Can poor working conditions in factual TV be controlled?

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Are working conditions really that bad in factual TV? And if so, how can they be controlled? These were some of the issues raised at BECTU’s Blood, Sweat & TV debate, part of the union’s campaign Say No to Exploitation in TV.

Taking place at the RADA Studios in London on Monday 18 March, the debate was chaired by Broadcast editor Lisa Campbell, with speakers Nick Catliff (founder of Lion Television), Nick Curwin (founder of The Garden), David Henshaw (founder of Hardcash Productions) and Diarmuid Jeffreys (commissioner at Al Jazeera).

The debate follows up from BECTU’s survey into working conditions in factual TV, which earlier this year revealed enduring freelancer concerns about long hours, low budgets and rest times.

Is the unpredictability of factual TV manageable?

Why is factual the problematic area in TV and not, say, drama? BECTU assistant general secretary Martin Spence said: “With drama, you’ve got a script, you’ve got performers, you’ve got access to locations; you’ve got a whole number of factors that have to work to a tight schedule and know exactly what you’re going out to get.  But with factual, you’re often flying by the seat of your pants and the genre is far less predictable.”

Production companies can indeed put a system in place on their production to make working conditions the best they can be, as is shown by The Garden’s 24 Hours in A&E, which learnt from their mistakes while shooting series one and two.

Although unpredictability is a big part of factual, which can result in poor conditions such as long working hours, 24 Hours in A&E shows it can be controlled.

Despite filming a single series for 45 days straight, the indie does have a system in place to prevent poor working conditions for its 170 strong freelancers. The series’ creator, Nick Curwin, explained the production works according to a shift pattern for each freelancer, consisting of eight hours per shift. When the shift is over, that person goes home.

The Garden also produces a welcome pack to new starters, clarifying that if an employee has any concerns they should flag them, highlighting again that communication is key when it comes to these matters.

How can poor working conditions be improved?

It was clear from the debate that there will always remain circumstances in TV which can make working conditions tough at times, and it was even accepted that this is how the industry works. But what BECTU is trying to do is introduce some form of control over the unpredictability which causes these poor working conditions.

Therefore BECTU recommends a code of practice to be put in place. The code would theoretically include eight different points, such as a maximum working day of 11 hours and having two days off each week.

But this code was not the only solution offered during the debate. Al Jazeera suggested that a type of ‘gold standard’ system could be introduced, where evidence of good standards is rewarded. Turning certain production companies into ‘preferred employers’.

Another, slightly darker, suggestion from the audience was naming and shaming. However, the panel weren’t keen on using defamation as a way to combat the issue despite their dedication to better working conditions in the industry.

The Future

It’s reassuring to know that there are production companies that do feel strongly about poor working conditions, and are doing everything they can to address them. The sad news is that these companies are in the minority.

Take into consideration the amount of companies which didn’t respond to BECTU’s original survey, or never bothered turning up to last night’s debate, shows there’s a long way to go before poor working conditions in factual TV are a thing of the past.


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