Juggling a comedy / news anchor role on TEN’s The Project, the self-confessed news junkie veers between punchlines, questions, opinions and driving a segment, all Live to air.
With around 1,100 shows in the can, by now the audience has formed a view on Pickering’s personality and even his politics. But according to the man himself, it may not necessarily be correct.
“The funny thing is a lot of people have assumptions about my politics based on what I’ve said and they’re all categorically wrong. I will get criticised in the same night, in the same programme, for being a right-wing Gina Rinehart puppet and for being a Kevin Rudd left-wing lapdog,” he says.
“But the reality of my politics is I am dead centre. I have voted for both sides of politics. I never decide my vote until the night before the election. I am a swinging voter. My only position has been that policies should always stand up to scrutiny.”
According to Pickering, merely expressing a moderate view has the impression of being hard-line left wing, because of where the conversation in the media is happening.
“I genuinely think that media in this country skews right (wing). Because of that often a centre-ist position will appear left wing because it sticks out from the rest of the discourse in the country,” he says.
“I find it ludicrous when people criticise the ABC for being leftist because every audit of their journalism shows that they do not have a bias.”
Citing evidence of a lack of ABC bias, when he was on TripleJ on the day Australia joined the War in Iraq, he told listeners “we don’t feel like today’s a day for jokes so we’ll just play some music” but was disciplined for “being political.”
Maintaining a moderate-rage, he has no problem in advocating social justice while remaining a swinging voter. There are issues that still fire him up.
“Simple things like human rights and due process, obligations under international treaties that we have signed onto –and that we signed onto in the shadow of the Holocaust– little things like that…. expressing an opinion saying that those things are important somehow gets mistaken for being left wing,” he insists.
“The entire Refugee debate has gone so far in one direction and there’s been almost no resistance the other way. The moment you try and say ‘Well, shouldn’t we do what we signed a Treaty to say that we’d do?’ that’s apparently a left-wing opinion.”
But if The Project is one end of a political spectrum on TEN, then The Bolt Report is surely another. Pickering is up front in acknowledging the stark differences.
“The biggest difference between us and Andrew Bolt is he’s hired to have an agenda,” Pickering concedes.
“He’s literally hired to be a right-wing voice on this network. He wouldn’t argue with that. That show is a conservative voice. He wouldn’t be offended by my saying that. He sets out to do that and that’s his brief. He was hired by the powers that be at this network to do that.
“We’re not hired to do that. We’re hired to entertain and that’s our brief. We could never be as positional as he is in our timeslot. I don’t think you could go into primetime during the week and only broadcast from one end of the political spectrum. I think that would be disastrous.”
In its 4 years on air, The Project has defied critics and weathered timeslot changes. In recent months it’s seen a rise in its figures, at best just shy of 700,000 viewers.
Last week the Roving Enterprises show averaged 574,000 viewers, well short of its 2010 highs when it was rested during the Commonwealth Games.
“We were of the opinion that we should stay on during the Commonwealth Games, because we’d hit a million before that came along. The decision went another way and it felt like we lost a bit of momentum there and started again,” he admits.
“But then we changed timeslots. We were half an hour. We were an hour. We were up against the 6:00 News, then 6:30 which feels a much better fit.”
The show’s second half hour is particularly strong, perhaps as an alternative to Reality on Nine and Soap on Seven.
“If you look at the 7:00 – 7:30 half hour, we’re really adding a lot of numbers. And that’s been happening consistently,” Pickering explains.
“The first half hour has also been growing over the past 2-3 months.”
But the television landscape continues to evolve, including with direct news competitors on multichannels.
“There’s so much news on offer now, essentially because it’s cheap. Once you’ve got a newsroom the back-end is there and you just need different hosts because the news is always coming in,” he says.
“If I didn’t have my current job I’d sit at home watching news all day. But for the general viewer who possibly has more varied tastes than I do, I’m not sure if they’re sick of having so much.
“I think there would be a lot of people who have come back to us having been looking at some other things in that timeslot. The job then is to keep them. If they are Big Brother refugees then our job is to make sure they have no other reason to go anywhere else.”
Yet while The Project comes under scrutiny for its numbers, many overlook its lukewarm lead-in. On Monday night The Simpsons was just 366,000 viewers -around a quarter of the audience of Seven News and Nine News.
Pickering can’t help but offer another opinion.
“I don’t think shows should be overly-dependent on their lead-ins. Shows should stand as shows themselves. But that said, when 6:30 on Seven and Nine are getting handed 1.2m consistently a night as their starting point, we talk around the office about what would be something good in that office,” he says.
Tactfully he adds, “I cannot be clearer about this: I don’t know what Hamish (McLennan) or Beverley’s (McGarvey) plan is.
“But we’ve been saying for a long time that something like an edgy game show, or something that is ‘on brand’ with Channel TEN. It can’t be something lame or whatever. Deal or No Deal and Hot Seat actually pull pretty consistent numbers. People like game shows and that play-at-home aspect. It’s something that’s missing at the moment in the broader line-up at TEN.
“I always get in trouble when I start talking about how I’d programme the network! There are much smarter wizards than me programming those things and there’s a science to it that I don’t claim to know.
“But I think there is a potential there in that slot for something to happen.
“That half hour of news is probably the most ingrained habit in Australian television.”
Pickering’s work-day begins with an editorial meeting at 11am but as a news addict, he chases the news from the moment he awakens.
Whilst he necessarily follows Fairfax and News Corp stories, his personal favourites include The Atlantic, The Guardian, and anything on his favourite news app, Zite.
“I’ve been up in the morning reading, listening to the radio, talking on the phone, emailing in stories that I think should be a priority for the day,” he explains.
“Then it’s constant with production and a series of meetings and decisions, conversations, interviews, voice-overs.
“Part of why I worked for this show is I brought a genuine fascination for news into it and I have a sometimes-painful encyclopedic knowledge of the last 25 years of politics. I’ve always just been really interested in it.
“But the thing I look forward to the most is Saturday morning reading the NY Times in bed, knowing that I can just read the news I want to read and not have to talk about it that night. (With a coffee) that’s about as good as it gets. And reading the NY Times makes you really sad about Australian newspapers.”
Tempered by Carrie Bickmore, Dave Hughes and a host of regulars, Pickering obviously loves his Project role, steering the conversation from news stories to human interest, entertainment, social and public affairs. Somewhere in the middle of it all he’s expected to get a laugh and maybe to leave the audience thinking.
“There are nights I just feel like a duck, calm on top of the water but with legs and a brain churning to find a way out. But that’s what makes it exciting too,” he concedes.
“We’ve been doing it so long now it’s a bit like breathing. No-one is entirely predictable but you know you can rely on them in those situations. But it is still a very weird thing to do for a living.
“It’s a very odd job.”
The Project airs 6:30pm weeknights on TEN.