What does it take to make a half-hour weeknightly show? Sarah Nealon goes behind the scenes of The Project to find out.
Behind the scenes on the set of The Project.
Watching The Project from the comfort of your own home, it might seem like an easy show to put together.
Usually there is a summary of the day’s news, some banter from its hosts Kanoa Lloyd, Jeremy Corbett and Jesse Mulligan, a couple of in-studio interviews with special guests, pre-recorded items and a giggle at a viral video or two.
But don’t be fooled. This is a carefully mapped-out show in which, in the ratings-driven world of prime-time television, every second counts.
Around 30 people work on The Project on Three and on one particular Wednesday I’m allowed to spend the day at the show’s headquarters.
I arrive at 9.40am when only a few people are in the building’s large open-plan office on the ground floor.
Near the entrance is a dedicated space for cyclists, such as Mulligan, to park their bikes upright.
One area of wall in the middle of the room is decorated with A4-sized photos from the show which include a variety of celebrity guests.
The day kicks off with a 10am meeting in a room upstairs. Actually that’s not quite true.
At 7.45am The Project’s executive producer Jon Bridges had a conference call at home with a few staff members to discuss any news that may be relevant to the show.
Bridges normally heads the mid-morning meeting but today he has taken his five-year-old son to the doctor, so supervising producer Dick Wybrow takes the reins.
Seated around a long skinny table are a group of mostly producers. (The Project’s hosts don’t arrive in the office until the afternoon.)
Wybrow sits near a wall-mounted monitor displaying a spreadsheet of segments from the previous night’s show.
He asks for feedback about yesterday’s episode and the conversation soon turns to shows on Three (the channel on which The Project screens) which have been mentioned on The Project this week.
So far there have been pieces covering The Block and Married At First Sight plus a podcast
made by a Newshub reporter. A producer remarks, “It feels lazy”.
To be fair she has a point. Sometimes it seems like The Project is an advertising vehicle for other Three programmes.
“I don’t mind cross-promotion if it’s done in an interesting way,” adds the producer.
On that note, tonight’s show features Jeremy Corbett at a retirement village visiting three women who appear on Gogglebox.
Other items planned for tonight’s episode include a pre-recorded interview about a former SAS member who was wounded in Afghanistan plus a chat with visiting Australian comedian Greg Fleet.
There is also a story around adoption law featuring a gay couple, their baby son Francis and the surrogate mother.
The idea for this story seemed to be sparked by media reports about Toni Street whose third child, Lachlan, was born by surrogate.
She wrote on social media about the difficulties of adopting her son who is her biological child.
“Can we get Toni Street on the show?” asks someone.
“She’s still heavily affiliated with TVNZ,” says someone else.
Eventually it is decided Street won’t be needed.
At midday I’m back in the same room for what’s known as the ‘long form meeting’.
This time Bridges is present along with a couple of other producers and Hal Crawford, MediaWorks’ chief news officer.
Producers talk about investigative stories they have in the pipeline and Crawford is concerned that one may come across as “patronising” so the idea is shelved.
The next two meetings are devoted to the comedic elements of The Project and include discussions around funny video clips and photos. Attendees include comedians and writers Melanie Bracewell, Paul Douglas and Tony Lyall. It is up to this trio to write some, but not all, of the show’s witty lines.
At 4pm – just when I thought I was ‘meetinged’ out – there is another one around that same narrow table.
A food platter made up of dark chocolate, rice crackers, carrots, hummus, salted peanuts and other tasty treats sits smack-bang in the middle – for the benefit of the show’s guest or fourth host which is Westside actress Antonia Prebble.
Also present are The Project’s three main hosts – Kanoa Lloyd, Jeremy Corbett and Jesse Mulligan – plus Bridges and the show’s director.
Everyone is given a piece of pink paper on which the evening’s episode is laid out in spreadsheet form.
There is a chat about how the show will work and Prebble is asked if there is anything she wants to say on camera.
She is happy to chat about her engagement (to her Westside co-star Dan Musgrove) but Mulligan advises her to hold back on a few things.
“Save it for us on the desk,” he says referring to the curved bench the three hosts sit behind on The Project’s set.
By 5pm the hosts are in the studio ready to film promotional advertisements for tonight’s episode.
It is also a chance to rehearse the show before live filming begins at 7pm.
During the rehearsal Mulligan questions a line which references adoption law. “Can we use ‘out-of-date’ instead of archaic?” he asks. “You’ve really got a bee in your bonnet about this,” teases Corbett. The rehearsal goes smoothly and crew members sit at the desk to stand in for guests like Greg Fleet, one of the gay dads and the surrogate mother. A box of tissues is cheekily substituted for baby Francis. After rehearsal I have a quick chat with Bridges who talks about how he and his team decide which stories to run on The Project. “The two most important things are choosing the right story and choosing the right treatment for the story,” he says. At 6.45pm the audience is seated in the studio and writer and comedian Tony Lyall runs through some house rules. The hosts soon enter the TV set and just before filming begins, Mulligan issues an apology. Normally the hosts hang around after the show to have photos with people who have come to watch The Project being filmed but Mulligan won’t be doing that tonight. His five-year-old daughter has broken her arm and he wants to get straight home to his family. The live show runs like a well-oiled machine and half an hour seems to fly by. Besides the hosts, the guests and the production crew, credit must also be given to the detailed spreadsheets. All that meticulous planning was clearly worth it.
Kanoa Lloyd and Jesse Mulligan