Half of freelancers in unscripted TV out of work and three quarters struggling financially, Bectu survey reveals

25 May 2023

A new poll from Bectu reveals that nearly half of UK freelancers working in unscripted TV are not currently employed, with many struggling financially as a result.

Nearly 2000 freelancers shared their personal experiences of the slowdown in work, how this compares to usual employment patterns, and how this is impacting areas of their lives such as housing, mental health and wellbeing and appetite to stay in the industry.

The findings come after the union issued a statement of support for TV freelancers last week, following a motion from its unscripted TV branch, overwhelmingly supported at Bectu’s national conference, that noted a worrying and uncharacteristic quiet period for freelancers in the unscripted genres.

45 per cent of those surveyed are not currently working, and 85 per cent said the last six months had been quieter than normal in terms of available work. 75 per cent reported struggling with their finances as a result.

Almost all respondents reported that the lack of work or pressure on their finances was negatively impacting their mental health, at a time when the industry is focusing on how to improve the mental health of the workforce through the work of the Film and TV Charity.

One really worrying finding from the survey is that only half of surveyed freelancers see themselves still working in TV in five years’ time.

Other key findings include:

  • 65 per cent said the current lull in work is unusual or highly unusual, and 20 per cent have never experienced gaps in employment like this before
  • 46 per cent are finding their financial situation ‘more difficult than usual’, and nearly 30 per cent are finding it ‘extremely difficult’
  • More than 1 in 10 have either had to move back in with family, or are considering doing so
  • Nearly 1 in 6 are unable to pay their household bills and 15 per cent have had to take out unsecured loans/finance to get by.

One respondent said:

“I feel I am at a crossroads. If there isn’t regular enough work and work that I have continues to be unreasonably long hours (as it has for many years), then it no longer suits me as a father of three. I am unsure where to look outside of the industry but I plan to explore other options.”

Another commented:

“Apart from the pandemic, I haven’t seen the industry be so quiet and I have been working in TV for over 25 years. I am extremely worried about when it will pick up. Fluctuations in work patterns always happens but not like this. The lack of job opportunities is stifling.”

While another said:

“The low wages and infrequent work, particularly in the earlier career stages, will result in a significant decline in crew diversity across the industry. Given the instability and poor pay, I can’t begin to imagine how those from lower socio-economic backgrounds could begin to survive financially without significant support from elsewhere.”

Commenting, Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said:

“The UK’s freelance workforce suffered incredible hardships during the pandemic, with many falling through the gaps of government support schemes. It is clear many of them continue to face precarious employment and the significant challenges that come with this. We are speaking with industry stakeholders who tell us that our findings are consistent with what they’re hearing.

“The number of people questioning their future in unscripted TV is particularly concerning. The film and TV industry must make sure that there is good and consistent work throughout the year to ensure the stability of the sector and the financial and mental wellbeing of those who work in it.

“We are engaging with the BBC and other broadcasters, as well as production companies and other stakeholders, and we call on the industry to come together as a matter of urgency to develop a strategy to address both the current crisis, and drive long-term change.”

Freelance series producer and co-chair of Bectu’s unscripted TV branch, James Taylor, said:

“As we suspected, it’s really tough out there for freelancers working in unscripted TV. Three quarters of respondents told us the commissioning slowdown has negatively impacted their mental health or finances.

“The broadcasters need to be honest with us freelancers. Are we reaching a point where TV production is no longer a full-time, year-round job? We need to acknowledge that continuing crises like this cost the industry more in the long run, as we lose more people with valuable experience that make the UK a global leader in TV production.”

Freelance production executive and co-chair of Bectu’s unscripted TV branch, Viki Carter, said:

“The current dearth of productions in unscripted TV is particularly concerning for those of us in production management. There has been a well-publicised shortage of production freelancers for years now. Large gaps in employment like those that people are currently experiencing will likely lead to a further exodus of production freelancers. as our skillset is easily transferable to other industries with more secure employment prospects.

“The model of feast or famine for freelancers is simply not sustainable – the industry must consider longer term strategies around commissioning. It’s baffling that in under six months the industry has gone from struggling to effectively and fully staff productions to large numbers of freelancers being without work for months on end. Such periods of unemployment also do nothing to increase the industry’s diversity and inclusivity.”

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