What’s fuelling The Project? Cats, pizza, and the desire to dethrone a dynasty. Chris Schulz spends time with Discovery’s 7pm show as it nears its 1,000th episode.
It’s just ticked past 10am in a bland inner-city Auckland boardroom and Jon Bridges is struggling to keep control. The dozen gathered in this central Auckland office – the behind-the scenes writers, researchers and producers that help put The Project together every night – are acting skittish. They have just one thing on their mind: cats.
“The demand for fancy cats has gone through the roof,” says Bridges, the show’s executive producer, referencing a news headline that caught his eye just after he woke and started scrolling at 6.30am. “People can’t spend money on overseas trips, so things like Maine Coons are in hot demand.”
He’s looking around the room, requesting feedback on how this could evolve into a story for that night’s episode. “We could go to a breeder?” he suggests, to kick things off.
“There are some Maine Coon kittens on TradeMe,” offers Malorie Carey. The Project’s planning producer has been furiously tapping away on a laptop perched on her knees for the entire meeting, trying to book Netflix comic Ronny Chieng for an interview, then wading through news alerts from Stuff and Reddit, as well as last night’s ratings.
She quickly pivots to the pets section of the local auction site. “There are only two listings I can find – one for $2,300.”
Suddenly, the room erupts. Everyone’s talking over one another with their own cat yarns. “Bengals will take on a dog,” says one. “The hairless creepy ones are really expensive,” chimes in another. “I went to a cat show in Kumeu a few weeks ago,” admits Lana Walters, a writer. “You know what’s really bad? Taking a cat in a car,” notes associate producer Mahvash Ali.
The conversation seems to have stalled, but someone manages to kick it off again. “All cats are arseholes,” they say, “and that’s not going to change no matter how much money you spend on them.” Amid the chaos, my tape recorder picks up someone howling like a distressed moggie.
Bridges, who has helmed every episode of The Project and has streaks of grey through his otherwise black hair and beard to prove it, has been ignoring the ruckus and is staring at an iPad containing the lineup for that night’s packed show.
The Olympics are on, but The Project is barred from using footage, so discus champ Beatrice Faumuina will be joining hosts Jesse Mulligan, Jeremy Corbett and Laura Tupou, who is filling in for Kanoa Lloyd while she’s on maternity leave. Rock act Shihad will drop by for a chat, and there’s a dangerous downhill mountain bike race in the snow to get through.
Bridges is a lifelong cycling enthusiast too, but these days the only riding he does is a brief commute to The Project’s Mt Eden office every day. That energy has to go somewhere, so his legs jiggle up and down constantly under the table, sometimes in rhythm with a pen he clips to his finger and flicks around.
After five minutes of kitty spitballing, he’s over it, so attempts to move the conversation on. Pampered pets will eventually make it onto The Project, but not tonight. “What else?” he says seriously. “Any other thoughts?”
If The Project’s vibe sounds jovial, there’s a reason for that. Five years ago, Australia’s long-running and award-winning current affairs show crossed the Tasman. Local critics raised their eyebrows – Campbell Live had been brutally axed in 2015 by MediaWorks’ then CEO Mark Weldon, and what followed in its wake was a never-ending news cycle of prime time disasters.
First came the one and only season of Come Dine With Me NZ, an otherwise fine reworking of the UK reality show that was absolutely in the wrong time slot, and unfairly blamed for the demise of Campbell Live. That was followed by Story, a characterless current affairs show fronted by the smug pairing of Duncan Garner and Heather du Plessis-Allan that lasted a little over a year.
No one mourned Story’s demise. Yet, three 7pm shows had fallen over in less than two years. Up against the might of Seven Sharp, the ratings war had become a bloodbath. The Project was expected to follow suit.
Against the odds, it survived, then thrived. With three wise-cracking hosts and room for a fourth, as well as a relentless pace, colourful vibe and constant comedic eye on the headlines, The Project was like nothing the country’s 7pm slot had ever seen. A rotating lineup of sharp-tongued guests joined the panel, including Jaquie Brown, Ben Hurley, Paula Bennett, Paul Henry, and even TVNZ’s former Close Up host, Mark Sainsbury, eager to join in on the fun.
Despite dominating the time slot, Seven Sharp soon changed tack, replacing Mike Hosking and Toni Street with two hosts far more capable of delivering LOLs. Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells kept Seven Sharp’s ratings high. Mostly, just like Campbell Live before it, The Project could barely touch its entrenched competition. Still, surviving five seasons and approaching its 1,000th episode, is still a milestone worth celebrating in the cut-throat world of New Zealand current affairs.
But The Project is doing more than just hanging in there. Three weeks ago, on a Monday night, it did something it has never done before, beating both Seven Sharp and Shortland Street, the juggernaut soap opera nearing its 30th birthday, in the 25-54 rating bracket – the one advertisers care about. The Project’s win wasn’t much, but it was something. “We try not to pay attention to any one day’s ratings,” says Bridges. He admits, when pushed: “We did celebrate with an email of celebrations … and we had pizza.”
TVNZ believes this was an anomaly, and points to Seven Sharp’s domination of the 5+ ratings bracket, where its numbers are nearly three times that of The Project. “The show has a consistent and dedicated audience, driven in large part by the winning combination of hosts Hilary and Jeremy,” says a TVNZ spokesperson. “Our focus is on everyday Kiwis right across the country doing extraordinary things and that resonates with people.”
Mark Jennings believes the odd triumph by The Project is important. “It won’t go unnoticed that The Project has been winning the occasional night,” says Jennings, Three’s former head of news. “[TVNZ] will totally be looking at them. If it turns into a trend, then The Project will have ‘poked the bear’ and you’ll see a response. But they won’t panic over one or two nights.”
Still, he says: “A 25-54 win is definitely significant.”
If anyone should know how the 7pm ratings wars operate, it’s Jennings. He helped kick them off back in 2004 when he persuaded CanWest to let enthusiastic journalist and news presenter John Campbell front Campbell Live, taking on both TVNZ’s Close Up and a short-lived and infamous stint by veteran broadcaster Paul Holmes, on a show called Paul Holmes, on Prime TV.
Despite switching to online news these days, Jennings still keeps his eye on the 7pm time slot and believes Bridges and his team are doing good things. “The Project has potentially found its groove … it’s decided it’s a comedy show.” He points to its coverage of the New Zealand-Aotearoa name debate, which included a Judith Collins puppet, as an example. “The whole thing had a heavy comedic aspect the whole way through. It was just comedy.”
It’s not a criticism – it’s a compliment. “I think that’s quite smart because … if you’re trying to compete ‘like on like’ with TVNZ you will always lose,” says Jennings. “Where Three always has a chance is if it offers a completely different product.” The late-night news show Nightline did something similar. “It was a completely different show, it picked up a different audience, and it could win its slot.”
The problem The Project faces is a big one. Seven Sharp “doesn’t do much wrong”, says Jennings, who describes the show’s hosts as “polished” and “seamless”. He recently watched Barry cross live to Olympic rowing champ Ian Ferguson’s house for an interview with Wells, and was amazed at how tight it was. “That’s a skill. To people outside the industry it’s not recognised … but if they were discombobulated or not gelling, you would notice it.”
Jennings has noticed something else too: both shows are far more chill than their predecessors. All those quips and gags get him down. He can’t help but reminisce about the cut-throat days when the 7pm slot was full of breaking news and hard-hitting interviews, things that would dominate the following day’s headlines. Dennis Conner. The Ingham twins. Corngate. School lunches. The list goes on.
Ask him if the 7pm shows are still at war, and he laughs. “We had a war when [Paul] Holmes and [John] Campbell, or Campbell and [Mark] Sainsbury went head-to-head, where both programmes would be going live from the same location, fighting over talent, desperately wanting to break open big stories,” he says.
“This is something totally different … what we’ve really got now is a pillow fight.”
Laugh? Yes, Bridges is trying to tickle The Project’s audience. But there’s another goal too. “Ideally you make people laugh, and make people cry, every night,” he says. “We want to get a bit of everything into a show.” It’s a lofty target, yet on the night The Spinoff visits, he and his team manage to do it twice before the first ad break.
The first comes when the hosts recap a press conference held by Kiwi transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard at the Olympics. The trio cracks up when Hubbard hands out Whittaker’s chocolate bars to homesick journalists, before Faumuina – a confident panelist full of quick quips – delivers a beautifully crafted sermon about acceptance. “That’s the beauty about sport,” she says. “It can bring the awkwardness to the table that we need to discuss.”
It happens again when Shihad’s Jon Toogood joins the panel. Before the show, Mahvash Ali listened to every interview he’d given that day, then picked out key themes that might make good TV. That deep dive pays off: there’s a quick gag about Toogood being lazy before he’s pressed on his children causing writer’s block, the big themes surrounding the band’s new album Old Gods, and its potentially inflammatory Captain Cook album art. “I think it’s time to be honest about colonisation,” replies Toogood. It ends with a gag about a recent chilly gig on Coronet Peak in which the frontman didn’t take off his shirt – a rare occasion.
Bridges and the rest of The Project team will find out how the show went at 9.30am the following day. That’s when the ratings email lands, a ruthless measure of their success – or failure.
Corbett, the only host to tweet about the Monday night win, believes the ratings are worth taking notice of. “Yes, they still matter … but you don’t want to put all your eggs in the ratings basket,” he says. “The competition in a lot of ways isn’t Seven Sharp, it’s everything else that people can do at 7pm. You’ve got to compete against all that other stuff.”
Ratings are a long game. He knows this from his time with the long-running comedy show 7 Days. “It’s consistency, over years and years and years, and it slowly builds,” says Corbett. “It’s kind of unexciting in that way. It usually boils down to work, [and] the chemistry between the people that are delivering the final product. You can’t fake that.”
Jennings agrees, urging The Project’s team not to focus on the daily numbers, and look more at overall trends. “Every programme will have a good night,” he cautions. “It doesn’t take that many people to spend one night watching something else or being out that night … to see a swing.”
Bridges knows that too. It’s why champagne bottles weren’t popped and press releases weren’t issued after the Monday night win. “We can’t put our hands on our hearts and say, ‘We’re going to beat them now,'” says Bridges. “It’s a one-off.”
Besides, there’s barely any time to celebrate. After The Project’s lights go out, Bridges cycles home. He’ll be up at 6.30am the next day to fix his kids’ breakfast, scroll through headlines, and send his teammates Slack messages before they meet at 10am again, where someone will almost certainly ask if it’s time to run their cat story.
“It’s back to the job,” he says. “We’ve done 1,000 episodes and we’ve got 1,000 more coming up. So we’ve got to keep going.”
The Project airs at 7pm every weeknight, and streams via ThreeNow.