Wanted: You, eyeballing that box glowing in the living room corner.

Battle lines have again been drawn in the fight for supremacy in the 7pm current affairs time slot, with Seven Sharp returning to New Zealand TV screens this week.

The opening skirmish will unfold on Monday, when TVNZ's flagship current affairs show < is back on air after a seven-week summer break.

Two new hosts — former Three broadcaster and latterly TVNZ Breakfast co-host, Hilary Barry and, in what some describe as a bold, exciting move, media satirist, Mike Hosking impersonator and The Hauraki Breakfast co-host Jeremy Wells — will introduce themselves to Kiwi viewers.


Wells, whose appointment was announced this week, told the Weekend Herald it had been a busy week that included rehearsals and suit fittings.

"The whole thing's been surreal ... I'm very excited about it. Yes nervous, but nerves and excitement are really very similar.

"It's hard to differentiate between what is nerves and what is excitement, it's the same feeling really inside your stomach ... it's probably excitement in an opportunity to talk to a large audience in a primetime slot ... it's a pretty cool opportunity. It's a hard thing to say no to."

Singers Anika Moa and Celine Dion in Las Vegas. Photo / Supplied
Singers Anika Moa and Celine Dion in Las Vegas. Photo / Supplied

TVNZ revealed yesterday the opening show will include Kiwi songstress Anika Moa interviewing her superstar Canadian counterpart Celine Dion in Las Vegas.

The Project's trio of hosts, Jesse Mulligan, Kanoa Lloyd and Josh Thomson, were back at work three weeks ago, when the show returned to air, getting a jump-start on TVNZ and its established audience.

But the move doesn't appear to have paid off significantly with their average audience dropping slightly compared to their first week on air last year.

One-hundred-and-forty-thousand viewers aged 5+ tuned in to the watch The Project's during its first week back this year, down three per cent on 2017 figures.

In the key commercial demographic (aged 25-54) the story was even worse, with just 55,000 viewers tuning in, marking a 10 per cent drop.


Those numbers improved the following week, rising to 65,000 viewers aged 25-54 and 151,000 aged 5+.

Last year, The Project debuted to an average audience of 144,000 viewers aged 5+ in its first week on air, with 61,000 viewers aged 25-54 tuning in.

By comparison Seven Sharp delivered an average audience of 427,000 (5+) and 89,000 (aged 25-54) when it returned to screens in February 2017.

From left, Josh Thomson, Jesse Mulligan, Kanoa Lloyd and Rove McManus on the opening night of The Project last year. Photo / Supplied
From left, Josh Thomson, Jesse Mulligan, Kanoa Lloyd and Rove McManus on the opening night of The Project last year. Photo / Supplied

A Mediaworks spokeswoman said The Project had a fantastic first year, redefining the 7pm time slot with its mix of news and entertainment in front of a live studio audience.

"Jesse, Kanoa and Josh are a hit with viewers, and we expect The Project to continue to grow in 2018."

TVNZ head of news and current affairs John Gillespie said they were also expecting a great 2018.

"Hilary and Jeremy are an exciting combination. They'll put their own stamp on the show. We've had a lot of great feedback since announcing our new line-up – people think it's brilliant. They can already see what a strong force they'll be at 7pm."

The broadcaster expected the pair would build on Seven Sharp's strong following, Gillespie said.

"We're not thinking about what others are up to. We're focused on viewers and making Seven Sharp the best it can be for them this year."

New hosts of Seven Sharp, Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells.
New hosts of Seven Sharp, Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells.

The rival networks have competed over the post-evening news time-slot for more than a decade, since then-TV3 broadcaster John Campbell's Campbell Live launched against TVNZ's Close Up, which had itself started a year earlier, after the late Sir Paul Holmes' took his 15-year-old Holmes show to Prime.

Since 2012 the slot has been a moving feast, especially on Three. After dumping Campbell Live in 2015, the short-lived Story occupied our screens for just over a year before Aussie import The Project launched.

At TVNZ, Close Up was replaced by Seven Sharp in 2013, but the lighter approach to current affairs and trio of hosts - Ali Mau, Greg Boyed and Jesse Mulligan - didn't gel with viewers.

A new team of Hosking and Toni Street had more success, but bowed out at the end of the year, opening the door for Barry and Wells.

Broadcaster Bill Ralston, whose long career in journalism included four years as head of news and current affairs at TVNZ in the early 2000s, said the state broadcaster's strong hold on the 7pm slot made it tough for The Project to make too many inroads.

People would tune in to see the new duo and while much would depend on how the combination worked, he was confident both would do their jobs well, Ralston said.

He had "a lot of respect" for Wells, whose deadpan-delivered humour first came to prominence via the alter-ego Newsboy on DJ Mikey Havoc's TV show in the 1990s, before finding its own home on satirical news show Eating Media Lunch.

"I think he's a superb operator and if he's allowed to be his satirical self I think it'll be a very hard programme for TV3 to overtake."

Wells said he did not think he would be too extreme to start with.

"I think if I go in talking about crazy things, the audience will be like, 'Who is this guy? Who does he think he is?' I don't want to do that. I don't want to alienate people."

But his presenting style would be true to himself.

"I'm me and I can't really be anyone else. I mean, I can impersonate Mike Hosking, but I don't know how many episodes that would go for."

Being comedic would not work with everything, and Barry would be the show's lead, he said.

"She's the established broadcaster, she's the one with credibility."

Wells was also complimentary about the opposition, describing The Project as "massively entertaining and really well put together, funny, subversive."

Ralston said The Project had one advantage over its rival.

"Seven Sharp seems to have abandoned the idea of studio interviews. You've really just got presenter front people. They don't interview anyone anymore, which is weird.

"At least The Project does interviews in the studio and you can find out something."