What is a Series Producer?
Series Producers, or SPs, have overall responsibility for making programmes happen. They begin work at the pre-production stage and work right through until the series is delivered for transmission. It’s a senior editorial role and particularly important when different directors are making individual episodes, as they are responsible for making sure the overall editorial and narrative structures, as well as the creative look-and-feel of the series, are achieved and maintained.
A Day in the Life of a Series Producer
The Series Producer is usually one of the first people to join a new production and they use their contacts and experience to recruit the best possible production team. They often approach Directors, Producers and Assistant Producers they’ve worked with on previous productions. A Series Producer’s team can vary in size and specialisms, depending on the type of production. They may need an Archive Producer for a history documentary, for example, or a Casting Producer to run a large casting team for a talent show, or a team experienced in live programming.
Series Producers manage the editorial team and make all the content decisions, including which on-screen contributors, such as actors, presenters or experts, should be put forward to the channel’s commissioners (who usually have the final say). They drive all research, edit all scripts and oversee filming in the studio or on location, in the UK and abroad. It’s their job to create a good working environment and they constantly communicate with everyone involved to help the production run smoothly. Series Producers also have the ultimate legal responsibilities for the health and safety of the team and anyone involved in the making of their series.
In our latest Word of Mouth, we catch up with Series Producer and Edit Producer, Julian Dismore, on his career to date, including falling off a volcano, being biten by snakes, and going undercover.
How did you get your big break, and what was your first job in TV?
After graduating from Uni, I went into the careers office and naively asked where the ‘TV jobs file’ was. Once the career officer had stopped laughing, she told me that Yorkshire TV had called that very morning looking for a Researcher for the ITV Science Department.
I applied for the job and was invited for interview, but noted the address down wrong! Consequently, I turned up late and thinking I’d blown it I joked my way through the entire interview. The interviewer found me funny and pretty much on the spot he offered me the job in front of the other 84 candidates for the post!
In this edition of Word of Mouth, we talk to Grierson-shortlisted Series Producer & Series Director, Colin Rothbart, about his career highlights, including a six-year self-funded documentary project, enjoying the locations on Holiday, and catching slugs for The Big Breakfast.
How did you first become a filmmaker, and what would you say was your first big break?
I definitely took the long hard route, as I didn’t know anyone in the industry. From the age of 16, I’d done unpaid work experience at The Sun and Time Out in my school holidays and then luckily got a job as a hospitality runner at TV-am, making tea for everyone from Kylie to Thatcher. This would have been great if it had lasted – but TV-am lost their franchise six months later! So I suppose my first big break after studying at uni and doing a Journalism postgraduate degree was as a Runner again on The Big Breakfast.
You were shortlisted for a Grierson Award for your self-funded documentary, Dressed As A Girl. How did that project come about?
That was something I did in my spare time over six years. I had many friends on the alternative arts scene in East London, so one of them said we should be documenting this for posterity – so I did! But with no funding and a full-time job, it took a while to come to fruition. In the end, the fact it was filmed over six years meant the storylines had much more substance. It’s played around the world in film festivals and is currently on Netflix.
In this edition of Word of Mouth we talk to Producer and Series Producer, Silvia Sacco, about her work on shows including Italy Unpacked, and the BAFTA-nominated Art Of… strand.
What is a typical working day for you as a series producer?
That depends which phase of the production we’re in. At the very beginning, reading a lot and meeting possible directors, and meeting with the commissioners to understand what they expect. In the middle, scripting with the directors, talking to possible contributors, working with the researchers, fixers etc. Then on location (I am on location most of the time) while filming, following by viewings in the edit and also fully editing at least one of the films in the series at the end.
You graduated with a master’s degree in Philosophy & Ethics. What made you want to pursue a career in filmmaking?
Good TV is the best tool to democratise culture! There is no point in studying a lot if you are going to spend the rest of your life keeping it to yourself or communicating it with only a few people from a similar background.
This week, BAFTA-nominated Series Producer, Jo Bishop, discusses her career in television.
What made you want to specialise in making Factual Entertainment television and Observational Documentaries?
I started out in radio, making documentaries and social action campaigns for younger audiences on Radio 1. It wasn’t just the subject matter that needed to capture their attention but the approach. When I moved to TV seven years later, my style of programme making seemed to fit across both camps – entertainment and factual.
Amongst many other accolades, you have received two BAFTA nominations. What are the key skills involved when trying to convey a compelling story?
I don’t think I will ever stop learning from others and trying to improve on my storytelling skills, but I think compelling factual storytelling works in the same way as fiction. You need a unique angle or focus, a story that works on a number of levels, emotional drama and an element of surprise with twists and turns as the story unfolds. In observational docs you should be able to able to peel back your characters to enable the audience to make some emotional connection or at the very least have some understanding so they want to find out more.
TV & Me with Series Producer Michael Waterhouse, whose credits include The British, Secret Homes and Art of the Sea. Michael has just finished The Bible, a hugely ambitious ten-part dramatisation for The History Channel.
What was it made you want to pursue a career in television?
The career I’ve had is a long way from Rawhide, but if there was a seed, I think it was watching westerns as a kid, and being enthralled by the landscapes and the gunfights. Landscapes have featured quite heavily in my subsequent documentary career. Gunfights not so much.
How did your television career start, what was your first big break?
I had an odd entry into television. After university, I joined the Community Service Volunteers, which seconded me as a general assistant (a ‘Runner’ now) to HELP!, a local social action programme produced by Thames Television. That was the foot in the door. From there, I had two distinct breaks. In those days, it was extremely difficult to get a researcher’s job in ITV without an ACTT ticket and the Catch-22 was that you needed to work on a production to join the union. Occasionally, there were vacancies for non-union applicants. I went for any that came up, and after about six months, I was lucky enough to be given a researcher’s job on This Is Your Life. My interest was in documentary-making, but TIYL, to some people’s surprise, gave you a very good grounding in factual research. A year later, I applied to be a reporter on an ITV afternoon arts magazine called Afternoon Plus. I didn’t get the job, but the head of that department invited me to apply for the post of Producer of Religion & Arts – and that was the ‘big break’.