HOW TO GET AHEAD IN . . . television

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once, in an ill-judged but enjoyable moment of post-adolescent rebellion, watching yet another idiot suburbanite get his promotion to Head of Something at the BBC, I remarked to a colleague that it seemed the only prerequisite for promotion in this trade was maleness.

"That's not true at all," he protested. "You don't need to be male. You just need to be able to look convincing in a three-piece polyester suit. And grow a beard, of course."

The proper study of a career in TV splits at the dawn of Channel 4, which happened to coincide with the Eighties. Before C4 the way to start in TV was to get one of the research traineeships offered each year by the BBC. The competition was somewhat stiff - around 6,000 applicants for eight jobs - but provided you had a good Oxbridge degree in some completely inappropriate subject like classical Japanese, it wasn't too difficult to jump through the interview hoops by assuming a persona just - but only just - interesting enough to stand out from the other applicants.

Then Channel 4 happened, and everything changed. These days getting a start in TV involves a different set of qualifications - private means to see you through the first four years working as an unpaid runner for Planet 24, and an East End whine you can slip in and out of as easily as your Chevignon while manoeuvring from Portobello to Docklands via the Groucho Club. The Trustafarian has one great competitive advantage over the BBC researcher; the researcher's job was to read, think, and eventually generate ideas which were then immediately appropriated as your boss's own. The runner doesn't have to produce anything, but on the contrary gets to spend large parts of the day in untrackable transit. In the possession of other people's videotapes. Imagine the opportunities not only for personal plagiarism but industrial espionage. Your boss's competitors are always desperate to know what's been offered up or commissioned by other people. What better currency to barter into an interview for a paid job - or, at least, a Soho lunch?

In the realms of the salaried, staying ahead has also changed. In the BBC, the competition is a limited pool, forgathered either in the BBC Canteen or the BBC Club. Both require an iron constitution, but at least the target is always in view. The job in the Canteen is to get a place at the boss's table, and eat slowly enough to make sure you out-last everyone else. The BBC Club is a bar, so at lunchtime its clientele is mostly people who are expected to be drunk in the afternoons, such as film editors and directors from Music and Arts. But in the evening - as soon as it opens at five - everybody goes there, and everybody witnesses each others' sad decline until lights out at eleven.

So the BBC system plays hell with your health and your sleep, but at least it's pretty easy to know what - and who - you're up against. Not so with The Channel, and the world of independent producers it has spawned. At the last count there were 860 independent production companies in England, chasing about 1,400 hours of programming a year. Given that even the idlest producer can usually turn out an hour-long programme in six months, and that at least some production companies have 10 or more producers, the fate of the average is horrible to contemplate. (The source of this information also reveals that the independent TV industry enjoys about the same total turnover and profitability as the dry-cleaning industry, which offers up some striking parallels in terms of taking other people's property, repackaging it and charging them money to get it back again.)

In this situation, even knowing who the competition is this week is almost impossible, and paranoia and envy are epidemic. Being in the right place involves cover-to-cover reading not only of Time Out and the London Evening Standard but also the junk-mail offerings of estate agents, health clubs and German car dealerships. The venue could be anywhere from Paddington to Highgate, and the lingua franca anything from rhyming slang to restaurant Walloon. And that's just to get a meeting. No wonder independent producers are always late and broke. Quite apart from the professional skills, which now involve, not dogged pursuit of one omnipotent purseholder, but the casuistic ability to reformulate the same proposal, so that 10 commissioning editors will all think it's aimed specifically at them, and the even trickier skill, to position oneself as at once tremendously in demand and yet, miraculously, available to make the thing the minute the commission drops.

And if that day arrives, when the first cheque - three months late, for half of what you have already spent - arrives, there are only two sacred commandments of programme-making: never deliver more than you have to - it's just not cool to try too hard - and never, ever, underspend. Nobody ever got a Bafta for coming in under-budget.

Which leads neatly into the most enjoyable of the three career phases, sadly destined to be savoured by few: staying ahead. The first and last rule here is: think big. Here the advantage, in terms of personal longevity if not wealth, is once again with the BBC. Like all national institutions it is somehow inconceivable that it would ever be allowed to go broke. Better yet, through a caprice of early-Sixties architecture, the offices of the highest executives are all in the circular headquarters at White City. It must be a comforting thought to the outgoing Head of Outside Broadcasts with Special Responsibility for the Career of Anneka Rice that the corridors of power are, quite literally, endless.

But thinking big is a character trait that can never be developed too early. Here is a useful suggestion. Start your career by making documentaries about famous people who you would like to get to know, then parlay these into a series of films about famous people. Use the success of those films to make friends with the famous people, and use the friendship of those famous people to boost your power in the Corporation. It is a tried and tested idea of such brilliant political simplicity that all your colleagues will be able to do is lie back, wiggle their toes, and say you clearly deserve the job.

WHAT THEY EARN

Sam Chisholm, Chief Executive, BSkyB: pounds 340K basic plus pounds 325K bonus (1993-94). Average pay, BSkyB: pounds 16,149 John Birt, Director General of the BBC: pounds 264,630. Average pay, BBC: pounds 26,543 Producer, BBC TV: pounds 30-40K Assistant Producer, BBC TV: pounds 21-28K Senior Researcher, BBC TV: pounds 23K Researcher, BBC TV: pounds 16-20K Secretary, BBC TV: pounds 9-16K Director, independent documentary: pounds 700- 1,000 per week Producer, independent documentary: pounds 700-1,000pw Researcher, independent documentary: pounds 400-500pw Runner, independent documentary: pounds 0-200pw Chief executive, Carlton TV: pounds 100K up Producer/Director, Carlton TV: pounds 28-40K Researcher, Carlton TV: pounds 18-30K

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