Network bosses betting it all on The Project

Jesse Mulligan (centre) has been entrusted with the 7pm-weeknights slot before. His team is confident that he'll deliver for TV3. Photo: MediaWorks
Jesse Mulligan (centre) has been entrusted with the 7pm-weeknights slot before. His team is confident that he'll deliver for TV3. Photo: MediaWorks

Mark Jennings studies TV3’s latest, and arguably bravest, roll of the dice.

This Monday is an important day in New Zealand television, it could even be an important day for the country.

The first episode of TV3’s new show The Project will go to air at 7pm.

Why is it so important? Because, frankly, local television has become boring.

It’s been far too long since the industry produced an iconic show to sit alongside Country Calendar, Fair Go and Shortland Street. Yes we’ve had Holmes, Bro’town and Outrageous Fortune, but these shows are now fading memories. We need a decent new show – a rallying point, a programme that can span generations and get us all talking.

TV shows that combine news, interviews, comedy and satire have brought a new form of political discourse to the western world, but so far they have been absent from our television landscape.

The way New Zealanders now watch, share, and devour clips from US shows like Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver emphasises our growing thirst for commentators who lampoon absurd decision makers and call out the “bullshit” when they see it.

The Project, based on the successful Australian show of the same name, could fill that void. It combines TV3’s two core strengths – news and comedy. The Australian version peaks at over a million viewers a night and is the Ten network’s most successful programme.

If this imported format doesn’t work here, TV3 will be in trouble; it has literally bet the house on this one.

The network is losing money and time is running out for its board and management. It’s a brave roll of the dice as this show is costing at least double, possibly triple, what it’s 7pm predecessors Story and Campbell Live did.

Failure would see some of the executive team at Flower Street quietly shown the door.

TV3 has bought the show, lock, stock and camera from the Aussies. The set is the same, the graphics are the same, and the segments are the same.

The only thing that differs is the news content and the presenters.

Craig Campbell, who invented the show, is now in Auckland as a sort of format enforcer.

Most TV stations aren’t prepared to pay for formats based on news or comedy – they simply rip off the idea, tweak the format, change the name and hope to get away with it.

This is basically what TVNZ did a few years ago. The original Seven Sharp was also based on The Project, but the state broadcaster couldn’t pull it off. Eventually it got rid of Jesse Mulligan, brought in Mike Hosking, and backtracked to a more traditional form of soft current affairs.

Strange then that Mulligan should end up as one of the three presenters on TV3’s version. The other two are Kanoa Lloyd (former Newshub weather presenter) and Josh Thomson (ex-7 Days).

The Project’s Executive Producer Jon Bridges says Mulligan is a different man from the one that fell over on Seven Sharp.

“That was two years ago. Since then he has had his own show on Radio New Zealand. He is much more experienced and has been performing really well in rehearsals.”

To be fair, Mulligan looked comfortable and composed in Thursday night’s dry run, for which selected media were invited to be part of the live audience.

The rehearsal also confirmed that Thomson is a real talent and likely to be a major draw card.

But if the Australian show is an indicator of what is required for success then Mulligan’s performance is going to be crucial. The star of the Australian version, Waleed Aly, has become a cult figure and last year won a Golden Logie – the top award in the Australian TV industry.

His provocative editorials, sharp wit, and clever interviewing have proved highly popular with Australia’s urban liberal centre-left. Aly, whose parents are Egyptian, is a Sunni Muslim and is a staff member of the Global Terrorism centre at Monash University in Melbourne.

In 2015, he received enormous attention when he criticised ISIS, calling them “bastards” and “weak.”

Aly and his co-presenters have captured a big chunk of the hard-to-get younger demographic.  Can Mulligan do this and become the local show’s Waleed Aly? Maybe, but he will have to do a hell of a lot better than he did on Seven Sharp.

To help snatch viewers from Shortland Street’s younger demographic, the name Paddy Gower must have gone through the minds of Andrew Szusterman (Head of Programming) and Hal Crawford (Head of News) when they sifted through audition tapes.

The fact that Gower is the Network’s Political Editor, and this being Election year, probably meant leaving him in his current role, but he seems tailor-made for a show like this.

Gower is already a cult figure; he’s smart, fearless, funny and perhaps the only reporter in the country that has a high profile with the younger demographic. Gower can go viral as we witnessed with his law school review gag, “This is the fucking news” and his Facebook fantasy page “Patrick Gower for Prime Minister” has nearly 20,000 likes.

Social media likes Gower and Gower loves social media.

So here’s a prediction: The Project won’t be an overnight sensation but MediaWorks will hang in there for 12 months. Then, the pressure will come on and they will eventually hand the reins to Gower.

Gower could provide the power that The Project needs if it, and indeed TV3 itself, want to thrive rather than simply survive, the next few years.

*Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom. He was Head of News and Current Affairs at TV3/MediaWorks for over 20 years, and led the Newshub integration project. His last story for Newsroom was about TV3’s new cross-format breakfast show, AM.

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