Sick of rejection letters? This website is just the job for getting into TV

Oliver Duff discovers a new way into broadcasting for those who don't have contacts
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The Independent Online

Breaking into television has always been a matter of who you know. The only alternative path for those without someone to open a door for them has been to churn out dozens of photocopied CVs and to speculatively mail them to production companies and broadcasters. Interested in making arts programmes? You'll be lucky to get a job making tea on The Animals Of Farthing Wood (unpaid, of course).

Breaking into television has always been a matter of who you know. The only alternative path for those without someone to open a door for them has been to churn out dozens of photocopied CVs and to speculatively mail them to production companies and broadcasters. Interested in making arts programmes? You'll be lucky to get a job making tea on The Animals Of Farthing Wood (unpaid, of course).

But that may be changing, thanks to a website which allows everyone from wannabe presenters to cameramen to send their details direct to the producers.

www.Startintv.com claims to be the only service dedicated to getting newcomers onto the bottom rung of the TV ladder, albeit at a price. For £55 a year, the budding Mike Leigh or June Sarpong gets their CV added to a database searched by 800 telly types on the hunt for bright young things, among them the BBC, Granada and big independent production companies such as Talkback Thames and Princess Productions. The site also offers extensive - and realistic - advice on how to break into the sector and what to expect when you're there.

"The problem now, for newcomers and producers, is that it's very haphazard," says the website's founder, David Wheeler, a BBC director with Tomorrow's World, Bargain Hunt and Top Gear credits on his own CV. "For newcomers, there's an element of the "old boys' network" they have to break through, and it's a complete lottery; you have to be the right person in the right place at the right time.

"Producers are inundated with hundreds of random CVs, many out of date or from disinterested people. They often need casuals on short notice, and might want someone who's interested in sub-aqua and sky-diving, not in working on an arts programme."

Wheeler claims that the site is "fairer and more of a meritocracy" than the nepotism and back-scratching of the past. "The people who are good get spotted and get in," he says.

The website began in 2001, allowing employers to make more detailed searches of interests, experience, location, gender - even to flick through photos. "My BBC background would tell me that's not terribly PC," he says, "but it's what they want to know about a potential presenter - age, gender, appearance." It is simply what is required, he says, knocking down the idea it is systemised exploitation of free labour and pointing out that most go on to get paid work.

One of the site's success stories is Zilpah Hartley, 28, the presenter of Channel 4's A Place in the Sun. Three years ago she was working in the marketing department at The Times and decided she wanted a career change. "I had done endless mailshots of CVs, but could have peppered my walls with rejection letters," she says. "About eight days after I registered with startintv I got a screen test. Two weeks later I flew out to France to present my first series." She is an obvious exception to the majority of subscribers.

More typical is Dan Hood, now a runner for T4. A half-hearted subscriber to startintv for a year while he worked in sales, he rewrote his CV, replied quickly to an e-mail and got a two-week placement. A contact there found him paid work for T4. He warns: "It's not a magic way in. You can't just register and expect work. You've got to be pro-active, keep your CV up to date and respond fast."

The site remains a mystery to most of the major indie producers, who rely on in-house "creative resources" teams to sift through the mountains of letters and video reels. But, in the last couple of years, they've put time and money into more meritocratic recruitment: RDF Media, Tiger Aspect, Princess, Lion and Diverse are among the big players to have appointed dedicated talent-spotters in their teams. Channel 4 have a talent manager, Charlotte Black, who liaises with the indies, and the BBC is collaborating more closely with the sector.

Sarah Shields is head of talent at Tiger Aspect, whose credits include Teachers, A Place in France and Vicar of Dibley. "Recruiting newcomers to the industry is key; those at the junior level will be making the programmes in five years," she says, explaining she wouldn't use a recruiting website because of the volume of CVs she already receives.

Her counterpart at RDF, Julia Waring, says they changed four years ago: "We saw the value of having an enormous database of people we'd heard about or met. It's less-casual hiring, an investment in the future."

Most production companies don't have the resources for talent-spotting. For them, startintv works: at the last count it had 1,000 CVs on file and 30,000 visitors during the previous year.

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