Inside the U.K.’s ‘Unprecedented’ Unscripted Work Drought

2022 was a gangbuster year for the U.K.’s unscripted TV sector. Rates soared as productions struggled to find crew such as editors and producer-directors because of the sheer amount of work available. “You were fighting over staff,” said one producer with almost 20 years experience, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

This year, he says, is the complete opposite. WhatsApp and Facebook groups are awash with freelancers desperately searching for a gig. Some have been out of work for months and, in a few cases, since last year. They are terrified about how to pay their rent or mortgages. Many have applied for government welfare. Others have taken work outside television until things pick up. Those who haven’t left the industry already are considering it.

“For a lot of people, this is a dire situation,” says James Taylor, a series producer in factual entertainment and co-chair of the unscripted branch at Bectu, Britain’s broadcasting and crew union. (The unscripted branch, which was launched only three years ago as a result of the pandemic, is comprised of production and editorial freelancers but not camera, sound or other roles, who have their own branches.)

The dearth of roles is so critical that two weeks ago Taylor proposed a motion at Bectu’s annual conference directing the union to “publicly declare an emergency in the freelance TV community.” It passed unanimously.

So how did 2023 turn into an unscripted disaster? As Bectu were ratifying Taylor’s emergency motion on May 14, some 200 miles away on the other side of the U.K., executives were gathering in Cardiff for the annual Wales Screen Summit. Among the speakers were Channel 5 boss Ben Frow, who admitted the network was pausing commissions to “save money” for its fall and Christmas schedules while Channel 4 CCO Ian Katz also acknowledged that the “Great British Bake Off” broadcaster had “slowed down the pace” of commissioning.

Part of the reason they’ve been able to hit the breaks is because COVID, as with many industries, disrupted the unscripted supply chain. “With the pandemic hitting, [networks] all worked out that the shelves were pretty bare and commissioned loads of stuff,” explains producer John McVay, who is also CEO of producers body Pact. “Loads of stuff has been delivered, and most of it’s not been played out yet.”

Steve Wynne, founder of production company Strawberry Blond, is experiencing exactly such a catch-22. His company delivered a popular series to one of the public service broadcasters (PSBs) last year which, due to scheduling, likely won’t air until this summer. But the PSB won’t confirm a recommission until it airs. While Strawberry Blond is small and nimble enough to survive the downturn, Wynne says, “I think there’s a lot of indies panicking.”

It isn’t only a COVID backlog that has resulted in commissioners bringing down the shutters: ad-revenue is down for commercial broadcasters, subscribers are down for streamers, the BBC has had its license fee frozen. Then there’s the crippling cost of living crisis to consider. (ITV and the BBC declined to comment on their commissioning strategy for this story but sources at both networks maintained they had not slowed down commissioning. A source for the BBC did confirm they were commissioning fewer hours while the ITV source said much of the ITVX commissioning was focused on scripted.)

Chris, a development executive who asked that Variety use only his first name, spent eight months working at an indie company specializing in high-end docs. As the work trickled to a halt this year, however, he was let go. He has since moved into branded content. The lack of commissions “is enormously depressing,” Chris says.

Variety spoke to almost two dozen individuals involved in unscripted television — from freelancers with decades of experience to those who joined the industry recently as well as production companies, unions and commissioners — to ascertain the scale of the problem. The issue, many say, is both acute in that commissions have ground to a halt, as well as holistic: The very structure of the industry, with its increasingly intense peaks and dips, is incompatible with maintaining the physical and mental wellbeing of staff that broadcasters claim to care about.

“All the risk is put on the freelancers and none of it is put on the broadcasters or the production companies,” says another freelance producer who specializes in docs but has increasingly taken on reality TV work to pay her bills. (She asked Variety to withhold her name for fear of reprisal.)

Traditionally, the four months between November and February are the quietest for unscripted. “If you finish [a contract] in the winter you’re pretty vulnerable,” says the anonymous producer of 20 years. Freelancers, aware of this, try to squirrel some of their fees away throughout the year to see them through to March, when productions start crewing up again.

What has frightened them, however, is that almost six months into 2023, things still haven’t picked up.

After a flurry of intensive cold emails, production coordinator Angela Giblin joined the industry in 2021. In her first two years she didn’t spend more than ten days out of work and, having achieved some financial security, Giblin and her husband finally went on a long-awaited honeymoon, seven years in the making, at the end of January. “I finally [felt] like I’m in a place where we can spend that money,” she says. Giblin was comforted by the fact that she would return to work in February. But she didn’t. “[There was] nothing in March, nothing in April and now we’re in May.” In order to pay her bills, she took a backstage theater job on a cruise ship. “I lived in a box for a month,” she says.

Giblin is not the only freelancer who has resorted to looking for jobs outside TV to make ends meet. Bectu unscripted co-chair James Taylor says he stumbled across one conversation in an online PD group where freelancers were openly discussing their non-TV jobs. They included gardening, photography, caring and even the military reserves. “I’m like, ‘Hang on a minute. People now are just actively saying they don’t see TV as a full time job.’ That is a big problem for our industry,” says Taylor.

Variety spoke to ten freelancers (including Giblin) for this article. Two had pivoted to branded content, two had applied for government welfare, three were applying for casual work in hospitality and at temp agencies, one – a very experienced PD who had planned to step up to series producer before the work drought – had taken a junior role edit producing, and the tenth said he had been fortunate to secure a role as a producer on a long-running returning show, which he was clinging onto.

Unsurprisingly, the few jobs available have become “crazily competitive,” says the docs-turned-reality show PD. One role she applied for had 800 applicants; another had 200. “It’s 2009 quiet,” she explains, alluding to the economic crash of 2008/2009. Back then, she recalls, she went back to waitressing until TV work picked up. This time she’s applying for government assistance and renting out her spare room on AirBnB.

“It’s just relentless how little is happening,” says a PD specializing in single-camera docs who asked to remain anonymous. “This is normally the peak time.” He says that in one WhatsApp group with around 500 PDs, the majority seem to be out of work. And even those who are fortunate enough to line up a job can’t necessarily rely on it. The PD says he turned down other work to commit to a nine-month contract on a factual series. But after failing to secure a commission, the production was canned. “What would be nice is if we heard from the broadcasters what is actually happening,” he says.

Meanwhile, the few productions moving forward are contending with shrinking budgets. The CEO of one indie production company who asked to remain anonymous said he was increasingly being forced to combine production roles, such as director, producer, DOP and even edit producer. “In previous eras where we would maybe employ two or three people, we’re now employing one,” he tells Variety.

It’s an admission that may anger freelancers but the CEO says he has no choice. As an example, he cites a show that was recommissioned by a broadcaster: on Season 2, they gave him the same amount of money as the first, which didn’t account for inflation. Then the distributor revealed it was putting less money in than it had for Season 1. All of which means the second season is being made with a far lower budget and yet there’s still “an expectation that editorial standards will improve,” he says.

Which is partly why there is so much frustration with commissioners. Channel 5 boss Ben Frow’s comments at the Screen Summit were met with fury among freelancers. (Frow said: “We’ve got to hang around for three months or so, tread water for a little bit, do some development, have a few conversations, thinking time is no bad thing.”)

“It’s all very well for these guys to be saying, ‘We just need to hold our breaths.’ Well if you do that long enough, you’ll die,” says production coordinator Angela Giblin. Another producer says Frow’s comments were “tone deaf.”

What’s especially frustrating is broadcasters aren’t giving any indication as to when things might pick up again. Pact CEO McVay says he’s been asking them about their commissioning strategy since the beginning of the year: “If we’re going to see a slowdown can you just publicly come out and say that because then everyone knows where they stand, and make it clear when you’ll be commissioning again for going into next year.”

For freelancers, that information could make the difference between hanging on or turning their back on the industry forever.

Researcher Amy Feller, who made the jump from PR into TV during COVID, says she has already had to consider whether to abandon her dreams of making documentaries. “I definitely had a moment the other day where I was like, ‘Eek, should I be thinking about a career change?’ but I feel like I’ve only just started. I’m not going to do that,” she says.

The producer, who is renting out her spare room on AirBnB, says she’s actively trying to move into drama, where producers are “much better treated,” she says.

Meanwhile one producer turned barman says he is considering re-training as a paramedic. “I think it’s being informed about what’s happening next so I can either make a decision to take a step out of television and do something else or concentrate on finding something for the next six months until the industry starts picking up,” he says. “But it feels like we’re being left in the dark.”

That so many freelancers at all levels are considering abandoning TV should raise alarm bells for production companies, broadcasters and streamers who have long claimed there is a critical skills shortage in the U.K., especially in unscripted. While McVay is bullish about the current work drought – “We’ve been here before, this is a cyclical thing in our industry” – it is precisely that feast or famine cycle that is at the heart of the issue.

Intensely busy periods and long hours are often caused by compressed schedules, which are seen as a way to save money. But as schedules are compressed into increasingly smaller, overlapping periods they cause a skills shortage and wage inflation – driving up costs and resulting in a scramble to recruit. During quiet periods, crew leave the industry, many permanently, which contributes to the skills shortage. As things pick up, inexperienced staff are thrown into more senior roles, which can end up costing more money if something goes wrong. “Often what we do as program-makers isn’t quantifiable,” says Bectu unscripted co-chair James Taylor. “You can’t put on a spreadsheet what the value of a creative decision is.”

Both Taylor and his co-chair Viki Carter would like to see representatives from across the industry – freelancers, Pact and the PSBs – sit down together to look at the problem holistically. They suggest spreading productions out throughout the year, more paid development in quiet periods or paid training courses. Anything that “keeps the wheels moving and keeps people’s incomes coming in,” says Taylor.

In the meantime, it’s easy to wonder why freelancers are willing to put up with so much uncertainty. For many, the answer is simple. “I love going to work,” the producer on the long-running returning series says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. Which is probably a bit scary because I don’t know whether I will be able to do it forever.”

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