Published on: 14 June 2024 in Industry

“The culture of fear that surrounds freelance employment is our industry’s dirty secret” — Paul Evans’ industry blog

Reading time: 3 minutes and 34 seconds

It was pleasing to report, as we did a few weeks ago, the positive engagement that Directors UK has had with ITV.

Thanks to our feedback, directors on Coronation Street and Emmerdale are now paid a retainer to cover some days that they are not formally under contract, because the logistics of the show stop them from working for anyone else. Also, the 20+ year-old policy of offering only a £30 per diem to cover accommodation and subsistence has been improved, indeed, doubled to £60.

However, there’s a lot more that we need to do to ensure that directors are treated with the respect that they deserve on UK continuing dramas, or ‘soaps’. ITV directors’ wages have fallen significantly in real terms, and these are relatively small clawbacks towards the package they were on before the pandemic.

The situation at the BBC is a lot worse. I understand that in some cases, directors on EastEnders are paid roughly 2/3rds of the weekly rate that Coronation Street directors get for producing significantly shorter episodes. Rates on some other BBC ‘soaps’ are lower still.

While EastEnders directors love working on the shows, with great cast and crew, some of them tell me of a toxic and alienating experience leading up to them being formally engaged. In the current tough employment climate, offers of work often come late, and rates are presented as a take-it-or-leave-it — all subject to an opaque, seemingly arbitrary framework.

It seems to be a fairly basic rule of business that you shouldn’t be so focused on driving down the price when quality is such a big consideration — I blogged about the “market for lemons” at the bottom of this post a few weeks ago.

All in all, it’s a microcosm of the changes that directors have seen in their perceived value within their industry.

Those BBC directors have been in touch with Directors UK, and we explained that their treatment won’t change much until they make it clear that it’s not acceptable, and that this is something they need to do together. Those directors are now talking to each other about how they can make their voices heard going forwards.

But this brings me to two points that I think everyone in our industry needs to bear in mind:

1)    The culture of fear that surrounds freelance employment is a much-underestimated factor. It’s our industry’s dirty secret.
2)    This results in a bad feedback loop that results in false economies, bad management and a lower quality of work.

From where I’m sitting, the entire bargaining relationship is designed to ensure that freelancers who direct flagship programmes for broadcasters earn less than mid-level execs at those same broadcasters.

Every employer I ever speak to tells me that they understand why this is, but they have no intention of discouraging anyone from speaking their mind. They say no one ever loses work because they voice concerns about their own terms or the way they are managed.

I’m afraid that this a position that I can’t have much respect for. Until I start to hear freelancers telling me about positive steps employers are taking to guarantee that ‘rocking the boat’ is welcomed, I have to assume that employers are very comfortable with the culture of fear that they preside over.

Paul Evans is Head of Industry Relations at Directors UK. In this fortnightly blog Paul shares his thoughts on the industry, as he meets and collaborates with directors across the UK.

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