Media: So you want a career in television, do you?

Strictly speaking, it's impossible, writes Richard Cook. But there are ways in ...
The consultants, the professionals, the companies themselves will all tell you that it's too competitive.

They'll say it can't be done. They'll tell you that 35,000 people are currently embarked upon media studies courses in the UK, working, waiting and watching for one thing and one thing only - their opportunity to make it into television. And they aren't all going to make it, you'll be told; most of them aren't even going to get close.

But then many of these graduates want to be TV presenters really, golden girls and boys fronting their own light entertainment peak-time variety show. They want to be Anthea or Darren, but a little bit more dangerous and a whole lot younger and hungrier. Unfortunately, peak-time presenter isn't the sort of job that gets advertised. Perhaps inevitably, then, media studies graduates gravitate towards the jobs that are. They find themselves looking at TV production and post-production opportunities, and reading only as far as the TV part. And, guess what, they find that these positions are just as sought after, just as competitive, and ultimately, if they are successful, just as rewarding as any in the rest of the TV business.

"TV production and post-production covers so many different jobs, so many specialities, that no employer is going to look twice at a CV that says simply how much they want to be in TV," says Diane Freeman, deputy chief executive of Pact, the independent producers' association. "But these are still the type of CVs that continue to flood in.

"The single most important thing for anyone wanting to work in the production industry is to decide what exactly it is they want to do - whether, for example, it's the management or the technical side that appeals to them, whether they would prefer to work on location or to be office bound - and then take a look at what skills they have, and exactly where those skills are deficient."

That isn't necessarily going to make it any easier to break into the ranks, but it's not a bad place to start. Another good place is at Skillset, the industry training organisation for the whole of broadcast film and video, which produces the standard handbook for would-be entrants. But it's also not a bad idea to get used to this sort of relentless competitive drive before you enter the industry. Little is going to change, after all, once you do successfully make it in.

To take just one small example from last year: ITV wanted to commission a night-time series, an eight-parter designed to fill a gap in the small hours when no one much was watching anyway. And because no one much would be watching, the broadcaster was prepared to start negotiations for this series at the distinctly less than princely sum of pounds 8,000 an hour. Yet this small-time, low-profile commission attracted a staggering 386 different proposals from 155 different production companies.

Competition is a way of life in TV production, then. And sure enough, the excellent industry training companies paint a similarly stark picture. They'll tell you that a total of around 18,000 freelances currently make a living out of TV production, point out that 85 per cent of new applicants have now got some sort of media studies degree, and ask you to do the maths yourself. That's certainly the experience of ft2, the only national provider of new entrant training in junior construction, technical and production grades for the TV industry.

This organisation sent out 2,500 application packs to interested parties last year and received a total of 700 replies. It devised a long list of some 165 people, whittled these down to a short list of 46 and eventually was able to take on just six trainees.

Channel 4 sponsored a further four places for staff from its own commendable ethnic minorities recruitment programme. All the graduates of this two- year course make it into full employment in the industry, in a range of positions - editors, camera assistants, production assistants, script supervisors, even hair assistants.

The course includes eight months of attachments - last year these took in TV shows such as Jonathan Creek and One Foot in the Grave, and movies such as Star Wars, Donnie Brasco and Mike Leigh's Career Girls. Applications for this year close at the end of this month and, this being TV after all, demand has already increased still further. In fact the organisation has already sent out 3,000 application packs and is having more reprinted. It will take on between 10 and 16 trainees, though, this time around, depending on the level of support it receives from its sponsors, the Skillset Freelance Training Fund and the European Social Fund.

"TV production is an immensely competitive area, because it's an exciting and interesting place in which to work. But then its popularity does mean that applicants have got to do more than merely say that they want to work in TV," explains David Martin, director of ft2, "even if they do say it enthusiastically.

"We look for people who can practically demonstrate their enthusiasm - people, for example, who've been on work experience, or who have acquired specialist IT skills that are important for the part of the industry they've chosen. Unfortunately, you tend to find that the people who simply put "computer literate" on the bottom of their CVs are the ones with the wonky lines and the spelling mistakes."

The thriving post-production industry is another fertile route into the magic land of television. The management consultants Coopers & Lybrand estimate that there are more than 500 post-production and facilities companies in the UK, representing an annual turnover in excess of pounds 400m and providing work for around 7,000 staff. Typically, about 40 per cent of their business will be concerned with TV, as opposed to the more lucrative advertising and corporate work. Staff here still work there way up from the traditional Soho "runner", even if the advent of digital technology means that there is little real running to be done these days.

Pay, as in all television jobs for which the demand is high and the supply practically limitless, starts at the derisory and bounds forward in leaps as entrants acquire seniority and experience. Best of all, though, is the fact that even if you don't secure your own prime-time presenting job, you too will still be able to utter the most fashionable line in today's job-focused world.

"Oh," you can say with no little pride, when you are inevitably asked that dread question. "I work in television."

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