TV3 has adopted an Aussie format for its latest 7pm show. Can The Project deliver news you can use and views to amuse viewers?
“This will not be a light and fluffy show,” TV3’s long-serving news chief Mark Jennings told Mediawatch in 2015, announcing its replacement for the controversially-culled Campbell Live.
Back then, rumours were rife that TV3 was retooling its Friday comedy shows for prime time. TV3 denied reports Jeremy Corbett, Jono and Ben and even guest politicians would fill the prime-time void left by John Campbell and his team’s journalism.
“We are not abandoning good, sound journalism. You don't throw the baby out with the bathwater," Mark Jennings said emphatically at the time.
What came next was Story, a mix of news, reporting and banter between hosts Duncan Garner and Heather Du Plessis-Allan. It ran four nights a week. No-one wants hard news on Friday any more, they reckoned.
Story only lasted a year but it outlasted Mark Jennings, who followed John Campbell out of the same door held open by Mediaworks boss Mark Weldon.
By the time Mr Weldon himself left the building soon after, a lightweight version of Story was running on Fridays. It had no reporting at all - just chit-chat about the news between in-house journalists, guest politicians and comedians.
That foreshadowed The Project which kicked off TV3 last Monday.
Something completely different?
Under the slogan “news delivered differently," TV3 imported a format that’s been successful for the Australian network Ten.
Now at his new online news startup Newsroom, Mark Jennings said overseas TV shows combining news, interviews, comedy and satire have been a big hit. Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show for example, and the cutting satire of John Oliver and Jon Stewart.
TVNZ tried it with Seven Sharp (the pre-Hosking version) but it fell flat. TVNZ even had to apologise for one heavy-handed skit in which Jesse Mulligan took aim at the soft target of Colin Craig.
But, as Mark Jennings pointed out, TV3’s strengths in news and topical comedy gave TV3 a better chance of pulling it off with The Project.
The garish “song and dance” promos hardly signaled a show with a hard core. Did Monday's debut have satire and news-you-can-use?
The new show opened with bombastic news music as host Kanoa Lloyd read serious news headlines. So far so traditional.
That came to a halt as they plunged into a scripted gag about Abba and some video about raw chicken - and welcomed Rove McManus as a special guest.
Having an Australian TV frontman there on the opening night of a New Zealand-made ran the risk of looking like he was there to hold the home team's hands. Off to one side, he looked like a man having a job interview at the counter of a brightly-lit optometrist's shop.
But it turns out he's really the boss, according to stuff.co.nz.
"He owns the master franchise, and so to make sure the Kiwi version of his Australian news-comedy vehicle fits the formula . . . Rove McManus will guest on its debut with other key staff from The Project to ensure the new show's launch is smooth."
Things got serious in a rapid-fire report about not enough treatment for P-users and a follow-up interview with Ross Bell from the Drug Foundation.
"Would you like us to become the next Portugal or the next United States or the next Philippines?," asked Jesse Mulligan.
Presented with the options legalise it, lock 'em up or shoot 'em up, he opted for more treatment and more prevention.
"Thanks for your time," said Jesse - though the interview lasted little more than one minute. After another 40 seconds of reckons from the panel, the P problem was done and dusted within three and a half minutes of the show.
They played the P backgrounder again by mistake straight after (no biggie - it's live TV) then hit the Cadbury closure and whether Pharmac should subsidise sanitary products for women.
Minister Paula Bennett turned them down, so they turned to comedian Michele A'Court.
"Thank you for thinking this through," said Kanoa Lloyd two minutes after asking her: "To Pharmac - or not to Pharmac?"
Morselising the news
After each ad break, viewers are eased back into The Project with news-like video snippets (French restaurant wrongly Michelin-starred, Aussie politicians dancing badly, supercar driver scraping his wedding) book-ended with banter.
The Project #1 ended on cat videos and Gareth Morgan gags, which were hung on a peg of a planned cat cull in Australia.
While host Jesse Mulligan urged viewers to stick around for The Block (another Aussie format) coming up next, his Aussie guest Rove McManus bellowed: "Congrats Project NZ. You nailed it!".
In Australia, the Ten network's Project features sharp comment from Waleed Aly, who's a writer, academic and lawyer as well as a great frontman who's won top media awards.
The local version could do with something similar to his brand of satirical and political intent, but presumably that took time to crystalise in the Australian version of the show.
The Project's main shortcoming is a format that allows for little more than passing on a few facts and a punchy opinion or two, but offers nothing like enough time to deal with anything properly.
There might be enough time if they did away with the reckons of the four folks in the swivel chairs, but it's those rather than the news that the programme is really built around. Even their good jokes and thoughtful observations are over in a flash.
Chatting about news has replaced reporting on it - or creating it - at 7pm on TV3.
Mark Jennings's TV3 baby has been thrown out, and the bathwater has long since circled the plughole.