It’s possible to earn a very good salary in the TV industry. But it’s much tougher to do so if you are a woman, over 45, or at the bottom of the career ladder. Tim Dams reports on the TV industry’s salary secrets
[see DMI Productions’ infographic above for the potted version]
First the good news. Many TV industry workers say that their level of pay increased during 2011.
46% of respondents to Televisual’s 17th annual salary survey said their earnings rose year on year, a particularly impressive figure at a time when many workers in other industries have seen their rates of pay flatline in this era of austerity and budget cuts.
The salaries for key jobs in the TV industry are also well above the national average of £26.2k. A producer, for example, can expect to earn an average of £44.9k, a production manager £38.5k and an editor £40.2k.
Indeed, the TV industry can provide a route to impressive wealth for those at the top of the tree. Our survey, based on the responses of 611 Televisual readers (see box on page 36 for an explanation of how it works), reveals an indie md and a script writer earning £500k, an indie chief exec on £300k, a DoP on £200k and a colourist and a post house technology director on £160k. The survey also records plenty of executive producers earning over £100k.
Now for the bad news. A majority of TV workers said their pay rates had either stayed the same (33%) or fallen (19.6%) during 2011.
Pay at the entry level end of the industry also remains very low – £14.5k for a runner, £20k for a researcher and £21k for a bookings job in a post house.
Mind the pay gap
Alarmingly for an industry that prides itself on being liberal and open, Televisual’s salary survey also provides clear evidence of a pay gap between men and women. The average salary for the men responding to the survey is £56k, while it is £49k for a woman.
It’s a point noted by many of the female respondents to the survey. “It would appear there is still a pay gap between men and women doing the same work – and men are still earning more,” notes one producer. A dubbing mixer on £25k adds: “Female salaries in my place of work are still shockingly much lower than my male counterparts. In my case I earn less than one third of what my colleague earns.”
And it’s not just because many women drop out of the workplace after childbirth, argue several respondents. “Women still get paid considerably less than men,” argues one head of development. “Even before they have children – so often cited as a reason – there is a huge gap.” Other women suspect they are being paid less than their male colleagues, but say it’s hard to be sure: “I have always worried that my rate of pay is less than would be given to a man, but it is usually impossible to find out,” writes one female series producer.
Many respondents also argue that the TV industry is ageist too. “I think my salary is reducing due to my age,” says one 63-year-old director. “Telly is a young man’s game.” Many middle aged and older production staff argue that it’s becoming ever harder to compete against younger, less experienced – but often cheaper – rivals. The survey backs this up – 41-45 year olds earn the highest average salary as a group, after which earnings decline over the years.
As in previous years, the survey reveals an industry that is increasingly polarised. Senior executives and top talent appear to be doing very well compared to those working at the coal-face of production who complain that their salaries have not changed in years and indeed have been eroded by high inflation.
“The pay in production companies is a bit like the rich versus poor gap in the UK in general,” argues one production co-ordinator. “There is a lot at the top end, peanuts at the bottom end and no middle ground.” One exec producer notes that, “there is still a huge gulf between what on-screen talent earns compared to those who make the shows in which they feature.”
A 60 year old editor uses his long experience to offer this perspective: “Salaries are relatively a lot lower for mid-level workers than 20-30 years ago, but for the top execs they are rather higher.”
Television’s squeezed middle
Many others point to the existence of a squeezed middle in TV. “Execs are overpaid! PDs are underpaid and undervalued,” is the cry of another filmmaker. “The creative salaries have risen over the past 10 years while production salaries have stayed more or less static,” notes one head of production. “At the top end of indie production I have no doubt individuals are earning a lot more than those, like us, working in the micro-indie sector where survival is a top priority,” comments an indie md.
The consensus of opinion in the salary survey points to average earnings stagnating in television, with many respondents saying that their day rates have stayed the same for many years. One Al-Jazeera producer/reporter, for example, complains that his salary has not risen in four years. A freelance production co-ordinator says she hasn’t received a pay rise at the BBC for eight years. An editor reports that, “TV editor wages haven’t risen in 10 years at least.” Likewise a freelance sound recordist says his rate has not changed in five years, while a director adds that his daily rate is now less than it was five years ago. “Wages across the industry have remained static for 10 years,” argues a colourist (on an admittedly good salary of £75k). “Wages will not and cannot increase until budgets do. I keep on wondering when we will ‘hit the wall’”. A director notes: “Director-producer rates have been pretty stagnant for the last few years – around £200 per day or £1200 per week all in and sometimes this has to include holiday rates.
Indeed the words ‘static’ and ‘stagnant’ crop up time and again in the salary survey. “Salaries have reached a depressing plateau,” writes one producer on £50k. “My salary has not changed in over six years with no bonuses or salary rises. It’s insane that a freelance producer is earning virtually the same day rate as 10 years ago. We are an industry with no income protection, and yet the perception is that we are all highly paid.”
And many point out that because of inflation, they are effectively taking a pay cut. One exec producer points out: “Rates for factual or factual entertainment directors have not improved in many years. They have been eroded as budgets fail to keep up with inflation and because of broadcasters’ own budget cuts. The knock-on effect of this is that the good directors in our industry are finding it difficult to get the financial rewards they deserve so instead move into series producing and executive roles.”
And a producer with 17 years experience in the business adds: “Salaries in the TV industry have not risen with inflation in the entire time I have been working.” Another veteran producer provides a useful perspective on the issue: “I engage hundreds of people each year. Remuneration, from headline salaries to per diems, has not gone up – and in many cases has fallen – in actual (not ‘real’) terms over the 14 years I have been a drama producer. The real term erosion of the standard of living of even those who do find regular work has been enormous.”
long hours, no overtime
At the same time as rates remaining stagnant, there’s also a common feeling that production staff are expected to work longer hours and do more for the money. “There’s lots of unpaid overtime expected by employers with no prospect of a return to pay rises,” explains a lighting director. “You have to work harder, for longer and do everything,” adds a 41 year old producer/director. “My pay includes no overtime despite many extra hours worked,” points out a production assistant on £15k a year. “It’s unfair how much salaries are being tightened as schedules are being shortened and hours are extending. It makes you resent working on a show by the end of it,” says a series producer. A director, meanwhile, adds: “It seems like you do three jobs for the price of one.”
Others claim that some of the practices in the TV industry would be illegal in any other business. “At the bottom end, you are expected to work over your contracted hours all the time for no extra pay,” notes a production co-ordinator on £18k a year. “Most companies don’t want to pay freelancers any overtime, although they want you to work 12 or more hours a day. I have never been offered any holiday pay…and get laughed at if it is suggested they pay,” says a DoP.
Many also struggle to provide exact details of their daily rates because they have to do so much overtime. Says one producer/director: “It’s difficult to answer the question about ‘daily rate’. Most contracts for folk in documentary production teams are buy-outs, so you work until the job is done, without overtime or days off in lieu. I’ve done jobs where I have worked between 14 and 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for nearly a month at a time. You still get paid your flat rate while your cameraperson, soundperson, and then editor are all paid overtime.”
Others cite a myriad of complaints about how pay is suppressed in the TV industry. “Engagements are shorter – days and not weeks. But then fixed sum agreements are often strained by increased production periods and changes caused by multiple execs, particularly at the BBC,” says one script writer, who talks of five layers of management between a producer and a channel head on one project he worked on.
A camera operator says his salary has effectively been eroded by employers setting a 12-hour day, or wanting large amounts of travel mileage included in the rate. An AP adds that there is great pressure on levels of pay – mostly by shortening production periods and forcing freelances to work harder. “I often work extra hours, unpaid, to get the job done.”
Others point out that a weekly rate of, say, £1,500 for a series producer looks good on paper. But because of the freelance and intermittent nature of TV production, it’s very difficult to earn over £30k on that salary.
does experience count?
Indeed, many say they are powerless to fight for better rates or for overtime pay. Respondents cite a ‘like it or leave it attitude’ from employers.
Because, they say, employers are able to play on the great fear that there are many others out there, particularly younger workers, who would be prepared to take on the work at cheaper rates. “Younger people are being recruited and appointed to many senior positions simply to justify lower rates of pay,” notes one 62-year-old exec producer.
“Too many youngsters are taking on too much for too little and destroying their own future earning potential,” complains one director. An editor says: “Too many desperate graduates are affecting salaries generally – and production companies take full advantage.”
“Experience does not count, except when it comes to fixing the mistakes of other cheaper, less experienced and more readily hired colleagues,” says one story producer.
There are multiple complaints that wages in post production, particularly, are depressed. “They are shockingly low – less than the average London receptionist,” says one person working in bookings on £15.5k. One colourist worries that “fewer and fewer people will see post production as a viable career choice unless they can earn a decent wage.”
Indeed, for the first time in the salary survey there is evidence of production staff looking abroad for better pay and conditions. One editor reports that pay in Los Angeles is on average one third higher than in London. A script supervisor who has just moved to Australia reports that: “Working hours and conditions are much better in Australia. I was very surprised to find that most productions work five day weeks not 11 day fortnights. Plus they don’t do buy outs… you get paid overtime plus extras.”
Not all of the feedback to the survey is negative, however. Specialist technical and operational skills continue to pay well and are even rising. “Salaries are going up in engineering,” notes one outside broadcast exec who says there is a shortage of really experienced people in the sector.
Others admit that once a person builds up a track record in television, rates of pay improve. “Once you are established, it’s well paid,” says one editor. “But before being established, exploitative pay is the norm.”
And there are riches to be had for those that pursue them doggedly. An executive producer earning £75k argues: “TV is now a hit business – there is no ‘middle market’. So if you create a hit you earn megabucks, if you make small shows you get paid peanuts. It’s now a totally open market which is exciting and also very insecure.”
Many thanks to DMI Productions for the Salary Survey infographic