Nine on 'Patrol' for bona fide hit

Oz network has set sail with big-budget drama series

There's a lot riding on the Nine Network's new action-adventure series "Sea Patrol."

At a cost of AUS$15 million ($12.5 million) for 13 episodes, it's the most expensive drama series ever made in Australia, and Nine is banking on its success. The network is hoping that it will add much-needed firepower to its ratings in its tight battle with rival Seven. It is also the first major series to be given the green light by Nine head of drama Jo Horsburgh since she took the reins 12 months ago. And on a broader note, it is hoped the show will boost interest in Australian drama and re-engage Australian audiences.

Already it has been dubbed a success. It premiered on Nine on July 5 to an audience of 1.98 million, the second-highest Australian drama premiere ever, and Nine commissioned Season 2 before Season 1 had aired.

U.K. distributor and co-financier Portman Media Assets has sold the program to Hallmark channels, which will air it worldwide — the first time an Australian drama has been sold internationally before it screened.

Shot on location on the Great Barrier Reef in Far North Queensland, it's believed to be the first time an action-adventure series has been filmed almost entirely at sea.

"We always knew it was going to be logistically expensive and dangerous and that shooting at sea was completely unpredictable. We knew we were going where no TV series had gone before," says veteran TV producer Hal McElroy, who collaborated on the series with his wife, Di, through their production shingle McElroy All Media.

Logistics entailed signing a multiyear cooperative deal with the Royal Australian Navy to use their boats, personnel and stories; filming for seven weeks at sea in waters infested with crocodiles, stingers, sea snakes and sharks, all the while withstanding some near-cyclone conditions; doing 1,260 boardings between various sea craft; and inventing a new camera system dubbed "pogo cam" that takes the place of camera tripods or a steadicam, which couldn't fit on a 44-meter patrol boat.

The sea shoot lasted 40 days — a schedule driven by the availability of the Navy's patrol boats. That scheduling meant that "on any day we were shooting scenes from up to five different episodes with two different directors on the boat," rather than the usual sequential shoot of a TV series, Di McElroy explains.

The light and water also provided "some stunning visuals," captured for the screen thanks to the decision to shoot in Super 16 mm film and digital high definition.

Internal scenes were shot in studios at the Gold Coast and on Navy boats in Sydney.

The series, with Ian Stenlake, Lisa McCune, Sybilla Budd and Steve Bisley headlining an ensemble cast of 22, tells the story of Navy patrol boat HMAS Hamersley and its crew, who provide security, surveillance, protection, support and relief for the world's largest island and longest coastline.

Any similarities to "Border Security" — the Seven Network's hit fly-on-the-wall series about the Australian customs service — are no coincidence. "Sea Patrol" went into development four years ago, and when "Border Security" proved a ratings hit last year, the McElroys thought they were on to a good thing.

Hal McElroy, a drama producer of Australian audience favorites like "Police Rescue," "Blue Heelers" and "Water Rats," quips that "Sea Patrol" is like "'Water Rats' on steroids." Where "Water Rats" was a police drama filmed on Sydney Harbor, the range of stories and work that Navy Patrol Boat crews do means "Sea Patrol" is part police show, part medical show and part legal drama, he says. The 22 patrol boat crew deal with desperate refugees, drug smugglers, people smugglers, thieves, illegal fishing, a cyclone-ravaged town and a dangerous unexploded mine.

The show marks the first time a TV drama has had such a close working relationship with the Australian defense forces. The producers have signed an exclusive five-year deal with the Royal Australian Navy Patrol Boat Service for all the necessary logistics for production, including vessels, personnel, locations, uniforms, weaponry, communications, signage, access to library footage and technical advice. In exchange, the Navy has consultation rights and access during scripting, production and postproduction plus an on-screen credit, though Hal McElroy points out that the producers and Nine have ultimate creative control.

"There's always been interest in a good Australian drama. I'm hoping 'Sea Patrol' will meet some pent-up audience demand," Horsburgh says.