When The Project landed its big, long interview with Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week there was a crucial decision that needed to be made: what kind of chairs should he and his interviewer Waleed Aly sit on?
It wasn’t the first time a politician had appeared live on the show, but it was the first time such an appearance would be so highly anticipated, and it was an important part of The Project’s impressive progression from a scrappy youth-focused popular culture upstart to a much more significant player on the big stage of Australian current affairs and debate.
In this two-part series, Crikey looks at an Australian anomaly. The Project has risen above expectations with must-watch interviews and viral videos that most outlets could only dream of. How does such a show come together? And can its success last?
The big name interviews
Back to the Morrison interview, which was confirmed at 2.15pm on the day. Tensions were high: the offer came after threats of defamation action from Morrison’s office for Aly’s moving editorial about the Christchurch attacks. Executive producer Craig Campbell made the call to ditch the usual, rigid panel format (and desk), and move the live audience to a board room for the duration of the interview (they were served pizza while they watched the first half of the hour-long program).
The interview ran live for 30 minutes without ads — a first for the show — and was widely reported on in other media, including in front-page stories in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald the following morning. “It certainly gave us cache,” Campbell told Crikey. “We were in the centre of the news cycle that day and everyone had an opinion on that interview.”
“Some people seemed to think we’d used uncomfortable chairs on purpose … but we hadn’t done this before, we were scouring around for chairs, and we got the chairs that were most available,” Campbell said.
He felt the Morrison interview fell short of the genuine conversation he’d hoped for. “We didn’t desire to have a winner or loser,” he said. “We wanted to have a nuanced conversation, not a debate … I just wanted to have two men sitting and having a conversation, that’s why getting rid of the audience was the right thing to do — I wanted it to be a genuine conversation.”
“Waleed wanted to talk about what was on his mind, but the Prime Minister wanted to make the point that he was leading by example, that he had Muslim friends. There’s an election coming up, and politicians are looking after their brands.”
The show followed up its Morrison interview with Aly’s interview with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — one of only three world media interviews she’s sat for since the Christchurch attacks — and an exclusive with “Egg Boy” Will Connolly, who cracked an egg on Senator Fraser Anning. That show, on Monday, was its highest-rated in a year. It counts Russell Crowe and longtime political journalist Paul Bongiorno among its fans.
The coverage The Project got for that episode, and for landing the Morrison interview, Campbell said, shows how the program has moved from being an outsider. “After 10 years, we’re not as on the outside as we used to be,” he said. “We can now be part of the mainstream news conversations — it’s lovely to think we’ve become part of the furniture but frightening as well.”
Australian TV veteran and Ten Network consultant on news and current affairs Peter Meakin said the show was more than “a court jester sniggering on the sidelines”.
“We don’t just rely on humour, we rely on solid content and key interviews,” he said. “We don’t spend a lot of money on interviews but recent events have proved that if we have a major interview we know that people will come and watch us.”
He said the show was unique in Australia at the moment because of its combination of humour and news. He sees it as most similar to The Weekly with Charlie Pickering (a former Project host) on the ABC, but in competition for ratings with Nine’s A Current Affair. Aly’s nightly editorials have been regularly written up on news websites as him “nailing” topical issues (partly driven, for a while, by producers giving a heads up to friendly reporters on topics and scripts, Campbell said).
Those comment pieces were part of the reason the show was given weight by Morrison last week, Meakin said.
“Even though it’s a funny show, it’s a show that can be taken seriously,” he said. “It’s very brave of Waleed, because he does it at considerable personal cost but it’s great for the program, and it means that the program is taken seriously enough for Scott Morrison to drop his threats of defamation and come on.”
Outside of hard news, the show is also taken seriously by publicists and promoters, even over its higher-rating competitors. Campbell said that since the ABC’s 7.30 had upped its celebrity interviews (and now employs some ex-Project staffers), the show was competing for access to some big names with the national broadcaster. But he said part of the reason identities such as Serena Williams and David Beckham choose The Project is because they always get on with the show’s hosts, and they’ll be treated fairly.
“I’ve always viewed The Project as a dinner party and when you invite someone to a dinner party you don’t invite them to insult them, we don’t like gotcha moments,” he said. “We’d like to think names choose us because they’ll get a fair go and we’re coming from a place of trust. I’’d like to think that’s why we get the names.”
Media analyst Steve Allen also said the program was being taken more seriously within the industry of late.
“It has traditionally been a bit quirky but is starting to get into longer interviews and harder hitting pieces,” he said. “It’s not a news service and it’s not, strictly-speaking, a current affairs program. It’s going more towards what the ABC’s doing at 7.30, with more in-depth stories, more researched stories … They’re not trying to just rehash the news of the day.”