This week Channel TEN’s 7PM Project notches up 8 months on air.
After repeated attempts at developing a show to fill the timeslot, including Taken Out and even the infamous Yasmin’s Getting Married, TEN has held its nerve with the Roving Enterprises show, despite figures which many assumed would sound the death knell.
Last week it averaged 653,000 viewers, and has doubtless impacted on TEN’s early evening schedule.
But has it found its feet? Has it improved its mix of news and comedy and is it time for audiences to revisit the show?
TV Tonight turned to television critics and found an audience just as split as the one at home.
Michael Idato from the Sydney Morning Herald has mixed feelings about whether the show has improved or not.
“Yes and no,” he says, “I think the production is much, much tighter but in terms of answering a more important long-term objective – what is the show, exactly? – it is still sometimes a little unclear. That’s an issue with the news / comedy balance which they still struggle with. As a new and creative element of TEN’s schedule, it’s excellent.”
James Manning from Mediaweek also likes what he sees, and notes technical hitches have been ironed out.
“Issues with camera angles have been fixed, the number of stories packed into each episode have been dropped and interviews are handled well by the guests with no abrupt endings,” he says. “The hosts are doing a pretty good job and it seems (TEN Programmer) David Mott and (Producer) Craig Campbell recruited well when they launched.
“The mix of news and comedy does work, but I wouldn’t mind if there was even more gags, but that’s probably not the show’s brief.”
Amanda Meade from The Australian, who admits to being a semi-viewer, agreed.
“I don’t see a lot of 7PM but I do like what I see and I think there’s a real need for a light, entertainment-based news show like this,” she said.
“I like all the hosts, and enjoy the regular comic bits by Kitty Flanagan.”
But Dianne Butler from the Courier Mail admitted she is no longer a regular viewer.
“I’m not watching it anymore. I did at the beginning and now I keep forgetting it’s on. I don’t think it’s by accident my brain is doing this either,” she said.
She also doesn’t believe the show has been treated unfairly by media.
“It’s the opposite,” she says. “There’s been massive goodwill from the media and from TEN because they like the people on the show. Plus, I don’t know, but I think maybe because Dave Hughes and whoever all work on other things that are successful, there’s the feeling that The 7pm Project is too -that it’s just an extension of those other jobs.”
Critics were also divided about some of the show’s hosts.
Richard Clune from the Sunday Telegraph agrees the show has tightened since dropping its “inane” crosses to Ruby Rose. He is a supporter of Charlie Pickering as the central host.
“He is driving this show, passionate about the medium and the news and there’s an obvious desire to make this work. He knows what he’s talking about, flicks between serious and funny in a facile way and I believe he will go far – but maybe this isn’t the show for him given that the audience hasn’t responded,” he says.
Michael Idato calls Pickering one of the best television discoveries in recent years.
“He’s bright, smart and likeable. Pay television deserves a little credit here as it has in the last 15 years demonstrated a real ability to unearth real talent (Jabba, James Mathison, Brendan Moar) at a time when free to air has recycled familiar faces to the point of audience exhaustion. The most interesting thing about Pickering / Bickmore / Hughes is that as a trio they have settled into a very comfortable dynamic. In effect, their collective chemistry is greater than the sum of its parts.”
But Richard Clune isn’t so enthusiastic about news presenter Carrie Bickmore.
“I feel I’m not alone here. She seems somewhat like a female token on that panel – she’s able to deliver a solid, well-articulated female point when necessary, but just who is she and why do I care…?” he asks.
Richard Clune says Dave Hughes’ schtick hasn’t changed in 15 years, and says nobody outside of Victoria is that interested in the Melbourne comedian.
“He needs to go,” he says, adding that Hamish and Andy would add more to the show.
“TEN paid big bucks for Lee and his offsider Blake – now put them to use in lifting 7PM before you need to scrap it.”
While critics responded to James Mathison, there was less enthusiasm about the contributions by Ruby Rose.
Mediaweek’s James Manning said, “James Mathison and Ruby Rose seem to have all but disappeared. Don’t miss them too much because with three hosts that’s probably enough. Ruby seems to have lots going on elsewhere.”
Michael Idato even went as far as to dub Mathison a ‘superstar.’
“He’s intelligent, is just offbeat to work in a medium where most of his peers are bland and difficult to distinguish from the pack,” he says. “Ruby Rose has been underwhelming. She’s ubiquitous at the moment, which creates challenges of its own – such a high level of over-commitment means that almost everything she does looks as though it’s done on the run, with little research or preparation. A more experienced presenter could hide those frayed edges, and she doesn’t always do a very good job of that.”
Several critics made mention of regular panellists on the show, most of whom provide a generational contrast to the show’s three hosts.
“I’ve enjoyed them working in more commentary from people who tend to polarise with their varied opinions – namely (Steve) Price, (Neil) Mitchell, (George) Negus, although I doubt they cut through to TEN’s desired younger demos?” asks Richard Clune.
But there was sharp criticism from others.
Andrew Mercado from TV Week said, “I switch the channel the moment I see Steve Price. He is totally inappropriate for the show (and TEN’s audience in general). If they want a regular redneck, they need to find someone younger and more relevant.”
Amanda Meade agreedm saying, “Producers could try a bit harder to get some ‘credible’ guests on, that is, someone a little more interesting than failed shock jock Steve Price and a little younger than George Negus. Try for some big hitters with real credibility.”
But Michael Idato notes Negus’ Monday night appearances as one of the show’s better contributors.
“For the most part they work well, but the standout is George Negus, and in that sense it answers the question of whether the show should be more news / topic focused, or more comedy free-form. The best moments on the show have been those which tap into the news, so I believe a slightly straighter, slightly sharper but more in-depth approach is the smartest route.
“One of the show’s weaknesses is that the conversations are cut short too frequently. When the show is able to harness people like George Negus, it’s wasteful not to let those conversations get more in-depth.”
There were genuine concerns the show has impacted on other TEN brands.
“The big casualty so far is The Biggest Loser which had its numbers pummelled because it was displaced out of the timeslot it has historically occupied on TEN’s schedule. That’s a huge impact for TEN, for Fremantle (who make it) and for Shine (who own it). I would imagine all three parties have been wringing their hands over the numbers,” says Michael Idato.
He notes So You Think You Can Dance Australia has also taken a hit from The 7PM Project and warns that as Masterchef approaches, three underperforming franchises would be too high a price to pay for one show’s modest success.
But Dianne Butler says TEN will probably stick with it.
“It gives them a platform to push other product, people … And what else are they going to do anyway? Their highest rating show at the moment is the News at five o’clock in the afternoon so there are plenty of other problems apart from this one to sort out,” she says.
There was universal applause for TEN’s loyalty to the show.
Andrew Mercado summed it up, saying, “I couldn’t admire TEN more for their loyalty but it’s not enough to just sit there and hope the audience finds it. Why doesn’t Rove step up and become an occasional panelist – surely that would bring in a few more eyeballs?
Richard Clune says part of the problem is that younger viewers have already received their news throughout the day via the internet and suggests it could be retooled as a longer, weekly show in a later timeslot which would allow it to be even more risqué.
“Ultimately I think TEN and the team – minus Hughes – have given it a fair crack and for that they’re to be congratulated… But it hasn’t worked and it’s time to either pull it apart and start again or simply walk away,” he says.
Finally, few critics were able to nominate a highlight from the show’s life thus far, although Michael Idato observed that Adam Lambert’s take on the opposition leader’s comments about feeling comfortable around gay people was an intelligent and topical treatment of a news story.
And as the show continues a cultural shift on the TEN audience at 7:00, he says it’s almost impossible to navigate between news and comedy because people react to that balance according to their own taste.
“For me, no, it needs to be focused a little more in the news and a little less in scripted comedy or punchline-delivery moments,” he says.
“In a very broad sense The 7pm Project serves as a current affairs program, albeit one tailored almost entirely to TEN’s stated target demographic of 16-39, and frequently offers more insight into topical issues than either A Current Affair or Today Tonight.”
Maybe it’s time for another look after all?