What’s next for The Project?: A veteran stablemate set to steer ship as three hosts suddenly depart

Outgoing: Carrie Bickmore, Peter Helliar and Lisa Wilkinson. Incoming: Colleague Sarah Harris.

Outgoing: Carrie Bickmore, Peter Helliar and Lisa Wilkinson. Incoming: Colleague Sarah Harris. Photo: TND/Ten

Within just six weeks, three of the long-running co-hosts of Ten’s flagship current affairs program, The Project, quit in quick succession amid ongoing speculation about the future of the show.

Poor ratings have followed the nightly current affairs and pop culture program throughout the year, and the absences of high-profile presenters and journalists Carrie Bickmore and Lisa Wilkinson were the first signs things were not as they seemed.

In an emotional announcement on October 11, co-host for 13 years Bickmore, 41, told her viewers she was leaving her “second home” to spend more time with her partner and three children.

Then came Wilkinson, 62, whose extended absence from June to August was noted, as she told her 365,000 Instagram followers she was in California doing interviews for the show.

On Sunday, she quit after five years, saying the last six months “have not been easy”, citing “relentless, targeted toxicity by some sections of the media”.

Less than 48 hours later, the last hand grenade came courtesy of comedian Peter Helliar, 47, on Tuesday – a long-time favourite of the show (he has been attached to Ten for 22 years) – who is also walking away to return to writing and stand-up.

The show’s ‘first major shake-up’

Senior lecturer in screen media at Victoria University, Marc C-Scott, suggests that maybe the show’s format has lost its way amid the struggle of trying to gain new audiences.

National entertainment reporter Peter Ford says, “this is the first major shake-up ever”, adding “this is a last-ditch attempt to try and save it, but whether the brand name is already too tarnished, only time will tell”.

“You’ve only got to look at the ratings to realise that for the money they are giving out, the return is not good enough, and it hasn’t been for a long time.

“They’ve given the show tweaks in the past, but this is do or die,” Ford said.

“I think the way the show was going, it was going into a sinkhole and it was not going to recover,” he told after Helliar’s departure.

There could also be a commercial strategy at play.

“Ten is now owned by [US cable giant] CBS so how does that factor into who may be on the panel in the future?” Dr C-Scott asked.

Either way, there’s trouble in paradise, so where does that leave the show heading into 2023?

‘A new era’

Waiting in the wings is never easy but Sarah Harris, host of Ten’s morning show, Studio Ten, is stepping into The Project‘s so-called musical chair moment to steer, and steady, the ship in 2023.

In a statement on Wednesday, Harris saw The Project gig through a different lens: “This is one of the biggest and best jobs in TV.

“How could I say no?”

Co-host since 2015, Hamish Macdonald will report from around the country and host Friday and Sunday night from the desk.

Reporter and producer, former ABC young gun Georgie Tunny will add Friday co-hosting to her weeknight duties.

Rotating panelists including Kate Langbroek, Rachel Corbett and veteran newsman Steve Price are part of the show’s “family”, and Harris said she was excited “to join the rest of the team”.

“Sarah joining Waleed [Aly] at the helm of The Project marks the beginning of a wonderful new era for the show,” Ten’s executive producer, Tamara Simoneau, said.

Ford agrees: “She won’t be dominated by the woke brigade, she’s a reasonable and calm journalist – she’s an excellent choice”.

Warning: ‘Don’t change the channel’

So what will the show do differently?

The nightly format of interviewing celebrities, addressing social justice issues, national and international news (including extensive coverage of bushfires and floods) and clocking in charity events has gained widespread respect over the past decade.

Not to mention their coverage of the NDIS and marriage equality.

Despite ratings being as low as 185,000 earlier this year, the show has been a honeypot for Hollywood royalty to promote their upcoming movies.

Guests have included Thor’s Chris Hemsworth and director Taika Waititi, Helliar’s interview with Tom Cruise, Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, Jane Fonda, Brad Pitt, Emma Thompson and Ron Howard.

The show has won nine Logies, including the Gold Logie won by hosts Bickmore and Aly.

So what’s the plan?

Ten hasn’t yet released details on changes to its format, including who will replace Helliar (another comedian like Michael Hing) or even scheduling arrangements (a time change, ditching the Sunday Project?).

But don’t change the channel because, as a spokesperson for Ten told The New Daily, “there are more exciting announcements to come”.

Dr C-Scott reckons that “when you link up with CBS”, there’s the opportunity to bring in overseas talent for stints on the desk.

“Or, have them as international guests where they are doing interviews with celebrities overseas and they become part of the regular program.

“And then there an opportunity to flow that in and build a branding of Paramount+ for those who they interview, [with a back-announce] hey their show is on Paramount, here’s the program … cross-platform advertising.”

Dr C-Scott pointed to Neighbours‘ relink with Amazon Prime (instead of Ten/Paramount), suggesting we might see more “cross-pollination of free-to-air and streaming” as there is still a market for both with audiences.

The Project has the opportunity to be a little shop-front, a taster for programs available on Paramount+.”

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