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Creative industries

Is UK Television facing a crisis in skills and training?

7 August 2019
James delivers his presentation on skills and training in the UK television industry at the inaugural Welsh Postgraduate Research Conference.

In our latest post, James Davies outlines the challenges of Labour Entry and Skill Formation facing the UK Television industry. The post is based on his prizewinning presentation delivered at the inaugural Welsh Postgraduate Research Conference in June 2019.

Change is the only constant

Television production in the UK can be broadly divided into two main ‘eras.’ In the first, which dominated until the 1980s, the television industry in the UK was a vertically integrated, traditional bureaucratic system, revolving around a major publicly funded broadcaster – the BBC – and the heavily regulated public-sector franchises of ITV, funded via advertising revenue (Dex et al. 2000). Permanent, salaried positions within these broadcasters were the norm (Paterson 2001). It can be argued there were two significant catalysts of extensive change within the UK TV industry: The launch of Channel 4 in 1982, and the Broadcasting Act of 1990.

Channel 4 was a new TV channel with the remit to broadcast independent programming but not produce it itself and resulted in an explosion of the independent TV production sector. The Broadcasting Act (1990) brought into legislation a stipulation that 25% of all programming now had to be outsourced to independent firms.

The result of these changes was a new working environment, that was heavily reliant on freelance labour (Hodgson and Briand 2013).

“Traditional, salaried positions with long-term job security and possibilities for upward career trajectory were replaced by a short-term economy, requiring more and more flexibility, and skills that were required to become more portable.”

The ability to quickly shift focus was now more important than the accumulation of experience that was traditionally valued.

The anti-social network

With a new working environment, came the issue of organising this changing labour market. With work teams coming together for relatively short projects and then disbanding again, professional networks became vitally important, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, networks are a means to keep teams together from project to project, creating a degree of job security for those able to remain in such groups. Additionally, professional networks are used for learning about job opportunities and making and maintaining professional contacts to sustain work. Antcliff et al. (2007) studied such networks and found that workers in the Creative and Cultural Industries (CCIs) use networks for fostering both trust and co-operation, but also for competition, and can be both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ in nature.

It is unsurprising, then, that the responses and experiences of those working in the CCIs towards the professional networks are highly ambivalent. Workers have reported feelings of anxiety, and isolation, as a result of a heightened sense of precariousness in work, and a lack of longer-term stability and security in their careers (Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2009).

In addition, there is the issue of who is able to enter the professional networks; the key to getting and maintaining work in this new era of TV production. The closed project networks excluded those without high human and cultural capital (Lee 2011).

In other words, who you know, your personal background, where you went to school, all become important factors in making you sufficiently attractive for a desirable professional network to allow you to be a part of it, making opportunities for new entrants far from equal. Those in the middle-classes are more likely to be able to sustain extended periods with little or no income, possess shared cultural norms and reference points with industry gatekeepers, and have family contacts to initiate employment through informal channels; people like other people who remind them of themselves, if you walk and talk the right way, you fit in with the people already in the network, and you are granted entry.

The results of this make for quite concerning reading. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS 2016) published figures showing that, as of 2015, the Creative Industries were:

  • 60/61% male.
  • 92/93% white.
  • 87/88% from NS-SEC 1-4 (The four highest classification of the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification).
  • 53% are self-employed (freelancers).

In addition, a survey of 1071 freelancers working in film and television, found that 75% had undertaken a period of some form of unpaid work experience, estimating such practices saved around £28m in labour (Strauss 2005).

“The result is an industry dominated by freelance labour, informal and difficult to define recruitment practices, as well as a reliance on low and unpaid entry level positions that are heavily weighted against those without the relevant financial support and social backgrounds.”

The future for skills and training

There is a tension between generations of workers as well. Younger workers and newcomers are found to view unpaid labour far more favourably than their older counterparts, and established workers viewing these attitudes of the new generation as a threat to their incomes (Percival and Hesmondhalgh 2014). Traditionally, knowledge would’ve been transferred from experienced professionals to new workers through on-the-job training, a mentor/mentee relationship that is much more difficult to maintain in a fragmented and informal work environment.

Changes and advances in technology have also influenced the nature of the skills required for new entrants. Broadcast cameras, once requiring a team of skilled professionals to operate, are able to be operated by an individual. Editing can now be done instantly, and at any point in the production process.

All of which begs the question: What skills are now required, and where do you go to learn them?

The issue for the future of skills and training in UK TV lies in the nature of skills that are now required, and the degree to which new entrants have the resources, access and opportunity to acquire them. Furthermore, it is vital to understand the implications for skills development, job security and the long-term considerations of production quality within the industry, in the context of these recruitment patterns.

You may wonder why we started with a consideration of events from nearly 30 years ago. What relevance do the changes from the 1980s/1990s have for today’s TV production landscape? The shift to a project-based work environment brought into existence a huge proportion of freelance workers, but those with roots in the traditional bureaucracies of the BBC and ITV. They were not starting ‘from scratch.’

In 2019, with a lot of that generation at (or approaching) retirement age, it seems timely to try to understand the impact of the changes of the past, for the future of the industry.

James Davies is a PhD candidate at Cardiff Business School.

His research focuses on employment relations in the creative industries.


  • Antcliff, V. et al., 2007. Networks and Social Capital in the UK television industry: The weakness of weak ties. Human Relations 60(2), pp. 371-393.
  • Broadcasting Act (1990)
  • DCMS, 2016. Creative Industries Mapping Document
  • Dex, S., Willis, J., Paterson, R. and Sheppard, E. 2000. Freelance workers and Contract Uncertainty: The effects of Contractual Changes in the Television Industry, Work, Employment and Society 14(2), pp. 283-305
  • Hesmondhalgh, D. and Baker, S. 2009. ’A very complicated version of freedom’: Conditions and experiences of creative labour in three cultural industries, Poetics 38(1), pp. 4-20.
  • Hodgson, D. and Briand, L. 2013. Controlling the uncontrollable: ‘Agile’ teams and illusions of autonomy in creative work. Work, Employment and Society 27(2), pp. 308-325.
  • Lee, D. 2011. Networks, cultural capital and creative labour in the British independent television industry. Media, Culture and Politics 33(4), pp. 549-565.
  • Paterson, R. 2001. Work histories in television. Media, Culture and Society 23, pp. 495-520
  • Percival, N. and Hesmondhalgh, D. 2014. Unpaid work in the UK television and film industries: Resistance and changing attitudes. European Journal of Communication 29(2), pp. 188-203.
  • Strauss, W. 2005. What life’s like for TV’s freelancers. Available at: