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A US TV news anchor on what The Project gets right

After a rocky start – and that toe-curling musical promo clip – it seems like Three’s 7pm infotainment show has hit its stride. Former US news presenter Pallas Hupé Cotter explains how The Project makes it look so easy.

It turns out, it’s not just frothy and funny. The Project seems to have come up with a magic formula for delivering stories with substance before its audience has had a chance to register what’s happening. Like people who feed family pets tablets from the vet hidden inside gobs of peanut butter.

I say that with respect. I spent 20 years in the news business in the US, doing every job from tape loading to main anchor in markets from Sacramento, California to Detroit, Michigan (where I won a couple of Emmy Awards).

I left the business when I had less and less success getting stories on the air that didn’t just inform but also educated and inspired. When I’d grown weary of fighting against a business model meant to squeeze every penny of profit from the “news hole” in the programming schedule. When newscasts started selling themselves by including regular TMZ celebrities-gone-wild stories.

Worldwide the media is struggling with this new reality. Once protected, a public service rather than a profit driver, news shows could devote all of their time to telling stories of not just problems but also solutions. Digging deep into issues instead of just plucking the low-hanging fruit: blood-stirring crimes and tear-jerking human dramas. But now news programmes must focus on stories that attract as many eyeballs as possible – by offering whatever’s bright and shiny and stirs emotion.

The first promos for The Project were awfully bright and shiny. I couldn’t stand them. Casting the hosts as colourful characters in a musical screamed saccharine-soaked infotainment. Frankly, it put me off watching – for a while.

A very cheerful promo for The Project

But as inevitably happens, the TV stayed switched on after Newshub ended and as the clock ticked past seven, I found myself getting sucked in. I knew I had gotten well and truly hooked when I’d paused the programme long past its regularly scheduled airtime and barked at my unsuspecting son when he changed channel before I could get back to watching.

That’s when I asked myself – what are they doing that’s working so well?

First, it’s the hosts. I listen to Jesse Mulligan on Radio NZ, so I was aware of his quick wit and insight and thoughtful questions – though perhaps not when it comes to political leaders and their baby plans. I’d not seen Kanoa Lloyd before, but having sat in a similar chair, judged nightly and more harshly than my male co-anchors for every single word uttered, every outfit worn, every hairstyle and makeup choice made, I’ve been captivated by her authenticity, transparency and intelligence. It’s not easy to appear so breezy while bravely slipping in honest opinions and injecting genuine wisdom.

It’s also that there are four hosts, offering enough variety to satisfy a wide range of tastes. Josh Thomson offers comic relief – not in the mould nor, honestly, at the standard of original comedy news hosts like Jon Stewart – but his broad Kiwi humour keeps the Australian-inspired show grounded, never in danger of appearing too slick. The rotating guest hosts, meanwhile, constantly keep the audience guessing – who’s next?

It’s a triumph of neuromarketing. A while ago I became a fan of a man named Oren Klaff, who co-opted that term and codified a system of persuasion based on brain science. The techniques are what I learned to do by trial and error in my two decades producing, writing, and reporting the news. Convincing people to share their stories to strangers, in front of cameras, and coaxing busy mothers prepping dinners at home to tune in to watch our newscast instead of the others. Getting the attention of the audience by working with the “Croc brain”, as Klaff calls it: creating movement, distraction and building emotional connections. And then closing the deal. Getting them to watch until the end.

On The Project, I can only compare how they do that to popcorn popping.

Fast paced stories are followed by “pop!” – quick hits of humour, and video clips that you’d expect to see on a show like Fail Army, followed by “pop!” – an interview with a scientist or researcher with a dire message about climate change or a politician on the defence, and then “pop!” – the camera cuts to another video clip, this time with pop music soundtrack and pop culture icons sprinkled throughout. You’re laughing before you realise that once again they’re talking about something that really matters.

The Project’s hosts, l-r: Josh Thomson, Jesse Mulligan, Kanoa Lloyd

I knew the tables had truly turned when one night Jesse unexpectedly delivered a sharp-edged political monologue. “You said it, Jesse!” I heard myself answering back to the TV. I was watching while ironing, and realised with a start that I was now playing the role of the ideal demographic I used to target: females aged 25-54 who makes the most of the decisions about household spending,

I was astonished at how effectively I’d been “played” after having played the role of puppet master myself. I don’t mean “played” like it’s a bad thing. Or “puppet master”, for that matter.

I mean The Project has hit its mark. After a slightly rocky start, it’s figured out a way to appeal to viewers like me with little time to spare and a low threshold for nonsense while packaging it in a millennial-friendly new-media style that’s fresh and surprising. It both delights and delivers.

Would it work in the US where there are different markets and market pressures? Well, all for-profit journalism is a form of infotainment. The recipe varies according to how much info vs. how much entertainment you throw in the mix. I prefer entertainment as the flavouring, not the base.

So, I’d say to US counterparts: to go easy on the car chases and Kardashians. It drowns the dish. But that’s basically what I was saying every day in editorial meetings at my last station, before my husband got a tweet about a position that whisked us away to New Zealand, where we are now (happily) permanent residents.

All that said, not every single episode of The Project “sings”. And it won’t ever solve the problems of the world. Its advocacy journalism can’t compete with John Campbell’s. But if you haven’t tried The Project yet, it’s worth a watch. I dare you not to find yourself surprised and then sucked in by its sugar-coated substance.


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