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Pop CultureJanuary 15, 2024

Our people today: The evolution of New Zealand’s 7pm current affairs shows

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Summer reissue: Following the news that The Project NZ was coming to an end, Alex Casey looked back at the fascinating history of 7pm current affairs shows in Aotearoa.

First published on November 1, 2023.

It may seem like a modern idea, but we’ve been craving a delicious chaser to follow the shot that is the daily news bulletin before a man even walked on the moon. As early as 1965, we were experimenting with ways to make the news more palatable, beginning with nightly current affairs show called Town and Around. Airing at 7.50pm (when!) after The News at 7.33pm (what!), the regional magazine series had location-specific presenters and stories which serviced Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin (where!). 

As Robert Boyd-Bell wrote in New Zealand Television: The First 25 Years, Town and Around was “free from the more rigid structure of the news bulletin, able to do much more free wheeling in its approach to issues and personalities.” Sound familiar? What if I told you that the show included everything from “slapstick, to parish pump, to the occasional studio confrontation”? Or that its most famous episode included a joke story about a turkey wearing gumboots? How much has really changed?

Town and Around in the 60s would pave the way for a veritable buffet of current affairs shows in the 70s and 80s (including Top Half, The Mainland Touch, The South Tonight, Today Tonight and… Tonight), before a crooner named Paul Holmes heralded the modern era of personality-led, headline-grabbing 7pm current affairs. Following the recent news that Three’s 7pm show The Project NZ is set to be axed by the end of the year, it seems like an appropriate time to look back at how the genre has evolved – and how it’s stayed the same. 

Holmes (TV One, 1989-2004)

Paul Holmes was the first but certainly not the last 7pm host who was already notorious for his opinionated and provocative breakfast radio slot. The very first episode of Holmes, in April 1989, included a now infamous interview with America’s Cup skipper Dennis Conner, who was in town to promote a board game. Holmes quickly honed in on the recent Cup loss (“did you cry?”) before turning to Conner’s poor sportsmanship and playing a clip where Conner called New Zealand yacht designer Bruce Farr “full of shit”. 

Conner took his leave from the interview early, telling the host “I have to run now”, picking up his briefcase and swiftly storming out of the studio. This moment would join a litany of other unforgettable interviews from Holmes’ 15 year reign, including the Ingham Twins, the Ingham Twins again, and when he got a bollocking from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. In 2003 Paul Holmes came under fire for calling UN secretary-general Kofi Annan a “cheeky darkie” on his radio show, causing public outcry that led to key sponsors fleeing the Holmes show. The final episode of Holmes aired less than a year later in 2004. 

Close Up (TV One, 2004-2012)

Replacing Holmes was Close Up, fronted by Susan Wood and Mark Sainsbury. Promising a view of “New Zealand, close up”, the nightly current affairs show was a classic mix of hard hitting news and lifestyle stories. A promo from 2005 features a terrific one-two punch: a special investigation into the Ron Jorgensen mystery (“He was declared dead… but is he still alive?”) promptly followed by John Cleese winking suggestively on a bed beside Susan Wood. The show took an even more shocking turn in 2010, when an ancient curse left host Mark Sainsbury trapped inside a muppet.

Towards the end of 2012, it was revealed that Close Up would be no more. TVNZ’s Ross Dagan said the decision was a proactive response to feedback that viewers were looking for something fresh and different in early evening current affairs. Bill Ralston criticised the move, saying that scrapping Close Up would be “a disaster” and that would likely be replaced by something lighter and “more like Breakfast.” Host Mark Sainsbury was slightly less maudlin about the news on Twitter: “Picked a bad week to give up smoking!” he posted from his @SAINSO account. 

Paul Holmes (Prime, 2005-2006) 

After leaving TVNZ for Prime, the first episode of the inventively-named Paul Holmes premiered in February 2005 on with a Seussian-style tongue twister. “It was One Tree Hill and then it was None Tree Hill and yesterday it was One Tree Hill again, briefly, and then today None Tree Hill again. Well, now it’s One beautiful Tree Hill again, because I planted a tree up there today.” Later on, Brian Tamaki gets roasted by a caller named Miri for wearing designer clothes instead of putting the money towards his parish. “Can’t a man of god be spunky?” mused Holmes. 

Despite securing a exclusive and extremely long interview with Cher in 2005, Paul Holmes received “poor early reviews” and failed to bring in the numbers to Prime. After just six months it was announced that it would be axed entirely. “While we were unable to change viewing habits to the extent we would have liked, we are very proud of the programme and its achievements,” Prime chief executive Chris Taylor said at the time. Paul Holmes would go on to host a short-lived weekly chat show on Prime, before devoting some much-needed time to his Paso Doble.

Campbell Live (TV3, 2005-2014) 

Three’s Campbell Live began in March 2005 and quickly became known for its emotive advocacy journalism and the general marvellousness and mischief of host John Campbell (who opened the very first episode by saying “G’day youse fellas”). “Ever since Little Paul got the humpty and went to Prime, the battle for the all-important 7pm slot has been heating up,” reviewer Gordon Brown wrote at the time. “Nowadays current affairs on television has to do more than inform. It also has to entertain. Campbell Live manages that quite nicely.”

Whether it was the extensive coverage of the Christchurch quakes, lunchboxes in low decile schools or teaching rescue dogs how to drive, Campbell Live told New Zealand stories at 7pm for over a decade. In May 2015, after a six week review of Campbell Live which saw ratings soar and a passionate public campaign reach over 80,000 signatures, Mediaworks announced that the show would be ending and John Campbell would be leaving TV3. Hilary Barry cried on the news, tributes flowed, and the final episode was the highest rating in the show’s history.

Seven Sharp 1.0 (TV One, 2013-2014) 

Replacing Close Up on TVNZ came Seven Sharp, originally fronted by Jessie Mulligan, Ali Mau and Greg Boyed. Encouraging a much more conversational, interactive and youthful tone than its predecessor, Seven Sharp wholeheartedly embraced platforms like Twitter and Facebook, much to some viewers’ chagrin. “Viewers don’t need social media foisted on them during every transition,” a reviewer wrote at the time. “If you ain’t got an iPad don’t bother tuning in,” wrote another. Rewatching the first episode earlier this year, our own Stewart Sowman-Lund admitted the social media integration was “janky” at best. 

Within just weeks of the premiere, Campbell Live began to beat Seven Sharp in the ratings, heralding the first time in history that TV3 had ever been ahead of TVNZ in the 7pm time slot since the channel began in 1989. Reports of crisis meetings at TVNZ began to emerge, with host Ali Mau later revealing she learned of her pending dumping through media reports. The Seven Sharp 1.0 hosting trio was disbanded towards the end of 2013, and the show prepared to enter a new era the following year. 

Seven Sharp 2.0 (TV One, 2014-2017)

Seven Sharp returned in January 2014 with Mike Hosking, Toni Street and Jesse Mulligan at the helm – Mulligan would later describe an “awkward” third wheel dynamic that eventually saw him leave the show after a few months. Duo Hosking and Street would host the show for the next four years, with memorable moments including Mike Hosking’s crestfallen face after the 2017 election, Mike Hosking trying on a Chewbacca mask and Toni Street trying to get a word in.

In their second to last episode for the year in 2017, it was announced that both Street and Hosking would be leaving Seven Sharp imminently. “We’re off, we’re done, we’re finishing. Tomorrow night it is over,” Hosking casually revealed. “These are long hours and hard days. And so we thought, what better thing can you possibly do than call it a day and go out on a high.” The next day, he would be crying while holding a Sol3 Mio Christmas CD.

Story (TV3, 2015-2016)

Replacing Campbell Live on TV3 and attempting to vanquish the might of Hosking and his Chewbacca mask came Story in 2015. Hosted by Heather du Plessis-Allan and Duncan Garner, the series was touted as a smart, fun and thought-provoking show that will lead the way in daily current affairs. The first episode featured iPads, du Plessis-Allan door stopping real estate agents, Garner speaking to whistleblowers from a security company, and a video of a bullet being shot underwater. 

Reviewing the first episode, Duncan Greive noted “instantly we’re a world away from the set-bound lectures of Seven Sharp. Our hosts are out in the community, getting ordered off properties. And getting scalps.” Other notable moments included cutting an ‘uncuttable’ ankle bracelet live on air, and when du Plessis-Allan bought a gun. Despite receiving praise for “agenda-setting journalism”, the series was axed at the end of 2016.

Seven Sharp 3.0 (TVNZ1, 2018-present)

Before Hosking had even been able to use his Sol3 Mio CD to dry his eyes, Hilary Barry and former Hosking impersonator Jeremy Wells were announced as the news hosts of the TVNZ mainstay. The pair debuted on Seven Sharp in February 2018 and received mixed reviews – fellow broadcaster Dom Harvey said that Wells was “wooden” and former newsreader Jennie Goodwin was put off by Barry’s top blending into the background. 

This was far from the last time Barry would be criticised for her wardrobe. Aside from bare shoulders, other “scandals” include the grotesque Jacinda Ardern lolly cake made by comedian Laura Daniel and the time that Anika Moa clapped back at viewers that didn’t like her tattoos. Wells and Barry celebrated 1000 episodes together last year by rewatching the very first episode, and revealing that they are secretly a couple of old cockroaches

The Project NZ (Three, 2017-2023)

Announcing itself with an unforgettable La La Land-inspired musical number, complete with Josh Thomson doing a backflip and a dubstep dance break, The Project NZ premiered on Three in February 2017. A local iteration of the hugely successful Australian format, The Project NZ promised an “informative and very funny half-hour mix of the stories that matter from New Zealand and around the world” and would feature hosts Kanoa Lloyd, Jesse Mulligan and Josh Thomson joined by rotating line-up of comedians, journalists and TV personalities. 

Since then, The Project NZ has delivered moments including as Kanoa Lloyd wiping off her makeup live on air following a story about beauty standards, an entire episode delivered in te reo Māori and the inimitable “come box” blunder. On October 26, 2023, it was announced that The Project NZ will be axed by the end of the year. “Audience behaviour has changed dramatically” said Sarah Bristow, head of news for Newshub, “We will design a redefined news show in the 7pm timeslot as part of the broader Newshub proposition.”

After taking a night off to process the news, The Project NZ returned with a message for its audience last Friday. “We still have plenty more great shows to come before the end of the year,” said Mulligan. “And then stay tuned for my Onlyfans.”

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