What else do we lose when shows like The Project are taken off the air?
Paddy Gower is wearing a blazer and enthusiastically practising a live cross scheduled to happen in 30 minutes. “I don’t know why we’re rehearsing,” he yells, to no one in particular. His boss’s boss, Glen Kyne, head of Three’s parent company Warner Brothers Discovery, has a question he wants me to put to Gower later. “How long is the mullet going to stick around?”
It’s true that Gower is wearing one of the most iconic yet polarising haircuts available to New Zealanders, one which has been growing more raggedy and prominent since the election. It seems to sum up what everyone is feeling today: there is a palpable “fuck it, why not?” energy throughout the small warehouse in Grafton which housed The Project NZ. The show ended last Friday, after a seven year run which began as simply a quest for “better ratings”, but became “so much more than that”, according to Newshub’s head Sarah Bristow.
She’s also finishing up her job shortly, as are all the 24 staff who have made 1,578 episodes of The Project since its debut in 2017. The last night is funny, joyous and poignant – emotions The Project was always striving to hit – but it unavoidably feels like it symbolises the end of something bigger than The Project, too.
I’ve been invited to sit in the studio audience for the final taping. The crowd has usually been both rowdy and small – they use a mirror to double its scale to TV – but this one is both bigger and more passionate than usual. It’s made up entirely of friends and family of the cast and crew. I sit alongside the father of the show’s longtime executive producer Jon Bridges; Kate Rodger’s dad is at the end of the row. One down is Laura Tupou, and just over the aisle Guy Williams. Most of the front row is made up of Jesse Mulligan’s many children.
Which is to say that there will be few dry eyes by the end of the episode. It commences with a live cross from Samantha Hayes and Mike McRoberts on the 6pm news, who’ve arranged for flowers to be sent across from Three’s headquarters up the road. That sense of being close enough to the mothership to embody its brand, but also distant enough to be very much its own show, is part of what made The Project’s team have such a vital culture. You really feel that tonight – this is a final episode that is also a send off for an entire workplace.
Before then, there’s a show to air. The Project is based on an Australian format developed by Rove McManus, which uses three core hosts with a rotating fourth, usually with a mixture of news and comedy backgrounds. This reflects the show’s scope: perspectives on current affairs, mixed in with jokes and some viral internet stuff. For most of its run the core trio has been Jeremy Corbett, Jesse Mulligan and Kanoa Lloyd, supplemented by Josh Thomson (initially), Tupou (when Lloyd was on maternity leave) and the likes of Rodger, Williams, Gower, Jacquie Brown and Mark Richardson – all of whom were in studio tonight and most of whom had a brief turn behind the desk.
We get a bunch of montages which together capture the scope and energy of the show. “Here at The Project, someone has an idea and we go and do it,” says Mulligan. Hence a shockingly well-made tribute to Wayne’s World, just because. There are clips from a bunch of celebrity interviews conducted by Brown or Rodger, including some massive mononyms: Oprah, Slash, The Rock.
These are leavened by a megamix of the Daily Dose, basically playing the best of TikTok and Instagram on your TV (a small irony: it’s these platforms which have partly washed away The Project’s audience). One clip is extremely meta – a guy tries his first kina on a video, and proceeds to retch heartily. Next, we see the same guy watching his clip on The Project – he’s so stoked he smashes a floor fan next to the TV. “That’s why we’re finishing,” says Corbett, “losing too many fans”. It’s the night’s best joke, and partly true.
The Project is ending because its ratings are down. But they’re down for almost everything. Linear television was once the most powerful force in media – the vast majority of us were watching something on a linear channel, most nights. Now most of us are watching one of billions of pieces of increasingly niche content, from anywhere, on phones and laptops and connected TVs. It has chipped away at the audience for all of television. The Project was always comparatively expensive to make, and some time this year Three decided it could no longer afford to make it.
It’s important to underline that this is symptomatic of something quite rotten in the architecture of our screen universe. Watching tonight, it’s just so obvious that this is a show in its prime. The culture of trust and support is palpable, as is the confident sense of scope and tone. You only shut this down if there is no alternative. You can see that in the turnout, which includes Warner Brothers Discovery head Glen Kyne. He ultimately made the decision, but unlike many CEOs he showed up to the taping and spoke movingly at its close. Few seemed to bear any ill-will.
It’s a stark contrast to the way Campbell Live fought its closure, or Today FM’s electrifying commandeering of the airwaves. In both cases, staff felt the move was a betrayal. In The Project’s case, all the on air and off air speeches reflected on what they did together more than why it had to end. Which is to say that no one seemed unaware of the grim financial situation driving the decision.
The episode was part chaos, part choreography. It managed to hit The Project’s core emotions, alternating between sincerity (lengthy soliloquies about what it meant) and dorky jokes. So we get Paddy Gower, saying he “changed as a person”, because of The Project. We get Mark Richardson, unexpectedly earnest: “I don’t think you can ever take for granted what these shows give you.” He seems truly moved, as the show’s resident right winger, that he has a place in which politics can be both present and joked about, but not so defining that it prevents bigger human connections taking place.
That’s heavy in the air tonight, particularly during a moment in news and politics which seems to be demanding that people pick a side and stick with it. When we lose a show like The Project, we lose a lot. Not that it was beyond criticism – plenty disliked it – but its role in our media is highly underrated. Because it’s made up in part of both clips from and scrutiny of other forms of media and stories, it has a halo effect beyond its own product. The Project helps promote movies, TV shows and live music. It humanised politicians, brought attention to causes and could get behind situations in powerful ways – they ran a clip showing the show raising $30,000 to fix a bus during one random evening.
This is the paradox of what we lose when we lose the The Project, and why its ending represents the challenge to the whole of our media system in miniature. Historically we have funded drama and comedy and documentary because we decided they were important but that we could not afford to create them, on account of being a small country. Now the decline in ratings means shows which were once funded through normal advertising are no longer viable – but there is no thought to rescuing them. Essentially, the funded survive while the rest falter.
The Project has fallen, as did Today FM, and most music journalism – to name three random content streams. All three were products, but also helped tell stories which unlock the power of other content – much of it publicly funded. Shortland Street, with its myriad socio-cultural impacts, could be next. This is a wero to both our pop culture funders at NZ On Air and the incoming government. If this trend keeps going, it will whittle away at all the unfunded shows (like news) which wrap around their funded content (like Country Calendar and Newshub Nation), and leave them stranded by an outgoing tide of audience. Everything is losing its viewers, but only some shows are impacted.
What will Three play there now? Rumour suggests a Paddy Gower vehicle, but depending on format that might not save enough money. Twenty years ago Three played The Simpsons at 7pm – it’s not impossible to imagine a return to a broad syndicated show like that. It will be much cheaper, and likely do its job of keeping people sticking around until 7.30pm. But what do we lose as a country in the process?
The end of The Project is a giant flashing light that something is badly wrong in our pop culture ecosystem. This moment is not its natural end point, its ratings coming in from the news are holding up well – but it’s just not economically viable to air it. And while many would say it’s just market forces at work, that argument doesn’t work in film and TV, which have enormous government interventions through various grants and rebates.
It’s too late for The Project, which has accepted its fate. But it should prompt a wider reflection on what it is we’re doing with our cultural funding. In the meantime, the show is wrapping up. Lloyd makes one last speech, choking up a little as she goes. In response, Mulligan would like to to offer one word in response: “cumbox”, he says, and the audience shrieks.
Right through they’ve been flagging major pyrotechnics to close the show. In the end, Corbett hands Mulligan a solitary sparkler – a comic nod at the budget available to send The Project out. We close on the little firework sputtering away, catching glimpses of the faces who made this show in its dying light.
Afterwards there are speeches, more tears and a moving rendition of Hirini Melbourne’s ‘Purea Nei’, led by Lloyd and Calkin Rameka, the show’s editing supervisor. He searches for a whakataukī and is initially stumped, in a way which captures the gallows humour of this current TV era, saying “too many people have left and I’ve run out”.
Then he lights upon one which works: “Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini.” My success is not my own, but that of the collective. It’s a night for this group to reflect on what they did together. Now it’s time for us all to reflect on what we do now that the system which made and sustained The Project is gone. Because rest assured that it is the latest casualty – but it won’t be the last.