Ready, set, dough: The hide-and-seek game with $100k up for grabs

Key points

  • The new reality series Hunted is based on a UK format that first aired in 2015 and has so far had 10 seasons, including two celebrity and one US. 
  • In 10’s local iteration, nine teams of two have to try to evade capture for 21 days, with just $500 to get by on.. 
  • The chasers have access to their phones and social media accounts, meaning they have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
  • Hunter Ben Owen says the strike rate is typically around 90 per cent of fugitives being caught, though he once worked on a clean sweep.

Marty Benson has made a lot of television over the years – the Melbourne director of content for Endemol Shine Australia currently has six programs on his slate, including the mother of all reality shows, MasterChef – but nothing had quite prepared him for the challenge of making Hunted.

“Before you’ve made the series you don’t understand what the mechanics of it are,” says the veteran producer. “Even if you’re expert in it and you have consultants explaining things, you never quite understand it until you’ve experienced it yourself.”

The fugitives make a run at the “drop” at Melbourne’s Federation Square in the first episode of Hunted.

Hunted is a UK format in which pairs of fugitives are pursued by teams of hunters, who are directed by the intelligence and surveillance boffins back at HQ, who have access to the escapees’ contacts, social media and bank records, as well as CCTV footage captured in public places. If they can evade capture long enough – 21 days in the case of this first Australian season – they will share in a $100,000 cash prize.

It’s basically a massive game of hide and seek, with the entire state of Victoria at the contestants’ disposal, and the maths of it all are staggering.

Nine pairs of fugitives, each on the run with a camera operator/ground producer in tow. A follow team for each pair, each with its own camera operator. Five additional teams of ground hunters, each with camera operator. There are cameras too in the HQ where 22 investigators – cyber security experts, former detectives, social media hackers, database wranglers – track everything on a huge video monitor.

All up, Benson says, there were feeds from 27 cameras, plus the bodycams worn by everyone in the field as back-up. All up, they harvested 93 days’ worth of footage, at 24 hours a day, which had to be edited into a tight nine-episode season.

“I think [viewers] will be surprised at the things law enforcement can do to track you and how hard it is actually to cover your tracks,” says chief hunter David Craig (centre), pictured with Ben Owen and Reece Dewar.

“It was a little bit all-encompassing, and kind of hard to go home and spend time with your family when you’ve just spent 12 hours watching investigators trying to catch fugitives,” says Benson. “It was 21 days in a row of absolute heart-pounding madness.”

According to chief hunter David Craig, what happens on Hunted is “as real as you can get without it being real”.

Any time a fugitive dropped a breadcrumb – by making a phone call or crossing in front of a CCTV camera or withdrawing cash from an ATM (each pair had $200 in cash and $300 in the bank for their 21 days) – the team could request access to that footage or information in order to try to locate them. (Because the producers don’t have authority to actually request that footage, it is reproduced on the run by having the camera operator place a Go-Pro where the closed-circuit camera would be, using a selfie stick. That footage is then uploaded via What’s App, and is available to the team at HQ within minutes.)

“Sometimes we got information back, sometimes we didn’t, sometimes it took longer,” says Craig, a former agent with the Australian Federal Police who led the investigation into the 2005 Bali bombings. “That was tough. And it was very realistic.”

Though the hunt had rules, including downtime overnight for both pursuers and escapees, everyone worked 10-hour days, seven days a week for the 21 days of the shoot.

“The fugitives are all broken biscuits at the end of it,” he says. “And so are the hunters, because we’re all busting our chops to get our respective objectives.

“I think a lot of people watching it will go, ‘Oh, this would be easy’,” he adds of the challenge of evading capture. “Then when it starts I think they’ll be surprised at the things law enforcement can do to track you and how hard it is actually to cover your tracks.”

Some of the fugitives appear to be winging it completely from the get-go. Not so West Australians Jake Rozario and Rob Harneiss, a policeman and a hairdresser respectively.

It was Harneiss’ idea to apply for the show – he’d seen the UK version and fancied his chances – and Rozario simply went along because “I’d do anything for my best mate”. And it was the hairdresser rather than the copper who came armed with a game plan – and a whole heap of gear to aid their chances.

The surveillance experts who are charged with tracking and finding the escaped fugitives.

“I think we had like 40 kilograms of hair and make-up in backpacks,” says Harneiss. “I had a lot of vacuum-sealed bags, they were all itemised with everything that was in the bags, all the different disguises. A big part of our game plan was to hide in plain sight.”

Within minutes of the mass breakout from Melbourne’s Federation Square that kicks off the first episode, the pair have changed from their drop clothes into high-vis workwear, with false hair and moustaches. “A good wig can get you a long way,” says Rozario, who concedes that they nonetheless thought they’d blown their chances within the first 30 minutes.

“Early on, we were pretty poor. We found it very, very difficult to get anybody to help us.”

While Harneiss is adept at making small talk from behind the hairdressing chair, Rozario’s interactions with strangers in his day job tend to have a different energy. “When I approach people at work [as a policeman] they generally don’t want to talk to me,” he admits. “I definitely had to learn a lot in terms of the way I approached people. Early on we probably had two people help us out of 20, but we got a lot better at it over time.”

With so little by way of resources and with the hunters having access to contacts and likely hideouts, convincing strangers to help is key to surviving in this game. But what does the willingness of people to lend a hand to strangers who introduce themselves as fugitives say about us as a culture? That the Ned Kelly spirit is alive and well?

“I realised there are a lot of people out there that are willing to help you and that are good people,” says Rozario. They may have, theoretically at least, been helping criminals but, he adds, “I loved it when we were getting the help. It was the best thing ever.”

Should this show strike a chord with viewers and give rise to more seasons, Harneiss has a tip for future competitors. “Retirees are the best help ever. Honestly, they are so cautious about everything, everything’s a conspiracy, so they’re great people to help you.”

After five seasons on the UK version and one in the US, cyber expert (and former sniper) Ben Owen thought he was done with Hunted after leaving the show just before COVID hit. But the lure of Australia proved too great for Owen, who signed on as Deputy, Intelligence and who claims this season is the most intense he’s worked on, with an expanded number of fugitives and a compressed time period.

As someone who advises businesses and high net-worth individuals how to stay safe online, he has an ambivalent attitude towards the amount of information available to surveillance operatives in real life. “I am a big privacy advocate,” he says. “I believe you have a private life for a reason – that’s why we have curtains on the windows, a door on the toilet.”

Proportionate access to data, on solid legal grounds, is appropriate, he says, and in the post-Snowden and WikiLeaks era, people are unlikely to be surprised that police and security forces can access it. But, he adds, “I think people will have a reality check when they see how accurate, how fast and just how much information every day is traceable”.

Should viewers be worried then, or comforted? “The ones who have nothing to hide will feel comforted,” says Owen. “Those on the wrong side of the law might start changing their passwords, look at multifactoral authentication and start chucking their phones in the river.”

Hunted premieres on Ten and 10Play, Sunday, July 17, 7.30pm.

Email the author at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin

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