'Safe Harbour'.

‘Safe Harbour.’

Matchbox Pictures’ Safe Harbour was one of the most superbly produced, critically acclaimed and deftly promoted Australian dramas of recent years: so why were the overnight audiences on SBS relatively low?

Granted, the 4-part asylum seekers drama directed by Glendyn Ivin has drawn a sizable number of viewers on playback and on SBS On Demand, but that does not fully explain why the show is proving to be rather less popular than SBS dramas The Principal and Deep Water.

Some of the key creatives who worked on the production suspect the lack of sympathy for asylum seekers among a segment of the Australian population is one factor – and that thought-provoking dramas are no match against the reality shows on the commercial networks.

Produced by Stephen Corvini and created by Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron and Phil Enchelmaier, the psychological thriller followed five Aussie holidaymakers on a yacht who encountered a broken-down fishing boat full of desperate asylum seekers.

They agreed to tow the stricken vessel back to Australia but the next morning it had vanished. Five years later they met some of the refugees and discovered someone had cut the rope, resulting in the loss of seven lives.

“The story we tell ourselves about the refugee crisis is very different from the reality,” says Robert Rabiah, who played one of the asylum seekers. “I’m glad a show like Safe Harbour brought that to our attention, where we see those affected from both sides of the fence as people.”

Rabiah, who has just filmed Matchbox/Foxtel’s Secret City: Under the Eagle in Canberra, continued: “In my opinion, asylum seeker/refugee stories are always a tough sell, even though Safe Harbour is so much more than that. The majority of Australians would prefer to tune into My Kitchen Rules or Married at First Sight after a hard day’s work rather than give something with a hard-hitting subject matter that’s too close to home a chance.”

Echoing Rabiah’s comments, Ivin tells IF: “I also think that Australians already have their mind made up on the asylum seeker issue. I saw a lot of comments in the lead-up to Safe Harbour’s release that this was ‘more government proper-gander’.”

Ivin, who is shooting The Cry, the BBC/ABC drama starring Ewen Leslie and Jenna Coleman in Australia and Glasgow, observed: “Safe Harbour isn’t about advocacy. If you’re against refugees seeking asylum in Australia there is plenty of fuel for your fire in the show. We were more concerned about creating a human drama based in and around that world.”

Typifying the changes in viewing patterns, the first episode had 250,000 viewers overnight but the audience built steadily to 348,000 in 7 days and the consolidated combined average audience totalled 444,000 in 28 days. In addition there have been 318,000 chapter views on demand for episode one and 915,000 for all four episodes thus far.

Moreover, while the series’ linear viewing total was below that of SBS’s 2017 drama Sunshine, the on demand views are already 21.8 per cent higher.

Marshall Heald, SBS director of TV and online content, tells IF: “We are immensely proud of Safe Harbour. SBS’s charter enables us to explore our diverse world and to tell stories from a multicultural perspective that no other network would tell. Safe Harbour has been highly praised for its unique use of the drama format to explore issues that impact all Australians.

“The program and the issues it tackles have sparked a conversation across media and social media over the past weeks and the SBS On Demand viewing figures continue to grow strong as more and more people find their way to the series.

“It remains available on SBS On Demand for the rest of the year and we are confident that these viewing numbers will continue to grow as Australians continue to discover this fantastic series.”

Similarly, Corvini said: “Developing and making Safe Harbour was a labour of love and we are so proud of the result. It is a unique and important story and it is wonderful to see how it has resonated with its audience and made people think and engage. The catch-up numbers are impressive and reflect the different ways audiences like to consume drama.”

Chayko said she always believed the series, which co-starred Phoebe Tonkin, Leeanna Walsman, Joel Jackson, Nicole Chamoun and Hazem Shammas,  would have a very long life and a significant impact. She maintains it has fulfilled the aims of re-igniting the national conversation about Australia’s responsibilities towards asylum seekers and engaging audiences in a drama in which they could feel personally invested.

Leslie, who played the yacht’s conflicted captain, argues the overnight ratings is an archaic system which no longer reflects how people watch TV and noted a lot of his friends were looking forward to binge-watching the show. He watched Sunshine on demand three months after it aired and caught The Principal on Netflix 18 months after the SBS broadcast.

“I’m glad Safe Harbour received the acclaim it did because I do think it’s great drama,” he said. “Do I wish more people watched it as it aired? Of course. Do I wish more people watched Riot than Married at First Sight? Yep. But I also wish more people watched Australian drama in general.”

Jacqueline McKenzie, who played a lawyer in the show and is now filming Screentime’s Pine Gap in South Australia, said: “When we can compete with the big-budgeted PR juggernauts of overseas brands/products and create comparable awareness for our home-grown dramas, we will, in turn, see massive audiences. To date this has never been the case.”

Ivin agrees that it is increasingly difficult to expect audiences to tune into a free-to-air drama at a certain time on a certain night, with a week in between each episode.

Now the series is available on SBS On Demand he regards that as the perfect environment to binge-watch all four episodes at once or over a couple of days, adding, “That’s how it was intended to be watched and I know it would deliver the best experience for the viewer.”


Join the Conversation


  1. It’s absolutely true that the way viewers want to watch drama is changed and so I am wondering if there is a reluctance to engage in this unique style of storytelling on the medium it aired on. For me, I was really looking forward to watching this series when it aired and had my whole household tune into it. But it failed to maintain our interest or engage us. It didn’t compete with other TV Drama we were used to and it didn’t make us care about the story or characters quick enough so we tuned out between the first and second ad break. It was very ‘nicely’ shot and the sound design very immersive, but the edit and overall direction of storytelling just felt overly self-indulgent, causing this household to do the reverse of what the cinematic techniques were trying to do, it disconnected us from the characters and made us lose any sense of plot. The storytelling was much too slow to the point of very small scenes making the cut that conveyed very little or at least not enough to hold our attention on the medium it appeared on. I wonder whether more brutal decisions needed to be made in the edit room with the medium and viewers in mind. The show had a very strong artistic style but in this case, that ranked higher than what I see as the top priority which is character and spectator relationship. By the first ad break, we didn’t really know who the characters were or feel very much for them. Lot of jumping around which prevented us from wanting to follow the story or characters. We weren’t lacking in empathy for the topic, we looked forward to engaging with this kind of story – as we understood per marketing. The show just didn’t seem to perform and bring us in to care enough for the characters and their story. It’s like the approach and medium was an obstacle to the viewer in connecting with the story and characters. I suspect Safe Harbour might be the kind of Drama that is better suited to a different platform other than airing on television, because it just didn’t seem to be effective on that medium. It had a very intimate storytelling approach, maybe binge-watching on the laptop screen will remove that obstacle that I identified when on television. I will remain optimistic and give it another chance online…

    1. I agree with many of your insights(which are well-defined) and think maybe it should have aired over 2 long eps. in the same week for viewer retention. The medium could be an issue but on demand stats will give a long-term breakdown. One thing I think is although the script is good, there is something lacking in belief of or real connection with the dialogue.. like the ‘truth’ is not complete.

  2. Brilliant capture of the fear, the lived experience of the punished ‘boat people’ I have known since 2001. Authentic recognition and acknowledgement of the grief, the loss , the fear integral to seeking protection from persecution. If Year 12 students around Australia could see and discuss what this series captures, the next election will see them vote for the Greens asylum seeker policy and condemn an unprincipled Labor and wipe out the Liberal and National parties’ perpetrators of deterrence, persecution and inhumanity towards innocent children (babies born here !) and adults. Donate a copy to community libraries and high schools in marginal electorates and throughout Queensland, please !

  3. I found that the show started well and then declined in interest ep by ep. By the finale I was very bored.

  4. Safe Harbour didn’t grab my attention, though I did see the ads. MAFS was just trash and again didn’t hold my attention. I see shows like this and think “I could write something much better than this. How do I do so though?”

  5. The lead up to Safe Harbour was a must watch. But lost the audience when focusing on the daily life of the Australian family after the fact? Yes we get it, guilt, drama, revenge on both sides. More focus on the asylum seekers prior to the event would have made a more realistic connection with the viewers. A sequel of survival with a twist unveiled throughout to the end, will tease viewers wanting more. Sorry Safe Harbour lost me episode 3. The affair was completely distracting from the plot sorry…

  6. I really wanted to love this show. I thought the structure and plotting to be good, but the dialogue was just so cringey with so many scenes based on characters telling each other what they already know. At one point Jacqueline McKenzie even says ‘bla bla bla as we all know’!
    The writing was just too bland and devoid of subtext to keep me interested despite the potential of the subject matter and situation.

  7. Australian film makers have to decide if they want to make films people will watch in large numbers, or whether to continue to create wonderfully worthy films that simply won’t ever capture a sizable audience. It’s that simple. And many of us have been saying this for decades.

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