EXCLUSIVE: Around The Project production office in the Como tower at South Yarra you can invariably catch a staff member transfixed by large screens which will hold their silent gaze for minutes on end.
It isn’t showing breaking news nor newsreel footage.
No, this is a huge Excel spreadsheet which shows the rundown for the nightly programme. Segments are meticulously timed with vision, interview, gag and commercial breaks.
Across the day the team will check and re-check the editorial balance, looking for gaps to add extra news or conversations and evaluating room for improvement right up to its Live broadcast.
The Project is a goliath of a daily news beast with a staff of around 50 people, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s. Now in their 10th year under Executive Producer Craig Campbell, joined by Sarah Ashley (one of 2 Supervising Editors), they are feeding an insatiable news beast 6 days a week.
TV Tonight recently spent a day under the hood to watch how it all unfolds…
10am: The day begins with a production meeting of 18, led by Ashley and Campbell to block out the evening show. There are already several segments locked down including Live interviews with Rove McManus for his new kids’ book, visiting Swedish singer Tove Lo, and a ‘long-form’ story on an inspiring principal giving hope to kids in drought-ridden Trundle, NSW.
At this meeting story producers pitch ideas that need to be packaged by 6:30pm.
One under discussion is the Extinction Rebellion protest, but the meeting is dominated by moral and ethical questions. “Is making people angry a way to bring people on board?” asks Ashley. It’s decided to send a news camera to Melbourne protests to hear from a spokesperson. The protestors’ tactic of nudity and glued bodies for attention is especially of interest. Another idea surrounds an apparent rise in domestic violence linked to the NRL Grand Final. “Didn’t we do domestic violence on Friday?” asks Ashley. “Not that I’m saying we can’t.” There’s a lot of listening amongst this group of 18, who will eventually cover the NRL from another angle.
Someone suggests Nine’s buyout of Macquarie Radio as a topical story. “Is it our audience? Do we care?” asks Ashley. “It’s potentially a megaphone to the nation, we could make people care,” one producer suggests. I feel like interjecting that with 2GB’s Steve Price on the show that night, it’s gotta be worth a gag at his expense, but I bite my lip. The story doesn’t pass muster. Hong Kong protests are also discussed, especially with Libs’ Tim Wilson joining in the throng. “I’d love to hear what Steve Price thinks,” offers Campbell.
Lighter story ideas, offered up by various members of the team around the room, include a psychic telling Helena Bonham-Carter that Princess Margaret approved of her casting in The Crown (seriously…), travel destination suggestions according to your star sign, amusing videos of bears locked in a van, UK seniors calling Boris Johnson a “toe-rag,” incoherent NRL players, an opera-singing US homeless woman having her first paid gig, and a ‘gender reveal’ party gone wrong. Many are spotted via Daily Mail posts, but the show will buy news footage if they are gag worthy.
10:45am: The meeting has dispersed as news producers and writers get to work on the agreed run-down. I’m given a tour of the largely open-plan office, introduced to names I am struggling to remember, aside from the lively Tommy Little. I’m impressed they have a stand-alone “fact checker” whose sole job is to verify important facts and figures from three sources. Does the Daily Mail count, I wonder? I’m given a vacant desk where I foolishly attempt to multitask TVT with new stories while observing the action. I’m glad it’s a public holiday in Sydney….
11:30am: Nobody welcomes a planned fire drill for the entire building. Don’t they know they’re on a deadline here? Everybody takes to the stairs and files out to a nearby park several streets away. That’s a good 30 minutes stolen right there.
12:10pm: Carrie Bickmore & Waleed Aly arrive, having attended a screening of Judy ahead of a Renee Zellweger interview tomorrow. Both loved it. They are given a rundown on the show’s line-up as they dissect the grid upon a screen. “Is this timing realistic?” Aly asks. “It’s a political story and Steve (Price) is here.” Carrie Bickmore enquires about a protest spokesperson: “Is she good talent?” Eventually it’s agreed to find another.
12:30pm: I’m in with the comedy writing team as they bounce ideas around the show’s stories. It’s a room of 8 today led by producer Rob Brearley, mostly in their ’20s. In the room I spot a clown wig and a Masked Singer guessing chart which is stumped over the Dragon & Spider (yep even inside 10 they are kept secretive). Former Spicks & Specks host Josh Earl tells me this team is constantly rotated, but the 2 days a week suits his schedule. I’m a bit disappointed I don’t hear punchlines being pitched, but that will come later….
1pm: I duck downstairs to grab some lunch. As I head back up I notice a homeless person has wandered through the Como foyer, oblivious to the team upstairs working to give the issue some airtime… but also that the team are equally unaware how close it is to their own door. Life is full of paradoxes.
1:30pm: Under the News arm of 10, producers join in a phone-hook up as 10 News First editors around the country exchange local stories to see what vision may be shared or expanded. The Project team weigh in with their key stories for the day, getting the thumbs up from Sydney.
2pm: A “funnies” meeting of 8 people show Tommy Little comedy vision for him to cherry-pick those that tickle his funny-bone. With each clip Little workshops a punchline to his test group. I can’t help but wonder if they are laughing too readily, nodding furiously like Hollywood “Yes” men. Little is sold on the ‘gender-reveal’ video and the bears locked in a van, but when discussion about a “toe-rag” definition arises, I manage to shock everybody with inappropriate humour. Jeez, I thought this lot were hip and loose…
2:35pm: Steve Price arrives after his radio commitments, for a presenter meeting.
3pm: The pace is picking up. Tommy Little and Carrie Bickmore duck into a studio, all set up within The Project office, to broadcast their HIT Network radio show. Crew and producers are shooting “office-style” footage in another corner. I duck out for a meeting with Publicity. Yeah, that’s all off the record, thanks.
3:50pm: ‘Post-production’ is actually ‘pre-production’ at The Project. I sit with editor Josh Wedd as he assembles a soundscape for news vision. Unlike News videos, these are highly-produced with multiple music tracks, voice-overs, interviews, atmosphere and FX. The show has a team of editors working to package the news “differently” for its target audience. I ponder whether the best soundscape work is one that isn’t noticed by the viewer at all, because it is so seamless?
4:30pm: Craig Campbell wants to see a final edit of the Trundle drought story. This is a Project original, and there is a separate team who work on the research and filming of ‘long-form’ stories. Campbell is meticulous about the edit. Does the shot match the audio? Is there too much air between narration sentences? But he is also proud of the feelgood story which makes a hero of a rural school principal. There’s so much bad news around, he explains, The Project likes to give airtime to good news too.
4:45pm: Hosts do a pre-recorded interview with Extinction Rebellion. I watch from the Control Room. Another interview with a US political expert won’t make it to air.
5pm: Promos are recorded after interviews.
5:30pm: Swedish singer Tove Lo arrives with her entourage. Security mistake one of her crew for the star. Oops. There’s some debate about where to assemble them, before the Green Room is chosen.
5:45pm: I join Sarah Ashley and in-house lawyer Julian Rosendahl for “sign off” as they view final vision of tonight’s key stories. As we rush from edit suite to edit suite, I’m encouraged everything is being double-checked: Did the school kids sign consent forms? Does Extinction Rebellion really have chapters in 60 countries? What’s our swearing count for the night, does it exceed Classification? Julian gives the team the thumbs up. Dammit, my story would have been better with a legal objection.
6pm: By now the audience has arrived and is getting the daily drill from warm-up man & comedian Ben Lomas. He wins them over quickly with his irreverent humour and experience across a number of local productions.
6:30pm: It’s showtime. All the ideas, humour and ethical questions I’ve heard posed across the day now roll out via the hosts. There’s also a Live cross to Bulgaria, knocking out an interview on US politics. During the breaks the hosts go over notes one more time, and juggle occasional banter with the audience. Tommy Little, in particular, works the crowd, some of whom are local high school students.
7:30pm: With the show over I head back into the office to congratulate the team, only to find the buzz that has been present all day has fallen silent, with nearly everybody gone. Craig Campbell is there to escort me out (“Quickly before the audience hit the lifts”, I’m told).
As I head home, my head is spinning that they will have to do it all again tomorrow. It’s a pace they maintain 6 days a week. I guess we all have our perspectives.
What struck me most about the collaborative nature of this team is that within its furious assembly line, there’s an extraordinary eye for attention. From the sound-scaping edit, to fact-checking and moral questions around whether a story is too leftist / white privilege / media in ivory towers? This is juggled at the same time as breaking news having to fit into the final product, like a newspaper suddenly having to change the front page.
Lisa Wilkinson later told me, “On my very first day I rang my husband after about 3 hours and said ‘I cannot believe the calibre of people I’m working with!’
“They are extraordinary. I shout it from the rooftops to everyone I know who works in the industry. I’ve never come across a team like The Project. The editors, the guys in ‘post’, the graphics, the comedy writers, the producers…. everyone is absolutely at the top of their game.
“It’s such a well-run and well-oiled machine.”