Under construction: the BBC’s relationship with freelancers

In order to innovate in the new media environment the BBC must build a new system for working with freelancers.  

Natasha Cox
25 February 2016

The BBC's freelancer training page - under construction

Television is no longer the omnipresent 'box in the corner' around which we organise our daily schedule: it is experienced and produced across a range of screens, websites and technological platforms. Audiences can watch what they want, when they want. In many ways the BBC has been at the forefront of this change - especially in online news, red-button technology and the iPlayer. But if the BBC is to continue being a media pioneer it must now reconfigure and reimagine what its workforce can offer in the new media scene. This means building a new system of working with freelancers. 

“Most of the hot talent is freelance but the BBC doesn't pay as well as many of the indies do”, speaking at the Royal Television Society's Future's Event, BBC Talent Executive, Caroline Carter revealed that the BBC finds it difficult to maintain relationships with freelancers. “We struggle because we are not allowed, with our rate card, to offer as much– and then we lose top talent”, she added. 

The independent sector has been thriving for years with impressive growth, both financially and as a source of innovation in the delivery of programming. This is partly because many indies have recognised the benefit of investing in freelancers and I don't just mean financially. Freelancers consistently bring a colossal amount of creativity to British programme-making. And freelancers can not only expect to be paid more by an indie than by the BBC but there are equally huge opportunities for promotion as well as a wide range of projects and platforms to work on. This is all currently missing at the BBC.   

Making television programmes is a precarious occupation: contracts are often difficult to land, competition is fierce and jobs rarely last longer than six months. Needless to say working as a freelancer is not an easy life, it requires strength of character, a perpetual positive attitude and wide-ranging experience. Over recent years as the industry has evolved so has the expectation that freelancers offer a range of up-to-date skills and a huge portfolio of contacts. Most are now expected to combine work as both producer and director, researcher and camera operator or writer and editor. 

“We don't care about how passionate you are about television – we care about how easier you can make our jobs – that's the reality”, advises RDF's Head of Entertainment Development, Neale Simpson. “Those who succeed have grasped the idea that it's not about what we can do for you, but what you can do for us”. 

As much as the industry places emphasis on freelancers to create and maintain working relationships, it actually all starts with how a company employs their freelancers. Programmes are made well when freelancers feel valued and executives trust who they are working with. Indies often have talent managers soley dedicated to managing a talent pool: both when people are in and out of work. The BBC has yet to establish this system. Too often, freelancers complain that it is difficult to get a meeting, nevermind a job through a talent executive at the BBC. Instead they hear: “we are not crewing up at the moment” or “we will keep you in mind”. 

In 2012, the BBC published an independent review of its freelance contracting arrangements. Caught in a furore that the Corporation employed people on PSCs (Personal Service Companies) in order to avoid tax, the review found inconsistencies in contracts for those on-air and off-air, with some taken on as staff, some as freelancers and others via PSCs. Since then the BBC has struggled to find a happy mix of staff and freelancers that would aid the broadcaster's creative needs. Yet it is crucial for the future of the organisation that it puts more effort and confidence into creating this mix. 

What we have seen with print journalism - becoming a closed shop for the elite with over half of top journalists privately educated -thankfully cannot be said for television. The industry attracts people from different backgrounds partly due to the success of the independent sector and multi-channel media environment.

We are beginning to see this reflected in programme-making: with a greater diversity of perspectives, services and choice. And if we want television to provide a more honest and accurate portrayal of life outside the privileged bubble, the BBC needs to be shifting towards this approach, to see the value and variety in working with freelancers and breathe fresh air into the corporation. 

Television remains an attractive industry because developing and creating a project is such a rewarding experience. Working in television offers a great sense of achievement – whether you have helped produce a documentary that succeeds in changing perceptions, edited an entertainment show that brought joy into the living room or presented a news item that both informed and offered a unique insight – the work can be just as interesting and diverse as the content on the screen. And if the BBC wants to deliver value to audiences it needs to remember that it is their job to work with and support who they can when creating great original work.  

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