Broadcast Freelancer Survey 2012 (part 1)

‘I can’t do this much longer’

With rising hours and fears over job security, the future is increasingly uncertain for many working in TV. Catherine Neilan reports on the results of Broadcast’s Freelancer Survey 2012. Reproduced by permission of Broadcast Broadcast’s Freelancer Survey 2012 paints a gloomy picture, with some parts of the freelance community’s working life showing a clear decline in quality. The survey – this year taken by 656 people, an increase of nearly 20% on 2011 – offers a frank account of their working lives. In many cases, things appear to be getting worse or, at best, remaining the same as last year. Working hours are up, with one in five (21%) clocking more than 60 hours a week, equivalent to five 12-hour days or six days of 10 hours. This is a significant rise on the 14% who said they worked such hours in January last year. Nearly half of all respondents are working more than 50 hours a week – more than the government’s recommended 48 hours for those in permanent roles. More than half of respondents (56%) said they worked 10 hours or more a day. But this is taking its toll on freelancers, with some blaming tiredness as a factor in seeking to leave the industry. “Exhaustion, burn-out, disillusionment,” responded one freelancer when asked about the biggest threats to their job. Another said he would continue working “as long as I can keep up with the hours”, adding, worryingly: “After a 12-hour day plus, who’s to say what can happen on a tired drive home?” A third freelancer said: “Physically, I don’t think I can do this much longer. The hours are too long, too physical and we get too few breaks.” This, coupled with job insecurity, puts age and illness high up on people’s lists of concerns. As a result, the sector is still suffering from the brain drain identified in 2011 – half the freelancers surveyed plan to leave TV within the next 10 years, and a further 3% say their working life is too uncertain to make the call. This is broadly in line with last year’s findings, and suggests an inherent problem. As well as overwork, some cited familiar reasons – starting a family, which seems incompatible for most, particularly women, or ageism against both men and women. Several also spoke of having to leave the industry to secure better pay or career progression. There seems to be widespread concern about being undercut by younger people joining the industry who may not be able to offer the level of expertise required to do a job well, but can certainly do it cheaply. “There is no value put on professionalism, experience or craft skills” said one respondent, while several others complained that companies were hiring “cheap, clueless labour to save money”. A third characterised the competition as “spotty students who think they can do everything.” But many of the concerns boiled down to predict-ability, with freelancers unable to plan for the future in their working lives. “Vague”, “totally uncertain”, and “unknown – not feeling too positive” were some of the comments made, with 30% saying their future was random and impossible to predict or manage, and 36% saying it was hard or difficult. The survey also found a high number of people not receiving holiday pay and going without cancellation fees, when entitled to them. Two-thirds of respondents said they could not claim a fee if a project was cancelled at the last minute. Of the remaining 35%, less than half (45%) said they received it. Freelancers spoke of being “pencilled in, then cancelled at the last minute”, and the fear that if they stood up for their rights on this matter, they risked being seen as a “troublemaker”. However, a handful noted that they now get a cancellation policy written into the contract, having been burned in the past. One claimed OB companies regularly secure more staff than needed in case someone drops out – but this is carried out “at the cost of the freelancer”. In the past five years, 43% of people have agreed to work for free or less than the standard rate on the promise of future pay. Among those who did not drop their fee, some claimed they had lost out, with the production company turning to those who could afford to work for what one called “a heavily reduced fee”. However, a handful said it had led to a better-paid role.

Reasons to be cheerful

Despite the gloom and doom, there are still reasons to be cheerful, and freelancers reported a rise in the respect they enjoy. The number saying they felt “essential to” or “valued by” the companies they work for has grown from 58% to 61%, although 16% said they felt insignificant. And there has been some progress on pay – 26% of people now earn less than £20,000, a marginal improvement on last year’s 28% but a considerable climb since Skillset’s 2001 survey, which found that 42% of freelancers were earning less than £20,000. As a result, the middle earners – those getting between £25,000 and £45,000 – accounted for more of the total, climbing from 33% to 36%. Top earners, on more than £55,000, remained steady, accounting for 17% of freelancers. But it’s clear that, as a general rule, freelancers are still feeling as concerned about their present career as they are about their future. As one respondent said, when asked what the biggest threat to his or her job was: “A probably rather modest, but not insignificant, straw upon the camel’s back.”

KEY FINDINGS

How are you treated at your current job?

“I’m increasingly underpaid, forced to work extended hours for less than I earned five years ago, with the constant threat of ‘we can always get someone cheaper’.” “Considered an essential member of the team by colleagues; dispensable by management.” “We have a commercial relationship – we need each other, but there is little loyalty either way.” What are the biggest threats to your career? “Losing commissions due to productions moving overseas.” “Broadcasters forcing productions to lower budgets, hiring under-experienced, low-paid trainees.” “I’m a 30-something female from a minority ethnic group. Age, gender and race assumptions count against me.”

How important is training?

“It’s vital to know how to shoot, but companies are unwilling to train you and courses are expensive.” “It should be easier to access mid-career training. But longevity seems to be discouraged.” “Changes in technology and programme-making, as well as multiplatform presentation, mean it is more important than ever.” “We need tighter benchmarks to stop unqualified people undercutting legit professionals.”

 

WHO TOOK PART

A total of 656 freelancers took part in the survey, 100 more than last year. Half of them had worked in their current position for more than a year, a drop on the 2011 results, when 57% had been in the same role for three years or more. Just under three-quarters (73%) work in TV production, with the remainder in post, new media and other roles. Slightly more (78%) have worked in the business for more than 10 years, with 36% earning between £25,000 and £45,000 and 17% more than £55,000.

In part 2, we’ll be revealing which companies freelancers regard as the best and worst to work for. We’ll also be trying to understand what, if anything, people can do to improve the quality of their working lives.

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