Television’s freelance workforce is suffering mentally and financially from the impact of the pandemic.
The coronavirus outbreak has left much of the television workforce idle, with most TV production suspended since March. Freelancers, who account for 100,000 of the total TV and film workforce of 180,000, have been dealt the rawest of deals. They have been hit hardest by the lockdown – 93% are out of work, according to The Film and TV Charity.
Worse, according to the charity’s CEO, Alex Pumfrey: “Three-quarters of freelancers working within the television sector have been unable to access the Government’s employment and self-employment support schemes.”
Financial woes have exacerbated the mental-health problems that were already known to affect so many TV workers before the pandemic. Mental ill health is widespread. The Film and TV Charity says almost nine in every 10 people in the industry have experienced problems, compared with 65% in the UK population as a whole.
Covid-19 has made a bad situation worse. “Research done across the UK has shown a huge spike in anxiety and depression around 24 March,” revealed Pumfrey. She was one of the panellists at an online event, hosted by the RTS and The Film and TV Charity in June, which asked whether the industry has been doing enough to keep its people safe and well.
The prospects for young people trying to break into television appear particularly bleak, certainly in the short term.
RTS bursary student Charlie McMorine, who had finished university and was awaiting his results, said the Covid-19 crisis had been extremely stressful: “For us, as graduates, we don’t know when we will be able to make our break into the industry. We don’t know how to move forward.”
The Film and TV Charity unveiled some sobering research at the event. The most common words used by freelancers to describe their treatment by the industry, said Pumfrey, were “disposable” and “expendable”.
Bullying, she noted, was still “incredibly prevalent”. Partly, this reflected the culture of an industry that valued “toughness” and praised people for “earning their stripes”. She added: “This idea that you should tough it out when you are being badly treated is very commonplace.”
Worst of all, Pumfrey claimed that “more than half of people working in the industry have considered taking their own life”.
Philippa Childs, head of broadcasting union Bectu, said the charity’s research was “shocking”, but added: “I can’t say I’m surprised by these findings.
“We know that there were real problems prior to Covid-19 and we all know that those problems are only going to be exacerbated in the current situation.
“From our research, lots of people have had to rely on loans and borrowing from family; they’ve lost their homes… because they simply haven’t had the financial support.
“There is a great deal of anger out there [among] the freelance workforce.”
Lisa Opie, MD of UK production at BBC Studios, found grounds for optimism, however, as the industry prepared to resume full production. “What I’ve been really encouraged by is that I’ve seen more collaboration and joined-up thinking across our industry than ever before… on how to return to work safely,” she said.
“We are in an industry that is built on insecurity, with freelancers working from project to project,” admitted Kelly Webb-Lamb, deputy director of programmes at Channel 4. “That, in itself, is a very difficult way to work and has always meant that certain people are better able to access the industry than others.”
Like Opie, though, Webb-Lamb saw a brighter future. The coronavirus crisis, she said, had highlighted structural problems within the industry and was bringing it “together to tackle [them]”.
The “informality of the industry” she said, held some people back because advancement was “so much based on who you know. That informality has gone as a result of this virus, because we are all talking to each either like this [via Zoom], and you can’t go for lunch or drinks.
“We can use the [crisis] as a catalyst for change.
“We have to question whether expecting young people to sidle up to powerful people at drinks events is the right way to help them get into the industry. I don’t think that’s the way that we’re going to get an industry that’s diverse and representative, and young, exciting, vibrant and creative.”
Charlie McMorine agreed, adding that meeting industry execs in person could be “daunting” for university students. “Sessions like this are really helping build connections for people like myself,” he said.
Discussing the return to making TV, Opie said that while, in the short term, “there might be fewer people involved”, in the longer-term, “the production sector will continue to be vibrant”.
BBC Studios, she said, had “paused” 82 productions in March, but had continued working on 28. “Hold the faith: we will return to production – not as fast as I’d like, but we will.”
Coronavirus hit Channel 4 harder than other broadcasters. TV advertising, which sustains the channel, collapsed when the UK went into lockdown in late March.
“We lost hundreds of hours of content overnight and have taken a £150m cut to our content budget, along with huge cuts across the rest of the channel. We’ve also had to draw down on £75m of borrowing,” said Webb-Lamb. “We’ve faced a pretty stark year.
“The very best thing we can do for freelancers and the industry is to continue to commission. Despite the challenges we are facing, we have ring-fenced money to continue to commission this year.”
Programme tariffs were lower, she admitted, but “we still have the same number of hours on telly. We are working out how to fill our schedule with a significantly lower budget this year.
“We need to get back to work. And we need to work out how we can make a full range of shows, starting as soon as possible, to ensure we can get people back to work across the industry, from scripted to unscripted, from fast-turnaround shows to big reality shows.
“The protocols we are using for the shows that go into production or restart production this year will be robust enough to continue whatever happens with the virus, so we don’t end up having to stop everything again.”
Bectu’s Childs called for “a new deal for freelancers”. She emphasised: “We don’t just want to return to things as they were before the crisis.”
RTS bursary student McMorine said he and his fellow graduates needed “more knowledge about what happens next. A lot of people coming out of university are terrified at the thought of freelancing. Now, they have been put off it completely because of Covid and having seen what’s happened to freelancers in the industry during this time.”
He wanted “more information, more conversation with industry experts”.
The Film and TV Charity’s Pumfrey said that, as well as the obvious health benefits, there was also a business case for looking after people’s mental health. “This isn’t a cost,” she insisted, highlighting research from Deloitte earlier this year, which found that “there is a £5 return for every £1 you invest in mental health”.
“[TV] budgets will be constrained, but that cannot be at the expense of the welfare of our people. In fact, that should be at the top of the list.”
Report by Matthew Bell. ‘Are you staying safe and well? Mental wellbeing in the TV industry during Covid-19 and beyond’ was hosted by the RTS and The Film and TV Charity on 9 June. Paul Robinson, director of the consultancy Creative Media Partners, chaired the online event, which was produced by Terry Marsh and Jonathan Simon.