Landing a job in British Television would be considered by most to be a real prize. The industry has long since been associated with decent wages, prestige, and glamour. It’s no surprise then that thousands of young people compete to get into the industry each year. But the industry is hiding a dirty secret. Many of these young applicants, who have often gone to great effort and expense to gain media degrees, are given their first job in the industry paying them… wait for it… £0.00. That’s right. Nothing!
Over the past decade, as budgets have shrunk in an ever more competitive market, privately owned production companies, collectively known as the independent sector, have been cheating applicants into accepting unpaid ‘work experience’ positions. Lured by the shallow promise of ‘promotion’ later down the line, ‘work experiencers’ are often held for many months before being offered paid work. In many cases companies never offer them pay at all.
Many are forced to work extremely long hours doing mundane tasks, like photocopying, moving heavy tape machines, or transcribing interviews. One 23-year-old researcher who wished to remain anonymous stated, "No one is going to take you on without experience. So you just put up with it, hope you get a job at the end of it and keep your mouth shut in the meantime." This is not work experience. It’s free labour. Companies are clearly abusing the fact that there is an overabundance of applicants.
Unpaid jobs are now routinely advertised on trade websites, with one company causing an outcry by requiring applicants to pay for work placements. Other jobs offer less than the minimum wage. One company posted an ad on a well-known website asking for "an amazingly keen runner for 18 weeks. Previous experience of filming, research, office admin, post-production, client liaison is essential. Must have driving license. Region: Soho. Salary: £200 per week."
Paul, a 25-year-old runner with three years’ experience who worked on a major terrestrial reality series for one of the big independents was expected to work a minimum of 10 hours a day for six days a week. "It later ended up being 11-13 hours, and in the prep week 15 or 16 hours including weekends," he says. "I was being paid £275 per week”.
A senior staff producer at a large independent who asked not to be identified states, "It’s common knowledge that big companies are undercutting each other by paying nil or starvation wages. The bottom line is that by cutting corners with junior staff you can cream off more of the production budget as profit."
This is destabilising the whole industry. Cheap labour in the private sector has become an irresistible lure for the BBC management. Director General Mark Thompson plans to dramatically increase the amount of production bought in from outside the corporation. As far as they’re concerned, why pay decent wages to BBC staff when you can get it done on the cheap in the private sector?
Driving down Quality
This process is also driving down the quality of TV programmes. Aside from the obvious impact of smaller budgets, these ‘work experiencers’ are not receiving proper training. Companies are substituting investing in future talent for immediate profit.
It’s also impacting on society too. Many of these ‘work experiencers’ are forced to stay living with their parents rent-free. In other words, parents are subsidising our TV industry! Of course, families on low incomes could never afford to do this, so kids from working class backgrounds often never make it into the industry. Therefore TV lacks diversity. It tends to have a middle to upper class character.
Upper Class Character
With precious little done by the government, the solution is for working people to organise and fight back. That’s exactly what’s happening. The ‘TV Wrap’ campaign set up by a collective of workers in the industry has started to effect some change. Supported by the broadcasting union BECTU, the campaign has submitted petitions to government, and has successfully pressurized some of the offending companies into paying proper wages. But to effect fundamental change we need to address the root cause.
Competition for Profit
It’s competition for profit that has led to this recent exploitation of ‘work experiencers’. It’s also responsible for driving down wages and extending working hours throughout the industry over the past decade. As well as increasing profits, lowering wages allows companies to undercut each other when vying for commissions. The paying broadcasters then see that programmes can be made for less money and further reduce budgets, paving the way for further exploitation. This is a systemic problem endemic to a market economy.
Capitalism is completely incapable of solving these problems, which have burdened working mass populations for nearly two hundred years. Marx pointed this out as early as 1848 in the Communist Manifesto:
“…labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market…” Marx continues: “The growing competitionamong the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious…”.
Organise in Work Places
The way to fight against this, as Marx knew only too well, is for us to organise in our work places and trade unions, and also in our universities, to help equip students and workers with the necessary political skills to fight for their rights. If it’s competition for profit that is driving this destructive process, then surely the independent TV sector should be transferred over to the public. Extend the working conditions within the BBC throughout the whole industry. Ultimately, to put an end to exploitation, ruthless competition and the false promises of a market economy we should replace it with a planned socialist economy.