Analysis: Freelancer Survey 2012
Standing up for your rights
Last week, Broadcast unveiled the key concerns revealed in the Freelancer Survey 2012. Here Catherine Neilan explores the causes and reveals the best – and worst – companies to work for.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the TV industry is in want of more money. Budgets are being squeezed from the top down, with commissioners granting smaller tariffs and expecting the same – or better – quality productions. The Broadcast Freelancer Survey 2012 has shown where that invariably trickles down to: the hard-working freelancer.
A huge number of respondents to our survey cited budgets going down as the single biggest threat to their future in the industry, noting that indies were taking on work for fees that were just not practical.
According to Benetta Adamson, who runs the TV Watercooler forum and has been a long-standing campaigner for freelancer rights, “everything is compromised” by lower budgets, from equipment to experience.
Fear has become the overriding factor: broadcasters are afraid of competition, execs are afraid to tell commissioners they cannot deliver under those terms, and freelancers are afraid to ask for improved conditions. “At each level, people are frightened,” she says.
Employer leauge table
Best and worst indies to work for…
Best and worst broadcasters to work for
This, says Bectu official Tom Bell, is why some of the more pernicious practices are able to continue. “Fear of being labelled a troublemaker, fear of being crossed off the list, that is the root cause of all these problems,” he says. “That and the greed factor – companies looking to make more profit at the expense of the crew.”
While freelance salaries have gone up slightly, hours have increased at a faster pace, producing an overworked and exhausted labour force on only slightly better pay. The six-day week is a major source of concern for Bectu, despite having secured a pledge from the BBC last autumn to attempt to have a growing proportion of productions made within a five-day week.
Unfortunately, this has yet to filter through: more than two-thirds of freelancers now occasionally or frequently work six out of seven days. Bell is hopeful that this will change – most likely in film production, before coming through to TV – but the survey suggests this cultural shift could take a while.
Stephanie Asplin, managing director of agency The Crewing Company and deputy chair of the Facilities Skills Council for Creative Skillset, says other untoward practices are emerging.
Buyouts, where a fee is agreed irrespective of the time it takes to complete a job, are sometimes presented in the small print of a contract but not made explicit in the verbal agreement, she says. While an agency such as TCC is trained to spot these methods, Asplin urges lone freelancers to be vigilant. But even when rates are transparently low, freelancers end up accepting them to secure the job. “Freelancers need to stand strong with their rates or they will in turn drive them down for the whole industry,” Asplin says.
The practice of over-hiring freelancers as a matter of course, and cancelling at the last minute without paying any penalties, is also on the rise. The survey seemed to suggest this was largely confined to outside broadcasting, but Broadcast has since learned that it spans other genres such as current affairs, and can take place over several episodes of a programme before the freelancer realises what is happening.
Although there are no figures as to how frequently this happens, both Adamson and Bell spoke of it as an emerging problem, which Bectu might investigate. “If we can get evidence that companies are regularly signing people up with the intention of cancelling some of them at the last minute, we would raise that with the companies themselves, and most likely Pact as well,” Bell says.
There has been a slight tailing-off in the number of people predicting they will leave the industry within the next 10 years. But while this appears on the surface to be a positive step, Bell is pessimistic about the reasons behind it. “It could be because they realised how wonderful the industry is – or it could be because they have nowhere else to go,” he says. “The opportunities for acquiring new skills or moving into new careers are being limited by the recession. I think they are saying it with a heavy heart, rather than a sense of optimism.”
Adamson believes the brain drain has already affected the quality of programmes as a large number of freelancers with experience and skills have already left the industry for more secure or better-paid jobs, leaving a pool of newer entrants or people with narrow skills bases.
“I would be very surprised if most people who are past the rosy glow of their first 10 years don’t recognise that feeling of chasing pots of gold at the end of a rainbow – when the field is getting more potholed,” she says.
But she believes some battles are worth choosing to fight before we get to the point of no return. “There is a perception that bad things will happen if you stand up for yourself. I don’t think that is necessarily the case, but you have to be quite creative about how you approach an employer that’s behaving badly. You can’t just raise problems – you have to present solutions too.”
Lack of career progression, poor visibility for the future and a churning workforce rests on a number of factors, but respondents repeatedly put forward more training as a solution – albeit an unlikely one, given the lack of money around.
Investing in training
But Len Brown, development executive for the Indie Training Fund, thinks the wheel is beginning to turn, with indies starting to realise self-interestedly that training is essential if they want people with skills. “Maybe in the past there was too heavy a reliance on the BBC ‘nest’ training staff, who would then fly off to the indies,” he says. “The BBC still does a lot of good work but, financially, things are tightening up, which means that indies need to do even more themselves.”
Thanks to investment from some of the major players in the industry, Creative Skillset is once again able to offer bursaries for training in specific areas (see box below).
The BBC, voted the broadcaster freelancers would both most (17%) and least (6%) like to work for, says it is still committed to training – Fast Train is one of its newest and most successful initiatives but the corporation also hosts training online, and regularly holds ‘classroom’ training internally. A spokeswoman says: “The scale of this training is important in underpinning the BBC’s reputation for quality, given our reliance on the skills and knowledge of the mobile freelance workforce at the heart of our industry.”
The BBC is also launching a new invoice system (see box below).
Beyond the BBC, the same names as were in our 2011 survey cropped up in both our best and worst categories.
For indies, Endemol was again named as the company people would least like to work for, with around 5% of the vote. Princess Productions was second worst for the second year running and Love Productions was third. Princess and Love declined to comment
An Endemol spokesman says: “We have been voted both best by 11 people and worst by 23 people and it’s not even clear how many of these have actually worked with us.
“We employ over a thousand rather brilliant freelancers every year, most of whom keep coming back, and we think they are the best in the business.”
Meanwhile, Kudos was voted the indie freelancers would most like to work with, followed by Hat Trick and Endemol company Tiger Aspect.
Freelancer conditions: budget constraints filter down from commissioners to hard-working freelancers
TV skills fund
Creative Skillset is looking to provide grants from a £300,000 fund for freelancer training. The TV Skills Fund (TVSF) offers up to £800 per person towards craft and technical, health and safety or producer training – areas identified as priorities by the industry’s employers.
This year’s tranche of funding looks set to exceed last year’s grant, which totalled nearly £260,000 across nearly 450 donations.
The TVSF attracts contributions from the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, cable and satellite companies, and the Indie Training Fund, via contributions from member companies. Director of operations at Endemol UK and chair of the TVSF committee Clare Pickering says: “These funds are a golden opportunity for freelancers to get the training their potential employers are telling them they need.”
BBC invoicing system
The BBC has launched an online invoicing system, designed to ensure freelancers are paid within four working days of submitting an invoice.
The Supplier Self-Service system, which also allows users to track payment status, speeds up payment by removing the need for an invoice to be sent to Accounts Payable.
It is also hoped it will reduce the chance that invoices contain errors or incomplete information, further delaying the process.
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