“I was Rob Benfield’s researcher in the 1980s when he was a producer/director on a regional ITV current affairs doc series called Facing South (and immigration minister Phil Woolas was a co-researcher!). Rob remembers that the series was run by journalists at the time and that he was brought in to make the series more visually interesting when the prevailing “mission to explain” ethos made programmes duller to watch. Complaints about the dumbing-down of docs began 25 years ago. No doubt, I did my bit to help the process too…”
A month ago I asked whether documentary production is really in demise, or are we just grumbling? The holiday season has proved harder to crack than I’d thought, and I’m still waiting for the indies and commissioners I’ve contacted to get back to me on the subject.
Never say never, but I’ve had some interesting offline feedback from, Michael Waldman, a veteran of BBC’s Forty Minutes doc strand, and maker of The House, Daisy Daisy, Stephen Fry In America and many more. And I can offer the academic’s viewpoint from, Rob Benfield, who runs the TV production degree course at the University of Westminster.
I had lunch with a very senior figure in PACT’s hierarchy last week, an old friend whom it is always a pleasure to see. We mulled over PACT’s fast-growing power and influence in the television industry and with government too. PACT’s influence expands in tandem with the growth of its ‘Super Indie’ members. This is despite PACT’s own operating budget now being a small fraction of what it was five years ago.
PACT has fewer members now than ever before, but they are richer, and include a genuine international reach and market domination. It made me realise that the UK independent production sector has quietly undergone a revolution within the last decade and the word ‘culture’ has been erased from all PACT’s descriptions of its own remit.
PACT has a clear vision that its job is to ensure its members can make money out of their intellectual property. Everything else that PACT does is secondary to that role. PACT’s members aren’t programme-makers, or writers, or even producers, they are primarily businesses, and they are on a roll.
Is documentary all what it used to be and as a format is all documentary still worthy? Welcome to Part 1 of my documentary dissection.
“I have worked in and around television production in one way or another for twenty years, and every single year I have heard that documentary production standards and production funding were in decline. Is it true? Has it really got a bit worse for docs every single year?
My nature is to suspect that things always look better in retrospect, that we all have a tendency to idealise our actions in the past. But we know that the culture of television shifts from decade to decade, so why not our attitude to the documentary as well? I have been prompted into trying to find answers to the fate of the documentary by two of my long-standing friends.
The first friend is the same age as me and is an experienced senior producer. He has made political and social documentaries at home and abroad, and covered some of the bloodiest war-zones in Africa and the Balkans of the last twenty years. Now working for a big terrestrial broadcaster, he despairs of the vacuous nature of the programmes he is expected to make – expensive shots and popular presenters take precedence over content, and frequent recaps of what you have just watched several minutes earlier seem to be designed for viewers with advanced dementia and no critical faculty. He says it now takes 50 minutes to establish intellectual content that would have taken a few minutes in the past.
If the industry’s most sort after producers and directors are in as high demand as ever, why are their rates being screwed down to an all time low? This week Moray thinks he’s had a eureka moment. Is it time to break a few balls and bring back the agent?
“I am struggling to understand why we have an anomaly over directors’ rates that would make no sense to a market economist. Commissioning executives are increasingly involved in the choice of directors for higher-profile, higher budget, productions. Commissioning letters of agreement are being sent out which specify not just the budget and on-screen talent, but increasingly also the named director.
The directors and P/Ds whom commissioners know that they want for their productions belong to a relatively small group, probably less than sixty people making factual and factual entertainment programmes. These few directors are in the lucky position that all the terrestrial and larger digital channels are competing with each other to employ them for their grander factual projects, and those directors can largely pick and choose what they want to work on. They need never be out of work.
Re-reading my Word Of Mouth pieces over the last few months, I realise that there are three firm themes.
Theme 1: The television production industry is changing fast, and you must change with it, or you may become isolated and abandoned as it moves on without you.
Theme 2: People at large are watching more filmed content, in more ways, than ever before. Single-platform broadcasting is in trouble, not television production. So as a programme-maker you should be fine in the longer-run.
Theme 3: We know that our industry is in transition, but your guess is as good as mine about what are going to be the most popular media, how they will be funded, and who will be controlling them, even within a five-year timescale.
Times of transition are financially tough. The old paymasters are struggling and the new ones have not become apparent yet. Below are some of the reasons that television freelancers are finding contracts harder to find with the production companies.
“It’s a real privilege to work in the corporate sector, which can give you an amazing insight into big institutions and the public sector.” Rob Vincent, Head of Moving Image at Radley Yeldar.
Does the grass look greener to you when you consider the more stable, less capricious, world of corporate television production? The corporate communications industry is not to be sniffed at; with a UK annual turnover of £3 billion, corporate audio-visual communication is a bigger industry than the entire combined European feature film business.
Budgets can be high, as much as £10,000 per minute, although Televisual magazine estimates the average corporate video project budget to be just £32,600. That being said, production values are high, usually at least as high as their broadcast equivalent.
Have you ever had experience of working in a hostile environment? With the picture this book paints of the industry, apparently anyone who works in TV can add this to their CV! This is my take on Elsa Sharp’s new book, “How to Get a Job in Television: Build Your Career from Runner to Series Producer.”
“It’s a very selfish industry and it’s very ruthless. It doesn’t suffer fools gladly or tolerate weakness. If someone’s not able to do their job properly it’s so incestuous that it gets around the industry really quickly. It’s a very superficial industry. If you have a hit, everyone wants to know you, if not…..” (C4 Executive).
Does this sound right to you? My fellow Talent Manager and experienced senior producer, Elsa Sharp, has just published How To Get A Job In Television: Build Your Career From Runner To Series Producer. It’s a detailed 278-page guide to opportunities and pitfalls that gives a realistic picture of the industry today, warts and all.
Broadcasters like any other business, might be tempted to tighten the belt (even if it’s not necessary), during an economic downturn, but how much will this assist the long-term agenda? This week I reflect on Delissa Needham’s theory and offer a healthy alternative.
Has your attention been caught by the In My View column in last week’s Broadcast magazine? Delissa Needham, who is an executive producer at the Bio Channel and an experienced programme-maker in her own right, holds that the BBC overspends on its independent commissions when it could be buying-in the same commissions for a fifth of the cost.
Ms Needham writes that the BBC is doing the equivalent of shopping for its groceries at Harrods rather than a supermarket brand by commissioning from the bigger production companies who, “can’t and won’t do low-budget programming. It’s a skill that needs the right producing talent and the right commissioners experienced in low budget”.
Networking has long been the buzz word of the media industry and the benefits of effective schmoozing and professional reputation can be career defining. This week Moray reminds us of the importance of networking and illustrates how “belonging” can aid you in carving out a successful career for yourself.
Networking’ is a grindingly hackneyed phrase. It is as if no new initiative can be discussed without the words ‘social networking’ somewhere in the first sentence. Or does it make you think of grimly ‘working a room’ with a glass of warm white wine in hand, a forced smile and a babble of small talk? And yet the truth is that every reader of this page is dependent on their own networks for their ongoing income. If you can work out where you want to be next, you will probably need your networks to get you there. This is the key maxim: a network is something that you make for yourself, not something you join.
Of course, there are all the online social networking sites, the Linked-Ins and Facebooks and others, which really can be useful to join and are free of charge. And then there are the industry-specific networks of which the ProductionBase is arguably the biggest, and which are an important part of your professional kit. These are ready-made networks in which it is a good idea to take part, but even then the onus is on you to take further the connections they offer.
A freelancer’s work flow can be unpredictable and irregular at the best of times, but cries of hard times seem to be even more prevalent as freelancers attempt to sit-out the apparent production-crunch. If this rings true to you, maybe part-time work or a 2nd job is something you’ve already considered? This week I talk to some PB members who are already living out this reality and offers some insight into how they’re muddling through.
It’s an open secret that relatively few television freelancers can rely on their TV production work alone to pay all of their bills, all the time. And yet, there’s an embarrassment about what else people do in the gaps between contracts, almost as if they are showing weakness in their commitment to television by doing other things… I asked a range of ProductionBase members of all grades to tell me, in strictest confidence of course, what they actually do when they are not working in production… Of all the jobs mentioned by people, the biggest earner was also the most striking.
Instead, indies and broadcasters could be grateful to their workforce for getting out there to work in other roles, meeting people in different contexts, and celebrate their eclecticism. Maybe those companies should also worry that so many of their workforce need to work elsewhere to make ends meet.