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‘Highly profitable’ with an ‘ensemble cast’: Why Ten won’t give up on The Project

The Project has been scrutinised for less-than-average ratings, but Ten stands by it. Ahead of its 10 year anniversary, Zoe Samios chats with the show's executive producer, Sarah Thornton, about its future.

Almost ten years ago, a team of five presenters stepped onto Ten screens across the nation to deliver the first episode of ‘The 7pm Project’.

Described at the time as an ‘offbeat take’ on the day’s news, it was fronted by comedians Dave Hughes and Charlie Pickering, who were joined by James Mathison, Ruby Rose and Carrie Bickmore, sought to deliver news a different way: ‘unspun’.

The 7pm Project in 2009 (L-R): Dave Hughes, Ruby Rose, James Mathison, Charlie Pickering and Carrie Bickmore

“If we get this right, The 7pm Project could be a game changer for Ten in that very crucial 7pm time-slot”, David Mott, Ten’s former chief programming officer, said at the time.

Today the only host remaining is Bickmore, who is now joined by Waleed Aly, Peter Helliar, Lisa Wilkinson, Hamish Macdonald and Tommy Little. The show commences at 6:30pm. It continues to bear similarities to a regular news bulletin, but differences remain.

According to executive producer, Sarah Thornton, one key difference is having comedians on the desk.

“Having a comedian on the panel is not just there for the light entertainment, they are genuinely there to interrogate the news from a perspective of honesty and in an unfiltered way which is a really big point of difference,” she says.

“We work with the news team at Ten and have a fantastic relationship with them. We have a very clear decision making process on who takes what, when and why.”

The current team at Ten’s The Project (L-R): Waleed Aly, Carrie Bickmore, Lisa Wilkinson, Peter Helliar

Over the past year, The Project has been surrounded by criticism as the show averages between 200,000 to 400,000 metro viewers a night, according to OzTAM overnight figures. The Sunday Project specifically, which commenced a little over a year ago, has been criticised for its low ratings, despite its well-renowned guests and the presence of former Today Show presenter, Wilkinson, on the desk.

And yet, The Project isn’t going anywhere. In fact, according to Thornton, it’s a “highly profitable show”. So, why is this the case?

“I don’t think brands would come to us if they didn’t recognise our authenticity and integrity,” she says.

Thornton says The Project is ‘highly profitable’

Thornton spent the last 15 years in the United Kingdom, honing skills in ‘factual TV with a twist’, before joining The Project with the lens of an “occasional viewing fan”. In that time, she’s been handed the challenge of growing a six-day-a-week format. But it’s the ‘ensemble cast’, which Thornton believes makes the show thrive. She disputes the idea that The Sunday Project should divided off from the five-day-a-week proposition.

“As a program, The Project from Sunday through until Friday has the amazing benefit of some talent – Carrie, Waleed, Pete, Tommy, Lisa – who are, for want of a better phrase, fairly good clickbait. They are people that people want to know about. Lisa isn’t the only high profile talent we have that is written about constantly. Carrie has the same thing, Waleed has the same thing,” she says.

“That is the world in which we live, and we all need to accept that here and continue to forge a path. The show is a little over a year old, Lisa has not even been at Ten a year. Again, for us, it’s very much an ensemble cast and we don’t enjoying carving out Sunday. If we did, as an hour Sunday is up 17% year on year.”

The Sunday Project is up 16% for the full hour, compared to 2017. This year the show averaged 324,500 compared to 280,500 the year prior.

Nationally the numbers are 457,5000 and 396,000 in 2018 and 2017 respectively. But a lot of criticism has stemmed around Wilkinson’s debut on The Project, which pulled in 481,000 metro viewers.

“There is no way that the argument that Sunday isn’t working is solid,” Thornton says.

“Sunday is working. It’s going gangbusters, we are happy with it. What we are even happier about, is that the cast as a whole are people that people want to talk about.

“I don’t think we’d be doing our job if we didn’t have people in those chairs who weren’t of interest.”

But it appears as though the challenge isn’t necessarily with the Sunday Project.

The 2018 average for the Monday to Friday Project – which runs from 6:30pm to 7:30pm is down 11% year on year, from an average of 446,000 in 2017 to 397,000 in 2018. From a metro perspective, the 7pm portion of the program is down by 10% year on year, while the 6:30pm half hour is down by 13%. Nationally, the program is down from an average audience of 655,000 to 577,000.

Thornton believes there’s still a way to go in the fight for eyeballs. And she’ll continue to fight, as ABC’s The Drum moves to a similar time slot, at 6pm in 2019. But Thornton is not concerned by rivals.

“We are in the eyeballs game. Eyeballs are great, across the board, for all of my shows. The more eyeballs the merrier. We want eyeballs. But I do believe that with The Project, what I want to do more than anything else is remind people the feeling of what The Project gives you. Provided we go into next year mindful of that, mindful of creating that feeling and finding a way to tell people about it, it can’t do anything but be stronger,” she says.

“What person is good at their job if they think what they are doing is perfect? For me, the day I think what I’m working on is perfect is the day I walk out the door. There is always room for improvement, there is always room to rate more, and I will never stop seeking that.

“That said, I don’t constantly look at what everyone else is doing because I believe in The Project and what it does as being marketing leader, being an exciting alternative.”

Thornton and her team have no plans to change core talent at this point, but she’s always looking for new guests. Regardless, Thornton promises the show isn’t going anywhere in 2019. The show is preparing to launch its biggest marketing campaign, and alongside the team from Roving – creator and executive producer, Craig Campbell and supervising producer, Chris Bendall – and Ten’s Peter Meakin, next year will be about making it “more exciting”.

“Beyond marketing, promos and content, The Project is a standalone brand and as the way we consume news, TV, media changes, The Project will continue to evolve. It’s got such a creative force behind it and I believe we will continue to find a way to talk to viewers,” Thornton says.

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