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September 7, 2000
Aussie soaps get Olympic boostSophy Hares
Love them or loathe them, millions of TV viewers from Britain to Brunei tune in every day to get their latest fix of Australia's soap operas.
And the beaches'n barbie lifestyle epitomised in long-running shows such as Neighbours and Home and Away, may well influence the preconceptions of many visitors heading for the Olympic Games.
Even the soaps are not immune from the Olympic fever gripping the country, with Australian gold medal hopeful swimmer Ian Thorpe among Olympians making cameo appearances in Summer Bay, the fictitious setting for Home and Away.
Nowhere have Australian soaps been bigger than in Britain, where around 10 million still watch the daily trials and tribulations of Neighbours' Madge, Libby and Toadfish in the show which has been aired twice daily for 15 years.
Thousands of holidaying fans make the pilgrimage to the Home and Away set at Palm Beach, an hour's drive north of Sydney, or visit suburban Melbourne to get a glimpse of Neighbours' Ramsay Street.
Avid viewers can even fork out A$28 (US$16) to spend the evening gossiping with the show's cast at regular Neighbours nights held in Melbourne and Sydney pubs.
"I think people know now Australia's not just kangaroos and outback. Now we do more urban dramas which show similar situations that the viewer in the UK would see," said John Holmes, executive producer of Home and Away and head of drama at Seven Network Ltd., said.
Holmes, who worked on another stalwart Aussie soap, Sons and Daughters, and was Neighbours' originating producer, said he was stunned by the overseas success of that show which is now aired in 57 countries.
"I honestly don't think the BBC, or anyone else at the time with Neighbours, thought they'd get the breakaway hit it has become," he added.
Rights to the Aussie soaps have sparked fierce battles between Britain's television stations.
Channel 5 recently swiped the rights to Home and Away from ITV and has reportedly eyed Neighbours which is aired in Britain by the BBC.
Overseas sales of the cheaply produced soaps, which in their heyday reportedly boosted immigration to Australia, have also proved a money-spinner for their producers.
Red Heart Productions, a joint venture between Seven Network and Britain's Granada Group Plc produces Home and Away, while Neighbours is made by Pearson Plc's Grundy unit and aired in Australia on the Ten Network.
Despite their success, critics berate the shows for their wooden acting and weak story lines, often about dysfunctional families in unrealistic situations.
Some say they depict a saccharine and homogenous view of Australia which is far removed from the reality of the country's multicultural population of 18 million.
"Both Neighbours and Home and Away present an image of Australia that's pristine, attractive and sunny and extremely white," said Tony Mitchell, senior lecturer in writing, social and cultural studies at Sydney's University of Technology.
"It reinforces the very idealised view of Australia being some idyllic place at the end of the world," he added.
Family viewing slots force scriptwriters to steer clear of overtly controversial issues, say producers, but that hasn't stopped drug overdoses, shark attacks and freak train accidents claiming the lives of several Home and Away characters since it first went air.
"We try to get a good cross-section of what's happening in the outside world, but we do have to keep a fairly close eye on some of the story lines. We watch for sex, drugs and rock and roll," said Jan Russ, casting director and assistant producer for Neighbours.
But extensive acting experience is not a prerequisite for cleancut wannabe Neighbours stars, said Russ, who claims responsibility for giving singer Kylie Minogue, L.A. Confidential actor Guy Pearce and even Oscar-nominated Gladiator star Russell Crowe roles in the show.
Filming of Home and Away is on hold for the next few weeks as Seven, which has the local Olympic broadcast rights, requisitions every available camera for its Games coverage.
Executive producer Holmes notes the global spotlight on Australia could lend support to the local soap industry.
"I don't necessarily think those hardnosed buyers of television products in the world markets are going to be swayed by Australia winning 10 golds," Holmes said.
"But I think it'll raise the profile of Australia to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have thought about it."
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