London has always been the heart of the UK’s TV and media land. As a freelancer, if you weren’t willing to relocate to the big smoke maintaining a regular work flow further a field was luxury. With more production houses eloping north and the big promise of Salford’s Media City, the wheels are already in motion, but how much will things really change?
We have become jaded and cynical about token corporate moves to provide cultural balance, but sometimes they make such a fundamental difference that we forget what the earlier alternative was.
Until 1982, almost all television production was made in-house by the broadcasters of just three channels. The government of the time wanted to break what it saw as a left-wing union-dominated cultural monopoly and imposed a minimum quota of 25% of productions to come from external commissions, and founded a free market-based fourth channel which would only buy-in productions from the outside suppliers which didn’t even exist yet. This created the independent production sector and as a by-product the freelance production sector to service it. That was a token gesture which changed our television system completely.
It’s not all doom and gloom in TV land. This week I head towards the light to unveil a land where everything is shiny, chirpy and consistently upbeat. Entertainment may not be where your heart is, but it’s definitely where the money is!
I have written a couple of articles here casting doubt on the financial and long-term future of UK broadcasters and their current structures. However, of course there is light at the end of the tunnel even for the big corporations, and it may be in the form of a glitter ball hanging over a shiny floor. Glossy Entertainment television is where much of the big money is headed, and it may be the saviour of big audiences and communal viewing.
Established factual indies are building-up their own Entertainment departments and broadcasters want to replicate the kind of audiences that Strictly Come Dancing, The X Factor and Dancing On ice have commanded over the last few years. If you doubt that these formats can sell abroad, just ask multi-millionaires Simons Fuller and Simon Cowell, who have watched Pop Idol (X Factor by another name) become the dominant monster of the US television schedule.
Apparently TV wonderland has hit a blip. We keep hearing it, but are things really as bad as people keep saying? Freelancers and production companies are among those trying to work alongside the repercussions, but what if that’s no longer viable. They say those that can teach, but once you set your sights on new ventures is there really any turning back?
I can’t remember a time when freelancers weren’t being told by others that, “everyone says it’s quiet out there, but it’s supposed to pick up soon”. I’m hearing this a lot just now, and it seems so familiar that I thought I should find out whether the recession really is having an impact on freelance TV production work. So I contacted some of the other production talent heads of the larger indies to ask for their off-the-record opinions of what’s going on.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the economic climate is indeed stormy for commissions and the people who work on them. Productions are still going ahead, but they are fewer, and the competition for work is probably now tougher than I can remember since the last tangible recession in 1990-92. There are certainly many more channels and productions to work on than there were 18 years ago, but the size of the available workforce is also very much larger. People talked of giving up looking for work in the summer/autumn of 1991, and waiting for it all to get better. I hope that you won’t have to do the same.
As the government works hard to promote its Train to Gain initiative, what relevance (if any), does this hold to the TV and Film world? If training is so important why isn’t it regarded so amongst employers? This week I expose the misconceptions and ask: is it worth it?
There are two perceptions among programme-makers which seem to be at odds with reality. The first is that there isn’t much training available, and when it is available, the freelancer bears the cost of it. The second is that if you could get the right training it would give you that essential advantage when applying for the next job.
If you have ever worked within the BBC, you will know that it can be training course heaven (or purgatory, depending on your frame of mind). The corporation provides a vast range of the best television training available to anyone in the world, and often seems to place its employees on arrays of courses as a way of filling time in between production jobs. If you want a lot of training, then try to work at the BBC.
If British broadcasters are under more pressure than ever to succumb to commercial pressures, what place does documentary filmmaking hold in the commissioner’s line-up? This week, I look at whether support for documentary filmmaking is about to become a lavish extravagance of the past.
It would be interesting to know how many ProductionBase members initially pursued a career in television because you wanted to make significant documentaries which could be watched by millions. I expect that a sizable number did, regardless of the genre of production each of you have specialised in since starting out. In practice, freelancers can find themselves pigeon-holed by genre; you may have taken that job on a popular satellite shopping channel, but you took it because you were trapped by financial responsibility, not because it fulfilled your creative desires. If this is the drift which takes people away from documentary, then where is the documentary itself drifting? In UK broadcast television, the documentary world has been changing fast, and here is what I see happening.