BBC says goodbye to 'Neighbours' after 21 years

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LONDON -- RTL-owned Five, the U.K.'s smallest terrestrial channel, on Friday said that it has picked up rights to twice-daily teen soap "Neighbours" in a deal with sister company FremantleMedia thought to be valued at £300 million ($600 million) over eight years.

Both companies are part of the RTL Group, Europe's biggest free-to-air broadcaster.

The news came after a frantic afternoon of bidding Friday that saw the BBC, which has held the show for 21 years, bail out after balking at the price.

"Neighbours," which helped launch the international careers of such homegrown Australian stars as Russell Crowe, Alan Dale, Guy Pierce and Kylie Minogue, is set in a Sydney suburb and follows the lives of a group of families in and around fictional Ramsay Street.

A favorite of students, teenagers and housewives, the twice-daily show launched on BBC1 in 1986, attracting a cult following here.

Fremantle said Five had been "very keen" to buy the show for some time and presented "the most compelling offer," but did not confirm the £300 million price tag.

FremantleMedia Enterprise chief executive David Ellender said the show will continue to be a success, despite moving to a much smaller network. "Five will be a great home for 'Neighbours' and FremantleMedia is confident that the show will continue to go from strength to strength," he said.

"Neighbours" will join Five's schedule as well as that of its digital sister network Five Life in spring 2008, when its contract with the BBC runs out.

Five managing director of content Lisa Opie will now look for the big financial investment to result in a consistent daily ratings uplift that will arrest the decline in Five's overall audience share.

"I'm delighted Five has secured such a popular and sought after series," Opie said. " 'Neighbours' is quite rightly much loved by its many fans and it will be a greatly prized part of our schedule and suitably cherished by us."

Five chief executive Jane Lighting also hailed the deal, saying that it is "a fantastic asset" that will deliver "strong audiences daily."

Currently both shows attract a joint audience of about 5 million viewers, but in its late-'90s heyday, about 12 million viewers tuned in to the show.

Five's acquisitions track record has not always been successful. The network stunned the television industry by beating Channel 4 and the BBC three years ago for the rights to NBC's short-lived "Joey," paying £1 million pounds per half-hour episode in its most expensive comedy acquisition.

While still a steady ratings success for the BBC, "Neighbours" has lost ground since it launched, and viewers have looked to such shows as "The OC" and "Dawson's Creek" for teen drama fare.

Earlier in the day, BBC1 controller Peter Fincham said that the departure of the show from BBC1's schedules was "a sad day," for the broadcaster, which had backed the show for so long.

In a statement, the BBC disclosed the "unrealistic" price that Fremantle was seeking and said that the deal did not represent value for money for the BBC's license fee payers.

"We have, this afternoon, formally withdrawn from the bidding for 'Neighbours.' The BBC has had a long and fruitful relationship with the program, which has transmitted on BBC1 for 21 years, and this has come to an end because of an unrealistic price demand," the BBC statement said. "We do not believe that we could have justified to BBC viewers a price tag of what would have amounted to some £300 million across the term of the contract. Paying that sum would also have compromised our ability to invest in new original programs."

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