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A day in the life of a Producer/Director in the United Kingdom
On another trip I got to help open the sarcophagus of a Egyptian prince from the 18th Dynasty - the smell was... well, you can probably guess.
Briefly describe the organisation you work for
So I'm freelance, like most TV people. That means I work for lots of different independent companies and networks - it all depends on who has the commissioned shows. Over the years I've worked for almost every major channel and service from Netflix and Discovery Channel to Channel 4 and BBC4.
What do you do?
I'm a producer/director so my job is to do all the research for the history shows as well as help write scripts, arrange locations, and sort out all the logistics of a complex TV show. I also look after contributors, presenters, and archive. Essentially producers are the glue that hold TV shows together. As a director as well I do all of that but I'm also the lead on location - I make sure that I get the best out of the contributors and crew on the ground as well as hold an idea of what I want the final show to look like in my head. I then work closely with an editor to pull the show together and get it on TV for you to watch.
Reflecting upon your past employment and education, what led you to your current career choice?
So at university I was part of YSTV (York Student Television) and it gave me a real love for all things TV. I then combined that with my history degree and decided I wanted to make history shows. Post leaving university, and even during my final year, I spent a lot of time networking and doing work experience. My first job was working on history apps, then I jumped to working on Come Dine with Me, and from there I finally made it into history shows.
Is your current job sector different from what you thought you would enter when you graduated?
Not really. I'd be lying if I thought it was possible when I graduated, but it very much is for anyone.
Describe your most memorable day at work
There are so many. I was making a show in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. I'd already been given free reign to walk all over the Western Valley of the Kings which is closed to visitors - which is awesome enough. I was then able to enter the tomb of Tutankhamun's grandfather - which is the largest in the Valley. I went round with one of the world's leading Egyptologists who had never been given permission to go inside, until her visit with me! On another trip I got to help open the sarcophagus of a Egyptian prince from the 18th Dynasty - the smell was... well, you can probably guess.
Not all days are like this. But being able to do all these amazing things in order to help tell a story to the audience is something that makes my job both memorable and worthwhile.
Are there any challenges associated with your job?
A lot of my job is people management and that can be very tricky. Convincing people to take part in your shows, but also managing a lot of big egos in the TV industry - everyone thinks that they're making the next Planet Earth, even if they're very clearly not. You have to learn to be patient and work with people.
There are issues and frustrations with budgets. TV budgets are getting smaller and smaller, especially as video on demand is taking viewers away from networks like the BBC. That means that people expect bigger shows for less money. It is often stressful and getting that great idea over the line can sometimes prove impossible.
The TV industry is also almost entirely freelance, which means that your job security isn't the best and you've got to learn to stand up for yourself and push for jobs and roles you want. This is what scared me the most when I first started, but you soon get used to it. It actually gives you such a degree of freedom - if I don't like the company, the project, or even, say, the commute... I can pick another job, another role.
What’s your work environment and culture like?
So the TV industry, or the part of it that I work in, is about an 85%-15% split between being in an office and being out on location.
Let's start with the office. Usually you're researching, planning, scripting your shows and generally getting everything ready for the shoot. Usually you'd be working from around 09:30 until about 18:30, although there is usually some flexibility in this. Once you're back from a shoot you'll be in the edit, which is a small dark room where you sit for 6-8 weeks with an editor and really shape and make the show. Hours here tend to be slightly longer.
Then on location - the fun bit. Shoots are what I live for as they're creative, energising, and generally just bloody fun. You're usually working a 12 hour day, plus a few extra hours in the morning or evening doing rewrites and prep for the next day. This is for documentaries - other parts of the industry have different lengths of days. Depending on the show you could end up in any part of the world from Burkina Faso to Bradford. Shoots are exhausting, but amazing experiences.
TV tends to be fairly informal and friendly within productions. I've never worn a suit, for instance, and people tend to be quite flexible and relaxed so long as the work is getting done. Most TV people are lovely people who I enjoy spending time with.
There is often a culture of devotion to the job though - it varies based on production, who your executives are etc. I've worked at companies who expect you to devote every hour of your day to a project and almost shut yourself off from the real world. Once, at the BBC, I was working 20 hour days when I was a more junior member of staff. There is often a lot of stress and pressure and it's up to you to manage that pressure - that's where the standing up for yourself and picking your projects comes in. Thankfully, the industry is slowly changing. Plus, the nice thing is you often have gaps in between projects where you can see friends, go on vacation etc.
What extracurricular activities did you undertake at university and what transferable skills did you develop through these?
The most useful thing I did was join York Student Television (YSTV). It gave me the most amazing grounding in what TV was and gave me a good sense of how it worked. It didn't get me a job, but it helped me soar once I got my foot in the door. Plus, even today I have a network of ex-student TV people who I call upon for work and contacts. If you're a York grad/student and you come to me and say you want to work in TV and you've not been involved with YSTV, my first question will always be "why?"
I also tried to broaden my historical horizons by being a part of the archaeology society. This gave me great insights into their world and provided valuable insights in how to talk to archaeologists and understand their lingo.
Beyond that I just tried to meet as many people as possible from as many different worlds as possible to broaden my horizons and understand their story. Those people skills are invaluable.
Also... if you want to work in TV learn to be confident - cold calling people on the phone to ask for things. I know talent managers who will hire you on the spot if you can prove that you'll pick up the phone rather then send an email.
What would you like to do next with your career?
I'm still relatively new in the TV world, and the world of being a Producer/Director so, at the moment, I want to carry on doing what I'm doing and tell some amazing stories.
What top tips do you have for York students preparing for today’s job market and life after graduation?
Don't be afraid. People will tell you TV is difficult to get into but if I did it then anyone can. Just be courageous and let your passion shine through. Don't take rejections personally - they're not meant in a personal way.
It's all about networking and building experience. I did a lot of work with the Careers Service and Alumni Office to build up my networking contacts and skills and then I started gaining experience both in professional contexts but also through YSTV. It was hard going at first but soon you become known in the industry and offers start coming in - think of it as a tree multiplying out from you - everyone you meet meets someone and they meet someone etc.
If you want to work in TV you should do your homework. Watch TV. You should be ready to talk about what kinds of TV you like and what you don't. Sure, you think 'Tiger King' is amazing - but what made you like it? What didn't you like about it? Thoughts like that will help you stand out.
It helps if you have an idea of what type of TV you want to work in. I've always said that saying you want to work in TV is like saying you want to work in a hospital - being a brain surgeon is totally different to being an A&E nurse. In the same way, making a documentary for BBC4 is totally different to working on Doctor Who.
TV is a small industry - when networking, just because the person you're talking to doesn't work in the area that you want to work in doesn't mean that they don't know the exact person you need to meet. I've watched so many people rudely brush off people who I know can help them!
If you get work experience then make the most of it. I've had so many work experience people come in, sit in the corner, and say nothing - don't do that. Engage, ask questions (no matter how dumb you think they are), and make yourself indispensable. That's how you get a job afterwards - I know that because it's how I got my first proper TV job, and I often hire on work experience people who have amazed me.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. You should also join York Student Television. It will give you a very real sense of how TV works and allow you creative freedom and opportunities that you'll never get in the actual industry. And with 50+ years of YSTV alumnus, there's a strong network there to help you with any career.
Then just enjoy York and being a student/new graduate. Travel, meet people, and spend time with friends. It will make you a better person. Plus, you have no idea how many times the fact that I have travelled to random places in the USA comes in handy when planning shows!
What topics from students are you happy to answer questions on?
Anything you think I can provide an insight into.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Your degree is important and you should work your butts off to get the best degree you can. But don't forget that university is about more than just your degree.
And, enjoy yourself. You have no idea how jealous everyone is that you're still at York. Most of us would love to be in your shoes.
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