Thousands of skilled people, used to middle-class lifestyles, are now living precariously, hopping from one short-term contract to the next, relying on friendly contacts.
At the same time, hundreds of young hopefuls are still struggling to enter the business, lured by its superficial gloss. They take menial jobs in production companies in the hope of being able to move on to something better.
Today we show the lengths to which enthusiasts will go to get jobs. Their problem is that they have little objective way of proving how good they are when one contract ends and they are struggling for another.
This is the background to last month's launch of Skillset, the television industry's new training organisation. With initial funds of pounds 1m, Skillset is dedicated both to accrediting courses in nitty- gritty skills and to providing subsidies so that freelances starting in film, television and video careers with independent producers can afford to study.
Skillset is meant to complement the training done by the BBC and regional ITV companies. This is not altruism. As John Woodward, chief executive of Pact, the independent producers' association, says: 'Training is not a charity, it is about keeping labour costs down (by avoiding skills shortages) and keeping British production effective.'
Frank McGettigan, director and general manager of Channel 4, warns: 'We are not going to solve tomorrow the problem of all these thousands of young, aspiring kids writing in.'
In short, television retains its aura as a glamour industry, but one that can break your heart.
They'd work for nothing to get through the door
I'VE got 35 CVs on my desk at the moment, all from people wanting me to get them a job in television. Many of them are doing media or communications courses at college, some are youngsters with a relation working in the media and others are just kids who have decided they should be making television programmes. This one reads: 'I want to get involved in the film industry ultimately as a camera person. Following the advice I was given I am contacting production companies in the hope that they need drivers or runners . . .'
Everyone thinks that being a runner, or general assistant, is how you start.
Youngsters will do anything just to get into television. I had a guy in last week who had been at Eton and is now sticking down envelopes while he tries to get into the industry. Lots of people want work placements, which we don't do at Humphrey Barclay, and others will work for nothing, in order to get through the door, but we don't do that either - everyone should earn a living.
I never write back to people, I always ring them. Recently I rang a guy to say I didn't have a job, but I could give him an hour if he wanted some advice. He was round here like a shot; he'd borrowed a tie, shirt and suit and he looked like Jools Holland. He still had shaving foam behind his ears.
The people I can get jobs for do not earn much money, but they are important members of our team. If we hire them, we look after them.
Working your way up is no sit-com
Neil Johnson, 28, runner (odd-job person), Humphrey Barclay Productions.
IN August last year, after three years thinking about it, I resigned from my job in John Lewis as a manager. I was earning pounds 350 a week, but I wanted to get into telly badly. I even went to amateur dramatics and evening classes.
I worked at Alamo Productions making Birds of a Feather and I was in at 8am, not leaving for home till 7pm and taking home pounds 154 a week. I did anything - photocopying, answering the phone, replying to fan mail or picking up packages. But I got to act as assistant to the assistant floor manager, which was a step in the right direction.
When my contract ended after the Christmas special, I managed to get a job quite quickly with Humphrey Barclay, working on a new sit-com called Conjugal Rights. I now earn pounds 175 a week, about pounds 137 take-home, for a day which is 10am till 6pm but stretches both ways. I live with a friend paying pounds 66 a week - nearly half my salary - and my change of career led to a split with my girlfriend because I was hardly ever seeing her.
Here they give you help and are willing to promote you - not with money but with more responsibility. I get to act as an assistant floor manager, and sometimes I give cues to the artists such as Michael Williams or Gwen Taylor during filming.
I want to start writing and then get into directing and producing. I've got as many money problems as I used to have, but I don't worry about them or lose sleep like I used to when I earnt more. Anyway, when I'm successful my money problems will go away.
I feel I'm going the right way now; I want to be a successful independent producer like Humphrey Barclay eventually. The next step is to be recognised as an assistant floor manager.'
It might take 20 years to become a camerawoman
Tracey Satchwell, 23, is a freelance camera trainee, and currently a receptionist at Carnival Films.
AFTER doing A-levels in film studies, communications studies and English literature, I had two jobs as a runner. At Molinare I was working 12-hour shifts and making tea and coffee for pounds 6,000 a year, and my office was the kitchen.
Then I got a job as a production runner at Carnival and last autumn, after a year, got my big break by being taken on as a trainee clapper-loader for three months, filming Jeeves and Wooster in stately homes in Surrey.
Eventually, I want to be a lighting camerawoman, so first I have to learn clapper-loading, which involves things such as marking the actors, supporting the focus-puller and loading the film. It's pretty responsible because if you let light into the film magazine, it will fog and you could ruin a whole day's work and waste several thousand pounds. I could be a clapper- loader for up to eight years, while I'm learning to be a focus-puller and eventually - it might take 20 years - I'll make it as a lighting camerawoman.
Jeeves and Wooster was nerve- racking, and there was a lot of lugging around of heavy equipment. After the first day my body was in agony, but I wanted to prove that I could cope with the physical side of the work despite the fact that I am a woman.
Some days I was working from 7.30am till 11.00 at night and then there was another half-hour writing up 'the sheets', noting which film takes were the best.
I'm working as a receptionist again and waiting for my next break so that I can get on another production. It probably sounds weird, but I just love the thrill of the camera.
I can't face going back to Debenhams
Ann Wilson, 20, is a researcher/stylist on BBC 1's 'The Clothes Show'.
I LEFT college in the summer of 1991 and all I really wanted to do was to get into the media. The only background I had was a week's work experience on The Clothes Show while at college.
I did get a job as a runner, with two different companies, but they only lasted for a couple of weeks each. I was taking home less than pounds 70 a week and mainly answering phones, making the tea and delivering packages. I took a job selling perfume in Debenhams while I carried on writing letters and making phone calls, trying to get a foot in the door. A year after I left college I wrote to The Clothes Show, saying I'd accept any junior position they had. They gave me a three-month contract as a trainee researcher/stylist, which was renewed in December.
A lot of the time I am arranging for models to work with us, organising castings, talking to hairdressers, and trying to come up with new ideas for the show. I take home pounds 677 a month, which is not that much, but I love the buzz of working in television, the last- minute feel of everything, working on one thing and then suddenly working on something totally different, and then seeing it on screen.
My contract ends in March, because there is no series over the summer, but I'm hoping they will renew it in September. From April, I'll have to try and get a job as a runner or researcher in another company. I can't face being on the dole or in Debenhams again. I've got the bug; telly's under my skin now.