Ten wrecks the buzz as Wilkinson debuts on The Sunday Project

There was laughter, there were cute animal stories and there were tears as Lisa Wilkinson made her highly anticipated debut on Channel Ten's The Sunday Project.

The former breakfast show host, whose surprise departure from Nine's Today show was one of the biggest local TV stories of 2017, arrived at the desk as the woman in red, a confident statement-colour for an inauguration.

She joined Sunday regulars Hamish MacDonald and Rachel Corbett, with weeknight Project co-host Pete Helliar taking the funny man seat frequently filled by Tommy Little, perhaps because Little was heading to the jungle in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me out of Here! (though, as it turned out, he wasn't).

Peter Helliar, Hamish McDonald, Lisa Wilkinson and Rachel Corbett during Lisa's first appearance on The Project after defecting from Nine to Ten. Photo: Supplied

Peter Helliar, Hamish McDonald, Lisa Wilkinson and Rachel Corbett during Lisa's first appearance on The Project after defecting from Nine to Ten. Photo: Supplied

After a brief welcome for Wilkinson, it was down to business, Project-style, and straight into the news headlines.

Nothing on The Project lasts too long. It's preferred pace involves rapid round-ups of news headlines, quick bits of banter triggered by the stories and a few more substantial yarns to fill the hour.

The laughter came with tales of a multi-million dollar upgrade of the US President's plane to install new fridges, allowing gags about why a man who only eats fast food would need a fridge. Then came pandas rolling in snow. A more serious story about online bullying and its consequences got a little more space.

Then came an education story and an illustration of either Wikinson's lack of familiarity with the format or a good reason why the Sunday edition needs to adapt a bit to suit its new panelist. The story concerned some schools resorting to a BYOD policy, requiring students to bring their own devices rather than the school supplying them, and the financial stress this was putting on parents.

Wilkinson attempted to broaden the discussion by introducing the idea that some studies had found that kids learn better without devices, when they have to process information and write it down. This avenue was quickly shut down by a cut to a funny sport video of a guy being hit in the face with a basketball, which was shown several times, making clear where the program's priorities lie.

Wilkinson's showpiece story for her premiere was a heart-warmer, a four-tissue job about a Townsville couple and the cruel twist that meant that their baby boy was born months after his mother died of cystic fibrosis. It was a moving story of love and friendship, and Wilkinson got to cuddle and feed the baby.

Overall, as Ten unveiled its new star and launched its line-up, the network also did its best to wreck the buzz. It stuffed The Sunday Project full of ads and promotions for other programs.

Then there were the unofficial ads, cross-promotions within the show itself, with Joel Creasey plugging his new role on Neighbours and a cross to Chris Brown and Julia Morris in the South African jungle just prior to the start of Celebrity.

It's a questionable approach given the network's need to establish the struggling Sunday Project and to build on the interest generated by Wilkinson's arrival.

Aside from making it almost unwatchable, it debases the program, making it look less like a show in its own right than a handy promotional vehicle.

That would be a waste and a shame, however much Ten paid to secure Wilkinson's services.

Since it relaunched in August last year, The Sunday Project has been struggling for an audience and an identity.

On a prestigious and strategically important night of the week, when Seven and Nine often pull out their biggest guns, Ten has been languishing.

Wilkinson's arrival, and the considerable interest it has generated, represents a golden opportunity to give The Sunday Project a distinctive personality.

Her debut showed few encouraging signs that this might be the case.

This story Ten wrecks the buzz as Wilkinson debuts on The Sunday Project first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.