The Impact of COVID-19 on TV Freelancers

An important part of the Screen Industry Growth Network’s (SIGN) work is to provide policymakers with the evidence they need to be able to make informed decisions. These decisions then contribute to helping the screen industries do things better. To help achieve this aim, we recently submitted evidence to the Government’s DCMS Select Committee on the impact of COVID-19 on the creative industries. Read the Select Committee Report and our evidence.

This submission drew on a range of work from the SIGN and XR Stories teams, as well as work in collaboration with Dr Jennifer Johns from the University of Bristol. Jennifer is working with Dr Jon Swords (SIGN’s academic lead for research) to understand how TV freelancers are being impacted by COVID-19, and associated effects on working practices. They outline some of the early findings below.

Our research shows that TV freelancers have suffered a great deal because of the COVID-19 lockdown, with the vast majority of TV production ceasing and future employment uncertain. We’ve undertaken interviews with 30 people based in Northern England to understand how they have been affected, focusing on changing attitudes to work in TV and how working practices might change post-COVID. Here we introduce four of our initial findings.

First, it is important to note that not all work stopped in television. While shooting ceased almost entirely in the first weeks of lockdown, news and current affairs programmes continued to be produced, not least to provide coverage of the pandemic. Some post-production work (e.g. editing and sound mixing) could also continue where filming had finished and footage was available to editors to work on. Shows that were shooting went on hold, filming that was about to start has been postponed and new commissioning is uncertain.  

Second, short term contracts are a feature of employment in TV, with around half of the sector working freelance (some as sole-traders, while some manage their incomes through limited companies). People are typically adept at managing their finances and finding temporary work to get them through periods when jobs are scarce. But the lockdown meant the usual temping work was unavailable, increasing financial hardship. Access to government support schemes has helped some and those who pay themselves through their limited companies have been able to furlough themselves. However, individuals who pay themselves wages as dividends and those who are are paid through contracts which fall outside the Treasury’s support schemes, have been without income for months.

The differential levels of support have created debate and division within the sector based on how individuals have chosen, or have been encouraged, to manage their finances in the past. Many participants we spoke to have reassessed the decisions they have made:

“I think this whole situation is definitely highlighting…how precarious this work has been and what people can do in the future to try and help themselves out a little bit more”

(Participant H, Loader)

Third, the sector is not just composed of individuals earning wages through their labour. Many freelancers operate businesses which also provide equipment and other services, such as lighting technicians, cinematographers, some camera operators, sound technicians, and make-up artists, amongst others. Storage, maintenance facilities, vehicles and the equipment itself are often financed through loans and require insurance, and the costs of these overheads have not gone away during the lockdown. Meeting these payments was raised by freelancers as an unseen and underappreciated set of costs that are difficult to cover. 

Finally, a uniting factor across many interviewees related to the impact of the pandemic on work-life balance. For many people this was the first time they were out of work for a sustained period of time. This meant more space to focus on friends and family, albeit at a distance, and to reflect on the pay and conditions of work in TV and the health and wellbeing impacts of their jobs. As one participant explained:

“I’ve got a friend. He’s a production secretary…and he never stops…I thought I work tired, but I worry about his mental health. And he just throws everything into it even on his day off on a Sunday…it consumes you.”

(Participant Q, Casting Assistant)

With so little work available, the competitiveness of the sector has been temporarily put on hold and people were reassured about the universal experience of not filming:

“It’s been a really nice rest because knowing that nobody’s doing those parts, knowing that nobody’s getting those auditions and you’re not missing out on anything is actually really relaxing’.

(Participant B, Actor)

We will be following participants through diaries and further interviews to track their re-entry into work, but what is clear is that over the last four months TV production was reduced to levels unseen in the industry’s history. The DCMS Select Committee report rightly focuses on learning lessons and ways to get the wider cultural-creative sector back on its feet, but, as we outline in our submission,  there are justifiable fears that things will be unrecognisable for the medium to long term. We hope SIGN can help address some of these issues in Yorkshire and the Humber.