How Alone Australia went from near-flop to record-breaking smash

By Michael Lallo

The cast of Alone Australia, which has become SBS’s most-watched full-length series ever, are left to fend for themselves in the Tasmanian wilderness.Credit: ITV Studios Australia

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When Alone Australia debuted on SBS in March, it drew the kind of ratings that make commercial TV bosses weep: across the five biggest capital cities, barely 200,000 viewers tuned in for the live broadcast. Yet Alone is now the most-watched full-length series SBS has ever commissioned – and the envy of every other network.

“It feels like the whole nation is talking about this show,” says SBS’s head of unscripted content, Joseph Maxwell. “It marks quite a shift in how Australians are consuming television … the numbers are just staggering.”

Loneliness and isolation, rather than extreme physical conditions, are usually the biggest challenges for Alone’s contestants.Credit: ITV Studios Australia

Traditionally, Australia’s television industry relied upon overnight metropolitan ratings to gauge its performance. But Alone, which production company ITV Studios Australia adapted from a US format, illustrates how outdated this approach has become. According to the recently-introduced ratings system VOZ, which stands for “Virtual Australia”, city viewers who watch the series live account for less than one-sixth of its overall audience. Alone’s first episode, for instance, attracted more than 90,000 regional viewers, with another 600,000 streaming it live on SBS on Demand or within 28 days of its initial airing. A further 430,000 people watched it on a personal video recorder.

All up, that’s an astonishing 1.33 million viewers. And subsequent episodes will almost certainly reach similar heights, although complete figures won’t be available until one month after its finale is broadcast this Wednesday, followed by a reunion special on Thursday.

“The participants are very different to the kind of people who normally want to be on television.”

Indeed, Alone will finish the year ahead of major reality shows on rival networks including Ten’s Survivor and Nine’s* Lego Masters, which averaged around 1 million viewers each. It may even beat Seven’s Farmer Wants A Wife, currently averaging 1.2 million viewers – although the final ratings for Farmer and Lego Masters won’t be available until 28 days after their finales have screened. Meanwhile, Nine’s Married At First Sight, which averaged a whopping 2 million viewers, appears destined to be the most-watched non-sports program of 2023.

Filmed in the Tasmanian wilderness, Alone features 10 contestants who must build their own shelters and hunt or forage for food. All are placed on separate patches of land to ensure they can’t see or hear each other and there are no challenges to keep them occupied. They’re even responsible for filming themselves and are obliged to deliver a minimum five hours of footage daily. A special satellite phone allows them to quit at any time, while the last person standing walks away with $250,000.

“[The participants] are very different to the kind of people who normally want to be on television,” says Maxwell, who categorises Alone as a documentary series rather than a reality show. “There’s no producer standing off to the side and asking them to frame something a different way. And there are some really compelling moments, like a three-minute sequence about post-traumatic stress disorder that arose naturally because a helicopter flew overhead, or the moment a woman mourns the passing of her child because it’s an anniversary. It’s totally raw and unfiltered.”

Contestants must forage or hunt for food and construct their own shelters.Credit: ITV Studios Australia

Survivalists skills only get a contestant so far and often, those who try to live in harmony with nature – as opposed to “conquering” it – perform better. Despite the extreme physical conditions, isolation is the biggest challenge.

“That loneliness provokes resilience as well as a real vulnerability among participants, which feels very timely after what we’ve all been through with Covid,” Maxwell says. “This is a show that asks, ‘What do you value in life?’ and, ‘What do you hold dear?’. Ultimately, it’s about what it is to be human.”

David Knox, editor of the TV Tonight website, says the long-overdue VOZ ratings system allows networks to properly measure their audiences across all platforms.

“With the exception of sport and news, everybody likes to watch TV on their own schedule and not at the behest of network programmers,” says Knox, who believes Alone’s success is due in part to it airing just one night per week. “If a commercial network had gotten their hands on Alone, what might it have become? It probably would have been ‘stripped’ over three nights a week at 90 minutes per episode. But SBS found a format that no one else had touched and turned it into a ratings success story.”

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