21 Feb 2017

Is The Project ready to save the current affairs show?

10:18 am on 21 February 2017

It's news delivered *differently! (*very, very quickly)



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Photo: Unknown

When did the current affairs show fall out of favour?

Was it when the internet stole our hearts and our gaze? Was it when a privatised media model started to prioritise profit over knowledge? Was it when they axed the most well respected, beloved angel of broadcasting ever known to this country?

We may never know. What we do know is what was once a beacon in the televisual landscape - where ratings were plentiful, journalism thrived and our greatest and most beloved celebrities were born - is now in a bit of pickle.

Few feel this more acutely than MediaWorks. As you and I both know, it's been a tough few years for dear old TV3. Restructured and rebranded beyond recognition before being left in the dust by the notorious Mark Weldon, the news late last year that the nightly 7pm current affairs show Story was to be canned seemed like another blow. What would they do next?

They said they knew. They said they had a great idea and that everyone would be a-ok, don’t you worry! Time passed. Rumours flew. An ill advised new logo was announced. It was clear that once again the MediaWorks identity was in flux and that this new and improved current affairs show was to be the jewel in their freshly shined crown.

Which is to say that when The Project debuted last night the stakes felt really rather high.

Based on the Australian show of the same name, it is to be everything all the other current affairs shows aren’t. News, commentary, comedy, fun! All wrapped up in one tidy, dynamic package and delivered with pizazz by an elite and diverse team of entertainment royalty.

That team, as we have now known for some time is comprised of comedian Josh Thomson, TV3 weather presenter Kanoa Lloyd and Jess Mulligan, employee of every media company in the country (including RNZ).

Appearing on screen together for the first time last night (or the second if you count that terrifying La La Land parody, which for their sakes I do not) the first thing that was clear was that all three hosts were very, very nervous. Perhaps anticipating this, they were joined by Australian television personality Rove McManus, who by contrast was not nervous at all.

From the get go, the pace was breathless. Barely did the hosts begin to laugh at a Trump gaffe before Thompson started riffing on a clip from a strange, unidentified British cooking show of a man licking raw chicken juice from his fingers; with barely a moment to spare discussing the dangers of salmonella, the topic of food hygiene was then abandoned for a report about methamphetamine.

Yes, it was quite the rollocking ride. In the space of half-an-hour about a million things were covered: Kim Dotcom, the closure of the Cadbury factory, Vin Diesel's duet with Selena Gomez, Ed Sheeran’s immigration plans, tampons, bloody Gareth Morgan going on about cats again and seemingly endless video clips of mysterious origin that are neither credited nor particularly noteworthy.

The show was also plagued with bad luck. Its hosts stumbled over their words. They accidentally played the meth clip twice. An interviewee used his precious seconds of screen time to critique comments made on The AM Show (another new MediaWorks venture) that morning that suggested meth cooks should be shot in the head.

And, while it will presumably not be a problem in future episodes, the presence of Rove and his unshakable confidence didn’t help so much as undermine Lloyd, Mulligan and Thomson as they anxiously attempted to make this terribly fraught situation seem natural.

Thompson seemed in particular to be suffering. The least well integrated, he was also clearly the most nervous. This is no wonder; he is faced with the most difficult role on the show. How do you make a joke when a new clip is played every 20 seconds and you’ve got three other hosts yammering on?

He could barely get a word in edgeways before Rove spoke instead, at one point even cruelly robbing him of the opportunity to make a period joke (every comedian’s elixir of life).

The nervous hosts, the frequent stumbles, the frantic pace. None of this is a result of any lack of preparation or thought or talent.

Rather it reeks of pressure. The pressure to perform, the pressure to make amends, the pressure of a chance that might be your last.

To be fair they’re all trying their very best. Mulligan is gracious, Lloyd is super lovely and Thomson, in spite of his nerves, is sweet and charming and will no doubt fare far better without a veteran Australian broadcaster to compete with.

But is it enough to bring in audiences? To erase the horrible past and pave the way for a hopeful new future? To replace Shortland Street as the public after dinner treat?

It is, of course, too soon to tell.

But based on last night’s show a few things are clear. For the powers that be, deciding what viewers want and don’t want, longform is out. Out are the in depth-investigations of yore and in are montages of images and clips, interspersed with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interviews and benign yet tense banter delivered at breakneck speed.

Habermas's public sphere it is not.

Yet there is hope for The Project yet. Rove’s presence - though self-assured and perhaps considered necessary by producers aware of the core cast’s nerves - was a strange reminder that Australians are quite different to New Zealanders. Where Rove was swift to smooth over every blunder, it was in the brief moments of awkwardness and mild humiliation that the Kiwi hosts, and in particular Mulligan, seemed to thrive.

We New Zealanders are not a flashy bunch. We are embarrassed. We are muted. We are cringey. And The Project was very very cringey. But with a bit more self-awareness that could just work.

As Mulligan deadpanned in the last seconds of broadcast: “This show is going so well, isn’t it?”