By the end of the 1970s, Emmerdale Farm was no longer a humble lunchtime show and had steadily evolved. The series was firmly established in the evening line-up for many regions, and its summer breaks became shorter as viewing figures steadily increased. In addition, the production team deliberately widened the cast of regular characters, partly to lessen the number of scenes set in Annie's kitchen at Emmerdale. An early indication of the changes came with Joe Sugden's defection to the NY Estates, and when his brother Jack returned once more to Beckindale, there was a personal edge to the continuing conflict over farming methods that divided NY and Emmerdale.
Other new characters included the Merricks: Pat, Sandy, and Jack's illegitimate son Jackie. All eventually moved into Emmerdale, although tragedy struck when Pat was killed in a car crash shortly after giving birth to Jack's other son. More young characters were introduced, and with them the storylines became somewhat racier, culminating in the relatively graphic portrayal of Jack's adulterous affair with Karen Moore, which had some serious off-screen consequences. After 13 years of writing the show, creator Kevin Laffan had a very public falling out with the producers over such content and ultimately left the series after refusing to rewrite a script. But despite his concerns, by the mid-80s Emmerdale Farm was delivering sizeable (though static) ratings even without being fully networked across the ITV regions. However, the ITV controllers certainly sat up and took notice when the BBC's new soap EastEnders (1985-) was moved from its heavily publicised original slot of 7pm, largely because of Emmerdale Farm's strong performance opposite.
Thanks to this new attention from the network, Emmerdale Farm was about to undergo a series of tumultuous changes. It was swiftly converted into a continuous soap, and in 1988 finally became a fully networked show. These off-screen developments were mirrored by a number of cast changes, as viewers saw the dramatic departures of old favourites like Matt Skilbeck and Jackie Merrick, and even NY Estates became a fading memory. Finally, in order to rid the programme of its agricultural connotations the series was renamed Emmerdale, but this cosmetic change was not the most dramatic event of 1989. This came when Home Farm and its land was sold to the Tates - a small, seemingly well-balanced family of four. For better or worse, the series would never be the same again.