In praise of The Project - why teatime telly still matters to the networks
Welcome to a Thursday edition of Unmade.
Today: After a breathless few days of departures and arrivals, why shows like The Project and A Current Affair matter so much to Nine and Ten.
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After Carrie (and Charlie and Hughesy and Pete and Lisa)
It’s the time of year.
The radio industry’s annual six-week ratings holiday begins at the end of next week.
Television’s comes even sooner. The 40-week TV ratings year, anachronistic as it is, ends on Saturday night.
Seven has already declared victory. This morning it press released that (based on its preferred metrics of national rather than metro) it won the demographic battlegrounds of total people and 16-39s. Nine will likely wait until the weekend to declare victory in the key advertising battleground of 25-54 (and 16-39 metro).
For the next 11 weeks, routine TV programming will be dialled down as summer sport takes its place and the holiday hosts begin to step up.
That’s why we’re already seeing the flurry of departure announcements as star contracts are ended, or renewed.
There have been two big teatime TV transitions in the offing for a while now.
At Nine, Tracy Grimshaw will tonight relinquish A Current Affair after an impressive 16 years.
At Ten, The Project’s Carrie Bickmore will be leaving next Wednesday, after being with the show since it started as The 7pm Project 13 years ago.
It’s a little too easy to turn your nose up at populist television. Creating shows that sustain audiences is harder than it looks - otherwise every network would only have hits. ACA and The Project have earned their places in the Australian television landscape.
These two shows are important. Scheduled programming has faded, but it’s still the preeminent form of television, even with streaming on the rise. A Current Affair and The Project are Nine and Ten’s junction between the evening news and the day’s entertainment shows. Seven has Home & Away.
Daily familiarity build up over years is what is essential to creating audience habits. Habits are what build ratings. Ratings deliver advertising revenue.
But the shows’ importance is not defined by ratings alone.
Long standing, mainstay shows attract disproportionately more commercial dollars than other, better rating seasonal programming because that longevity builds trust and recognition among advertisers and long term sponsorship deals.
Ten - and Rove McManus’s production company Roving Enterprises - deserve credit for creating a show which succeeded. A daily show like The Project that lasts more a decade is rare. Last night’s episode was the 3,709th. And a show like A Current Affair, which is 50 years old now, is one of just a handful to have lasted that long globally.
The Project was an original format. Blending current affairs and humour in daily primetime hasn’t been done successfully in many parts of the world. Ten’s chief content officer Beverley McGarvey had a major hand in its commissioning.
In the month where Ten’s new reality show The Challenge Australia flopped, not long after the failure of The Real Love Boat, it’s worth acknowledging McGarvey’s hits too. Commissioning is more art than science.
When McGarvey announced the commission of The Bachelor a decade ago, there was a lot of scepticism, including from me, but it became a successful franchise. Even more significantly, McGarvey was one of the team that commissioned Masterchef, which became a huge - and completely unexpected - phenomenon when it launched in 2009. They proved pretty much everyone wrong with that one.
The transitions at A Current Affair and The Project have been in the offing for a while.
Tracy Grimshaw made her exit announcement back in September, and it’s been a well choreographed exit. Tonight will see an hour-long sendoff as famous folk pay tribute. Last night’s penultimate episode rated 489,000 metro viewers.
Nine has respectfully held off on announcing a successor for Grimshaw, although expectations have grown that Allison Langdon will move away from breakfast after three years co-hosting Today alongside Karl Stefanovic. If it was somebody coming across from another network, word would likely have leaked by now. We’ll probably find out next week.
Bickmore’s transition has been slightly little less smooth, through no fault of hers. The Project has been in a more controversial PR environment. She made the announcement of her decision to leave the Project a month ago.
Initially, it had looked like Ten might follow a similar path to Nine and hold off on announcing Bickmore’s replacement until after she finishes on Wednesday.
The atmosphere began to change when Lisa Wilkinson decided she wanted to leave the weekend edition of The Project. Unusually, Wilkinson’s contract has not expired - it was reportedly renewed last year - but she wanted to go.
Wilkinson’s five year stint with Ten began controversially after she left Today in an argument over pay. Last year, there were negative headlines around the publication of her memoir, in which her version of events was called into question. There was further trouble earlier this year when comments made by Wilkinson in a televised Logies speech had ramifications for the timing of a criminal trial.
Even as Wilkinson has remained in the headlines, her personal brand has been tainted. From the much loved former magazine editor and foil to Karl Stefanovic, an alternative picture of somebody slightly more selfish began to (rightly or wrongly) emerge.
In that environment. Wilkinson’s wish to move on was understandable, as was Ten not trying too hard to persuade her to stay.
Nonetheless, like somebody announcing their engagement while guest at someone else’s wedding, Wilkinson’s timing spoiled Bickmore’s leaving party.
It began to create the public relations perception that everybody was leaving The Project.
That was exacerbated on Tuesday night when comedian Peter Helliar announced that he was also leaving, after nine years as cohost. It began to look like a show - and a vital one to Ten at that - in turmoil.
Most likely that’s why Ten yesterday accelerated its plans to announce the appointment of the well liked Studio 10 presenter Sarah Harris to co-host alongside Waleed Aly, who has been with the show since 2015.
Harris will present five nights a week, from Sunday through to Thursday. Aly will be on air four nights per week, from Monday through to Thursday. Effectively Harris is a replacement for both Bickmore and Wilkinson. In what’s likely to be a challenging year for the media, that’s likely a big saving on salary.
Ten will be hoping for more “Waleed nails it” headlines and fewer “Lisa in new controversy” headlines next year.
Ten only learned of Helliar’s departure recently - reportedly last week. An immediate announcement of his replacement is less likely. Assuming the network looks for a like-for-like replacement, the focus would likely be on somebody from a comedy background.
An obvious thought would be Tommy Little, who currently co-hosts The Project on Fridays and Sundays. However, we probably won’t see him doing more with The Project next year (and maybe less - he was omitted from yesterday’s announcement altogether).
On Monday, Little and Bickmore announced they had signed on for another four years of presenting Southern Cross Austereo’s national drive show on the Hit network.
It’s been an open secret within the industry that the duo have often pre-recorded their radio show because of Bickmore’s clashing commitments on The Project. Most likely SCA will have insisted they do it live in the future.
It’s a big decision for Ten. Chemistry matters, particularly between the key trio of Aly, Harris and their yet-to-be-decided comedy foil.
The Project doesn’t rate what it once did. The days of 1m+ metro ratings are long gone. Last night’s 7pm portion of the show rated just 278,000. However, that was also the network’s top rating show of the day.
The new team’s job will be to not only beat that but develop a new catchup streaming audience too.
Unmade Index nudges up
The Unmade Index broke a five day losing streak to finish marginally in positive territory yesterday. The index rose by 0.17% to 665.3 points.
Intriguingly, the Southern Cross Austereo share price has now risen in eight of the last nine trading days. Yesterday is was up another 0.94%. It sure looks like something is afoot at SCA.
Time to let you go about your Thursday. I’ll be back tomorrow with a podcast of last week’s Marketing in 2023 event in Melbourne.
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Have a great day.