I’ve just finished my first job since the COVID pandemic began – and its been the first time I’ve worked full-time in 5 years, give or take the odd weeks here and there. The current global pandemic is the only reason this opportunity to work full-time, at home, came my way. It was a dream I had chatted to my husband about many many times over the years..and here I was. There wasn’t even a discussion about how or where I’d work – just some login details via email.
Everyone on the team was working from home including the commissioners and heads of channels. So far, the ability to work from home in telly has to be the best thing that’s come of this discombobulating time we’re in – without question.
I wanted to share the experience for a couple of reasons. The first being that, for many parents and carers in telly, full-time work is rarely an option because of the inflexibility of attitudes when it comes to how we work and where we work from. Being away from home for 60 hours a week (on a good week) is an impossibility for many, so this job was partly as an experiment to see if I could actually manage full-time hours without travelling to an office. I could see quite quickly that being able to take on a full-time post gave me a better choice of shows to work on.
The second reason for wanting to share this experience is to report back on just how intense this period of post lockdown telly making really is. We’ve read, watched and listened for months over lockdown about the problems of working in TV and this felt like a job that would arm us (SMTJ), with a real-life insight into the demands freelancers are facing after months of unpaid downtime. Many promises for a fairer work life are being made, but can they be delivered?
When production kicked back in people would need to work harder to turn around shows quickly on budgets which would be lower than ever before. Whilst the freelancer cries of overwork, unfair contracts and lack of support have been heard and acknowledged throughout lockdown, there was also a gaping black hole of lost production and advertising revenue – a glorious catch 22.
What these past seven weeks have shown me is that there is no feasible way that the industry can change the fundamental issue of overwork for its freelancers and implement real, valuable change in many of its practices when there is no time or money to do so. Time is money and there’s none of that: so how can these promises be met?
On this particular job, what worried me from the beginning were the claims of the achievements of the production. From casting the show in a record number of weeks, to shooting on location with a tiny team of production staff. Every bit of manpower they had was thrown at post production and eventually, the show was made in line with the written schedule – somehow! As much as I don’t want a team or a production to fail, my concern was that if they could pull off an epic series in this way – what hope do we have in the future of affording people the time they need to make the best programmes? How can we justify the need for more money, more people and more care when programmes are commissioned, if this production proved that they can do it in half the time, with half the people. Surely, this is what we’ve been fighting against?
So, here’s how it went.
How I got the job:
The job came through a friend. I was given it without even knowing I’d got it, at which point I didn’t even know what the show was about, what the schedule looked like, or how I was expected to work. I was just given a start date and told that the hours would be long, at which point I thought I should confirm what the show actually was.
This was a revelation. After a frank chat with the PM about my concerns with working excessive hours I found myself in a position, for the first time in my career, where I was told to base my rate on a 12 hour day. The PM knew that the job would come with long hours so straight away, she said to just bill for a longer day.
So I did. I was contracted for 12 hour day, 5 days a week and paid for those 12 hours. This removed any reluctance to work late, I knew what to expect from day one and it made such a difference to the time I gave to the job, knowing I was being paid for it. A simple solution to make freelancers feel valued and committed to a job – don’t expect them to work for free.
In light of COVID contract clauses cropping up on many Facebook groups and via Bectu. I took the time to study my contact – something, I must admit, I don’t usually do. It made for terrifying reading. In brief, there were three clauses that stated I must work whatever hours needed to complete the job, voluntarily (work for free – in my contract?!). I was not allowed to have any other work commitment, which meant the company had first call on me at all times during that contract. So, say I did have a Saturday job – I’d have to cancel that paid job to work on this production, for FREE. It also stated that I should have no other commitments or activities that meant I wasn’t available at all times to the production. I argued that my kids had swimming lessons and gymnastic classes in the diary at the weekend, so did that mean I wouldn’t be able to take them to these for 7 weeks? This was despite the fact I’d clearly stated I work on a 5 day contract. I argued all of these points and swiftly had the contract amended and these clauses removed – without hesitation. So: don’t be afraid of questioning these clauses. Without doing PMs down, half of the time they’ll be too busy to be aware of the details of any contract. .
As an EP, I have to manage the workload of the editors (and myself!) and manage the story that’s coming out of all of those suites. Most of my days were spent on the phone to each editor talking about scenes and scripts and trying to keep the pace up. Luckily, I had tremendous editors but still – it was a job in itself just keeping in touch with them. Once the working day had finished for them, I’d have to continue well into the night to get the script written for all parts (each editor was working on one of 4 parts). If I didn’t have this ready for them the next day and an idea of what they needed to do then we’d be behind before we even started so there was rarely an evening I finished work before midnight.
I was told I had a 10 week edit for one ep – great you think? This 10 week edit was in fact 5 weeks with 2 suites. There were 6 full days of almost continuous footage to trawl through to cut an ep which had no set format and present it to the channel in 3 weeks time. It quickly became clear that this was impossible, as not only was there an extraordinary amount of footage to go through, there were also 3 channel viewings to get ready for within those 5 weeks, and a couple of exec viewings thrown in. So, I was quickly given a 3rd suite. For the entirety of the 5 weeks I had at least 3 editors to manage – in the final week, I had 4 suites to run for one single episode.
The problem here is that this set-up is becoming a common way of churning out shows quickly in the edit, with no understanding of the role of the Edit Producer in all of these colourful spreadsheets which say it works.
There was a relentless stream of notes after getting a rough cut ready in 3 weeks (a polished rough cut!). It was frantic, editors were being pulled from pillar to post to get cuts out to the channel on time, as the TX date was looming and so there was no room for pushing back on viewings. Parts were being pulled and passed between episodes on a daily basis as the format was bashed out whilst 5 edits were running concurrently.. Cuts were flying off to the channel without being watched and considered internally. There were thousands of notes, THOUSANDS.
The final week of each episode is when it would go to ‘the finish’. What was happening in the finish was offline work, re-cuts of parts and re-structures within 3 days, another fine cut viewing and more notes to picture lock in 2 days. The finish editor worked two 90 hour weeks, along with a second editor – are you getting the gyst of the pressure? It was unrelenting for everyone. At one point, there was an editor employed to work overnight in Canada to pick up the changes. Nobody had time to breath, nobody had time to sit back and ‘watch’ what they had made and everyone just worked through a flurry of notes and changes.
I must say, amidst all of the mayhem, I did enjoy the job. I worked with a great team of very talented, professional people! Everyone was in the same boat and everyone believed that we had the makings of an excellent series.
Working from home:
I still marvel at how this show was made, through zooms and whatsapp groups from home offices across the country. After a pretty simple set-up – I was able to dial in via a VPN to the AVID. I didn’t upgrade my broadband and I didn’t have many problems. There was a lag in the afternoon which was pretty frustrating – sometimes my AVID would just keel over. What was more frustrating was that at the end of my second week, I realised that this was down to the endless episodes of ‘Dengineers’ being watched by my kids downstairs when they got back from school. Part of me had the old school thought that it must be ‘America coming online’ in the afternoon – it wasn’t – it was just CBBC demolishing the bandwidth! The kids did a lot of craft-based activities for the remainder of my contract – another post-COVID life benefit.
The basic maths of my working day did throw up a massive problem. I was contracted to work 12 hours. Take 1.5 hours off for ‘breaks’ and that left 10.5 hours of physical work for me to get through each day. One of the wonderful, imagined perks of working from home as a parent, is that we can realise that dream of ‘putting the kids to bed’. Even if we’re working all day, we can spare that time to bathe and bed the little ones and reconnect after their day – making up for the lost hours whilst working.
What I forgot was that bedtime for an almost 4 and 6 year old can take bloody HOURS. On average, 2 hours of my time evaporated each day. That was in addition to the 2 hours in the morning it takes waking, feeding, dressing and delivering these little people to their education places. At best I could start work at 8.45 – add a 12 hour working day to that, a really shit bedtime routine, a lot of interruptions from kids showing me cartwheels or fighting about pencils in my ‘office’ and you can see why I worked until midnight most days.
Working from home means that you almost always have an ear on what’s happening with your children – they can fight, cry, fight and cry a bit more and you hear all of it, poised at the door wondering when you should step in or even if you should step in. A trip downstairs was never quick – you’d get caught with battling children for at least half an hour. I learned quickly to take all snacks and meals upstairs with me and never, ever ‘pop’ down to see them – what you think is 5 minutes can quite quickly become an hour of negotiation just to get back out of the room – throwing Kinder Eggs at them just so you can retreat. I tended to kids or worked, from 6.30am until midnight, on repeat but – I got paid for most of the hours I worked and that was a very settling feeling!
The other risk you run in this COVD era of telly making is the virus itself. You can be trucking along fine until the dreaded message comes from the school. Mine was “the music teacher has tested positive”. Right, shit, OK, fine – now I have this schedule to contend with as well as an almost 6 year old to homeschool and keep occupied throughout the day. So, the little lady set up a desk in my office and we schooled away whilst making a post watershed reality show full of “shits” and “fucks” blasting out of my laptop whilst she was on a google meet lesson with the rest of her class.
There was one point, a week in, when she asked me a question every 24 seconds, the doorbell rang every 30 minutes, I got a call from nursery as my youngest had told them that someone in the house had ‘Rona-Virus’ – they wanted to know why I’d sent a child in when there was COVID in the house (he’s 3, they didn’t fact check – just accused me of endangering everyone there)..all this whilst on Zooms to my Exec and speaking to 3 editors, on a loop. I did think, at that moment, that I might actually have that Michael Douglas ‘Falling Down’ moment. It was too much – all of it – the workload, the stress, the 14 day isolation period. It was completely bonkers.
What got me through these ‘tricky’ periods was being able to talk openly to other people with caring commitments on my team. There was a great sense of openness that I’ve never experienced before. Replies to questions with “sorry, putting kids to bed”… “Just having dinner, back in an hour”, “walking the dog, back soon”, “I’m off on a date, finishing early”. I found these open claims to personal time so refreshing. I think previously the fear within our industry was that we couldn’t be trusted to work if we were not present in an office. On this contract I had no idea if anyone was actually sat at a desk working, I just had to trust that everyone got through their workload as and how they needed to. And of course, they did.
COVID had a huge financial impact on our household, and I knew that to get through it, I needed to work full-time for at least the next year to help get us out of the hole that COVID created, but working in this way, for months on end, just isn’t sustainable. My feeling is that this job was exceptionally tough, or at least I hope it isn’t indicative of the new way productions are running. I fear it is. I fear that none of us are really speaking out about it as we were all so grateful to be working and are hoping that things will level out soon. So many people are out of work, struggling to feed their families and have had their livelihoods obliterated overnight – so we find ourselves eternally grateful for the chance to be working and earning, and we’re putting ourselves in shit situations because there isn’t another way.
The benefit of freelancing is that the end is always in sight. Just a matter of weeks or days to get through and normality will be restored. But it’s the nature of short-term contracts that causes the problem of overwork. “I’ll see you when this job is over”..”It’s only a couple of months, I can get through it”. Your whole life stops for the job and although it’s only a short period of time, it’s important time and the loss of it impacts the people around you. That’s the shit bit. Someone is always willing to wave goodbye to their life for a few months because it’s the ‘nature of the job’ so we continue to suck it up and carry on. It really is a tricky career to navigate.
Pressures for Production Companies
I felt particularly sorry for the production company. Everyone worked so hard and everyone chipped in. I don’t know anything about the budget but I can only assume that they didn’t make a profit. The editors’ overtime bill alone would have made sure of that. It’s public knowledge that production budgets have been slashed and this company paid all of their freelancers well, so I’m not sure they would have anything left.
In the hope of securing a second series, they worked flat out to deliver the series on time and did whatever that took to make it happen. If I was an indie owner, I know that I wouldn’t reject any budget at the moment, especially if it gave the hope of future work and more commissions. They just can’t say no, to any of it – the turnaround, the deadline, the notes, the schedule regardless of the strain it puts on their staff. So the cycle continues.
Thinking about the money that was spent on this series alone – do broadcasters have to speculate to accumulate? Do they have to allow more time to make a better product, which will then help them accumulate loyalty from viewers, which leads to greater advertising revenue, which leads to better budgets? Is it that simple? Do they need to be braver with their ideas and output – spending the time to take more risks rather than to churn out over-used formats that have a proven success? Twitter tells me that viewers don’t want the same old cliches. Viewers are savvy and see through the forced format points, which pushes them to leave the show early in search of something more satisfying, leading to lost advertising revenues which perpetuates the cycle of tighter, insufficient budgets.
A COVID Conclusion
TV is full of wildly creative people with ideas and stories who aren’t being given the chance to help create new shows. It seems that everyone is in panic mode. A state that hinders creativity. Everyone is either flat out or forgotten. The same people are being pulled in to churn out more stuff. There is a sea of untouched talent out there waiting for work. The busiest freelancers are now busier than ever – the pressure to turn around quickly means that teams are being made up of those who the management know.
Whilst COVID has pushed us forward in terms of flexible working in TV, it has also taken a huge step back. It takes time and money to fix all of the pressing problems. But we’re all burning ourselves because of our gratitude and empty bank accounts. I can’t complain about this job – I knew it was going to be demanding in terms of the hours and turnaround and I loved the work I did. Even after campaigning for 5 years to make life better and fairer for freelancers, I find myself in a position where I’m accepting all of the age-old problems because I have no choice but to work and I know that many people are desperate to earn money. I know there are many productions, managers and broadcasters doing a great job and trying their best to create a healthy working environment, but whilst the industry remains unregulated – the exploitation of labour remains real and almost unavoidable if the broadcasters don’t begin to understand how the pressure of their commissioning filters down.
There is no time to employ fairer working practice – so the issues of employment diversity, inclusion, exploitation, poor mental health, low rates and budgets and unacceptable work-life balance are worse than ever. The voice freelancers had during lockdown has quickly faded. Nobody wants to rock that boat of unemployment, not now..we’re just grateful to be working. I know I am.
All of this aside, I believe that the Covid era reality of working from home, full-time, whilst managing your caring commitments and everything else that goes with being an adult in 2020 is a success. For my own experience, despite the excessive hours on this job, I have been able to manage full-time work for the first time since having children which even allows me to think about my own career progression. Something that halted when my first baby came along.
Even interviews and meetings are so much easier. A chat on Zoom now replaces a half day trip to central London. As the location of the work becomes less of an issue, so there are many opportunities to come out of post COVID Telly. I always go back to my favourite quote by Arundhati Roy:
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
This blog isn’t written at the detriment to the production company I worked with, the channel they were working for, or the team I was part of. I worked with a wonderfully talented team of dedicated and passionate people who gave everything they had to turn a brand new series in a matter of weeks. This is an honest account of what it was like, the reality of reality TV in the post-COVID era and the problems that are causing more problems.