideas and we think you’ve got some talent! So stay in touch with us and maybe one day we’ll give you a job’ and they did. That was 24 years ago,” he tells TV Tonight.
Today Herbison is Executive Producer on the show. Such dreams, it seems really do come true in the land of television. But with great ambitions comes great responsibility, especially on a show that is churning out 6 episodes of TV a week.
“I drive in every Monday morning going ‘How can I do this? How can I use the time, the money, the resources to make the best possible show? What can I do differently that I didn’t do last week?’ I have found, after 3 ½ years, that’s constantly evolving. This year, for example, we are going to be doing a lot more off-site location shooting. We’ll be dealing with guerilla units, small groups.
“Every television maker in the country faces the challenges of rising costs and changing environments. We all do it. It’s not unique to me.”
“My stamp has been to take it back to families”
Since becoming EP in 2013, Herbison has overseen the 30th Anniversary and applying his own stamp to the characters and storylines, including nods to the show’s vast history.
“The show was very fragmented with all sorts of odd combinations of people living in the houses that were hangovers from one person from a family that had since moved on or a cousin that had come in that had come in that no longer had anything to do with anyone. So I think my stamp has been to take it back to families, more believable household set-ups, and a cross-section of ages and characters,” he explains.
“I also believe in reminding the past on looking at Neighbours and I know that there had been different EPs with different feelings about whether or not you should bring past characters back. I think absolutely you should! That, as in real life, people come, they move away, they pop in to say hello. The great art to it is though – how long do you bring them back for? Sometimes you can bring a character back from an episode but do the viewers want more? Even though in real life people would just come back for a day or two.”
“We know that our show is performing really solidly in the UK. We’re not sure why it’s not here…”
Neighbours still airs twice-daily in the UK on Five, and in Australia on ELEVEN, and in the ever-evolving landscape of TV, one of Herbison’s challenges is understanding how ratings are impacted by storylines, multiplatforms and even competition from new players.
“There are three really important broadcasts. There’s ELEVEN at 6:30. There’s the 1:45 UK and the 5:30 UK. The 1:45 UK having the highest ratings in five years. We know that our show is performing really solidly in the UK. We’re not sure why it’s not here but we’re taking a real look at it,” he says.
Ratings on multichannel ELEVEN have been hovering around the low 200,000s for the soap.
“There are all sorts of theories, there’s a lot of conversations. We’re all very aware that Netflix has arrived this year. I don’t really know how that impacts specifically on Neighbours. It’s a changing time, I think, and we’re all trying to figure out what we need to do in order to keep our audience.”
With the UK now fast-tracking the show the Neighbours universe is compacting, making life easier for writing and production.
“We have a very close relationship, both with ELEVEN and Channel 5. They’re very involved in the show and all aspects of the show. They sometimes have different requests of us.
“(We used to have to) plot two cliffhangers because the UK would be going off at the end of the cliffhangers and we have to be very careful,” says Herbison.
“We had public holidays over here, school holidays over here. We have to be mindful over there as well.”
And what of classification changes now that the show can lift from G to PG -will it impact on storylines at all?
“I think our broadcaster will still want us to stay in the world of ‘G’ but we haven’t actually had the time to talk about that.
“We’ve pushed the boundaries a lot more now than we did a few years ago and we’re fortunate in the support of the network. But I think that there is still the feeling that it should be a family friendly alternative – not really an alternative – but a family friendly option.”
“What does Paul Robinson do when he’s got nothing?”
With episodes already underway for 2016, Herbison outlines some of what viewers can expect to see in coming weeks, beginning with Paul Robinson (Stefan Dennis).
“He’s a very important historic character for the show, very well loved. Love to hate. He loses all his money, so we see 2016 as a year very much about, ‘What does Paul Robinson do when he’s got nothing?’ How does that change his relationship with his children, his friends, colleagues? He has a very clear agenda throughout the year to get his money back and he’ll go in to business with an unlikely person and we’re going to see a very big year with Paul and his objective to reclaim his empire,” he explains.
“Karl and Susan are going to have a very crowded house (this) year. Their grandson Ben, will be returning as part of the regular cast. They’ve also got Nate. They’re also going to get an unexpected new house guest later in the year that has a connection to someone in the past that’s going to really challenge them. So we will see a very good year for them.
“Toadie and Sonya will have a very big year. Toadie had a health crisis in 2015, the wheelchair. (This) year that’s continuing – but we’re plotting some really interesting stories surrounding Sonya’s past that are going to be challenging for them. So a big year there!”
Janet Andrewartha will also be returning as Lyn Scully in 2016, which brings us to the question of whom Herbison would like to see brought back if he could wave his magic wand…..?
“I think Natalie Imbruglia as Beth would be interesting given that we have Brad and Lauren in the show. For story reasons, she would be a character that would be very intriguing to see.
“I used to always say Madge, but then we got her back,” he smiles.
“Charlene, of course is Daniel’s mom. She would be very interesting. Scott would be very interesting.
“When you ask that question my mind scrolls through a billion people!”
Neighbours airs 6:30pm weeknights on ELEVEN.