Waleed Aly Talks The Project, The Coming Federal Election & The Pandemic

Waleed Aly Talks The Project, The Coming Federal Election & The Pandemic

After the year we’ve had the news feels more important and relevant than ever, which is why 10’s The Project has such pop-culture currency and relevancy.

The co-hosts Carrie Bickmore, Lisa Wilkinson, even Waleed Aly are bonafide clickbait.

Aly along with his co-hosts has spent the last two years covering the pandemic, often while in lockdown. It’s not exactly easy making a national show, while the country is governed by various restrictions, but it’s something he has taken in his stride. 

Aly told B&T: “It is always sprinkled with enough relief, we know we have to eat our vegetables but you get to have dessert.” 

Perhaps, it’s because The Project has never been a straight news show that has meant Aly isn’t finishing the year completely burnt out.

Yes, it covered the virus but it covered the humans impacted by the virus just as vigorously, there is always heart to their news stories.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Aly isn’t looking forward to 2022 and particularly a new election year. “You’ve got to be careful as a news service that you don’t go into the election with an agenda.

“I will say it is shaping up at the moment in a way that sounds like climate change will be reasonably prominent in the campaign. What’s interesting about that is you have two reasonably clear policies on the table from both parties.

“I also know the election campaign always throws up surprises. I wonder if it will be economic?

I wonder if it will be, as the tide of COVID comes out. You start to see a whole lot of people are suffering in a way we didn’t anticipate and a whole lot of other people have done really well and had more savings as a result of the pandemic.

“If that is true that will be a different dynamic than what we’ve seen in any recent elections and that should shape the way people respond to the major issues parties put on the table.”

Although Aly still anticipates that the pandemic has a good chance of continuing to dominate the news, he’s also curious to see what happens, “it’ll be interesting to see if COVID doesn’t dominate if there will be a national conversation or ten different local issues.”

Of course, being on a news show that is so headline-worthy means Aly is used to being cautious. It’s a show that manages to still garner headlines, rumours and interest.

Lisa Wilkinson didn’t appear in a recent promo for 10, and several outlets hedged their bets she was off the show for good. The network has since put this to rest with a statement and an extended promo featuring Wilkinson. But it is a testament to how the show is newsworthy in itself. 

But that doesn’t mean the show is a traditional ratings hit, at least comparatively. It doesn’t come close to the numbers that Seven and Nine’s straight news show produce, and even if you were to compare it to Nine’s entertainment/news show, A Current Affair – it doesn’t reach their regular figures of above 500,000.

However, the show has found its niche in demos. In 2021, The Project in its 7 pm time slot was number one in the under the 50s and all key demos (25-54s, 16-39s and 18-49s), and based on Nine’s reaction to the ratings war this year, which saw Nine’s Chief sales officer Michael Stephenson say, “We don’t create content for total people,” demographics are not to be dismissed.

While the show may not be grabbing close to a million viewers a night it is still grabbing peoples’ attention and cultural relevancy is a currency not to be dismissed, Waleed Aly for instance is one of Australia’s most recognisable faces. 

Sarah Thornton, 10 ViacomCBS’s head of popular factual, is aware of who The Project appeal. 

Thornton told B&T: “To paint it with a broad brush, it’s news for the under 50s.

“We’ve done a lot of work to see who we speak to and I think what we aim to be is a way for people to access reliable information when it comes to the news.

“We are also incredibly inclusive with the stories we tell.”

This is why you’ll see The Project tackle stories like paid parental leave for same-sex couples. It’s prepared to examine modern society and not just cater to the old fashioned. It’s a show that has managed some of the toughest stories of the year with a more human approach and in Thortons words an, “unbiased” approach. 

After all, it’s catering to an audience that gets their news from social media and expects facts with laughter and light.

Still, despite the light, it’s seen as reliable, for instance, The Project is a program that usually gets a ratings spike when the public is faced with some confusing news – like vaccine understanding and hesitancy. 

Thornton explained: “Everyone knows the headlines, but what’s behind it?”

It is the backstory that The Project constantly tries to explain, even making sure the news is not being told purely from a male perspective. Thornton adds: “I started my career at Channel Nine in a pretty male-dominated environment, so I feel incredibly passionate that we encourage our female team, both our journalists and on-air talent to tell the stories that matter to them.”

Thornton also gives credit to heavyweights Lisa Wilkinson and Carrie Bickmore for making sure the focus isn’t just from a male point of view.

They work hard to make sure each angle of a story has been addressed and find a way to tell difficult stories with dignity. 

The Project prides itself on being able to tackle these issues, the handling of The Brittany Higgins case is a testament to that. Aly said: “The Brittany Higgins story was a momentous story, and we weren’t the only ones covering but you could feel the weight of that moment as you were doing it as a show” 

So it’s no surprise that when the pandemic hit The Project dug into its values. While misinformation became rife the news show worked hard to keep being a reliable source of news. 

Aly explained: “You were doing something important. You were helping guide people through an experience they’d never experienced before. 

“It was really interesting doing the same story for two years. You end up building up more and more knowledge about it?”

Perhaps The Projects secret is that it isn’t afraid to try a new approach or present a different point of view. The show mixes up its panel regularly – from Chrissie Swan to Tony Armstong.

Thornton said: “We will take as much Tony as we can get,” though she’s also clear she’s keen to look for fresh faces in 2022. 

Thornton also exclusively told B&T that we will be seeing a new “look” next year – think new branding.

In terms of major changes in 2022 – well, if it’s not broke, why fix it? The Project, as a show, has a winning formula for its demographic, but are still willing to evolve and adapt if required. It will, no doubt, continue to be one of Channel 10’s flagship programs and cover the election in a way that sets it apart from other news shows. 

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