For Waleed, it’s all about the work…
Never mind the diversity, Waleed Aly says his biggest contribution to The Project will be his editorial contribution.
It should prove to be a relatively seamless transition for the broadcaster, given he has been part of the Project family for three years now, regularly hosting Fridays plus other temporary stints.
Replacing Charlie Pickering (Rove McManus was actually a Heather Locklear-style ‘guest host’) is therefore not quite as radical as some have made out, but Aly says the biggest difference is likely to be an editorial one.
“It may be a bit more newsy than when Rove was there, my editorial input will probably be different to his, and my interests are different,” he says.
“But I think Charlie and I were, and are, quite similar people in a lot of ways.
“So it may be that we end up doing a similar sort of job, but the show will naturally, and what I do will, evolve. I imagine the way I host it in February will be very different to the way I host it in September. And that will be something I don’t even foresee. It will just happen.
“It’s more that by being part of the editorial process I will bring a particular brain to it.
“I’m not coming in going ‘I’ve got a story on nursing homes that I’ve been wanting to get to air for 10 years.’”
Aly is a big believer in The Project format, for its ability to marry news and entertainment in a way that speaks to a broad audience.
“It’s an utterly unique beast in Australian TV at least, and maybe even more than that. I can’t think of another show that delivers not just News but Commentary in that kind of way, and therefore opens up that kind of audience. As someone who has worked at the ABC it was always a show held in very high regard amongst serious newsmakers because of the way it was able to communicate things. And therefore who it was able to talk to,” he observes.
“So I think that’s why every few months there’s a report about some other network trying to develop a show that is loosely based on it.
“So there is a sort of irreducible excitement about taking on a show that has quite an ambitious take to make worlds meet that just otherwise wouldn’t. (Worlds) a lot of other people find hard to make meet.
“So the fact I have been doing it for a while and feel comfortable in the environment and I like what the show is trying to achieve, in some ways it was a fairly straightforward decision.”
Taking a story that is not immediately entertaining but injecting it with entertainment is part of the show’s DNA. Aly recalls watching writers, producers and graphics staff find ways to communicate information in a digestible way for its audience.
“I saw them do a package once about community detention of asylum seekers and the costs associated with that as oppose to the costs of mandatory detention. What was interesting, leaving aside entirely the issue, was the way that much dense information (that was) difficult to take on board if you were trying to read it, was packaged and presented in a way that made it jump off the screen,” he recalls.
“Thinking about how I would have covered that on my ABC Radio show, it’s a very different thing.
“Creative ways of getting information across sometimes emerge quite late in the piece. Or someone has a bizarre idea that gets explored a bit and suddenly becomes feasible. One time interviewing Clive Palmer there were a whole range of issues we wanted to discuss on certain policy issues. So we decided in the end instead of just doing a straight interview where it’s very hard to get all of that information into a tight interview, we turned it into a game show.
“The Project can do that where other shows can’t or don’t –partly because the expectation of the show is that it will do that, and it’s self-aware and self-deprecating enough to take those sort of risks.”
Comedy is also central to the show, but Aly has no plans to reinvent his on-screen persona.
“What I have been doing and the level of comedy that has been used in my performance so far seems to have been working. It’s certainly worked well enough for them to offer me the job!” he laughs.
“Charlie was keen to inject the commentary and news-hound side of himself, and in some ways I think that was what he wanted to demonstrate.
“We come at it from different angles, but we are actually very similar in a lot of ways. We found that out from working together and doing a Comedy Festival show together that sold out quickly and got good reviews.
“I figure if I’ve done a Comedy Festival show I can do The Project.”
Yet when Aly was announced as the new permanent co-host, much of the headlines focussed on his diverse background. Aly has Egyptian heritage and identifies as Sunni Muslim. His appointment was heralded as a breakthrough for a primetime commercial show, despite 3 years as part-time co-host.
“It’s interesting people noticed it. Maybe that’s a good they’re aware of it. But it’s not something (I’ve been) talking about,” he remarks.
“I won’t get up in the morning and think ‘Right, how can I be diverse today?’
“It’s never been a point of conversation with Channel TEN or Roving or anything like that. It’s just never come up and that’s probably the most encouraging development that there is.”
So would he prefer the media to focus more on his work than added diversity?
“Yes I think I would,” he says.
“People will take their own meaning from it, that’s true of the audience, the media, everybody. They will look at this and say ‘Wow there’s a non-white guy on TV.’ The fact that that’s remarkable is perhaps a bit sad but it doesn’t mean it’s the main agenda I want to push.
“It’s not really part of my job.”
Waleed Aly returns to The Project 6:30pm Monday on TEN.