Skip to main content
CampaignsEqualityHousingEnvironmentGeneral ElectionSupport Our WorkFixing BritainMigrationEducationRaceCultureWorkGlobal

“Survive until 2025”: British TV and film workers battle a jobs crisis

With almost 70% of the workforce out of jobs, writers, producers and actors cling to hope that the industry will stabilise.


June 07 2024, 18.11pm

In March, Philip Ralph lost his job as a screenwriter for BBC’s Doctors. The show was a medical soap classic with over 4,500 episodes produced since 2000. “As a writer on the show for the past 19 years, I’m personally impacted along with hundreds by the disastrous decision to axe it,” he wrote in an emotional social media post, citing the opportunities it provided for new talent and seasoned creatives from every walk of life. “The TV industry is contracting. Production across the board is way down. Doctors was a much-needed ‘finger in the dam’ of this terrible situation. And now it’s gone with nothing to replace it.”

Since last year, British TV and film workers have been weathering a mounting jobs crisis. A recent report by the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (BECTU) points to a slowdown across film, TV and commercial production and commissioning in the UK, leaving huge numbers of people out of work. BECTU found that in February 2024, 68% of film and TV workers were out of work, just a small improvement since September 2023, when the figure was 74%. Out of those surveyed, 88% were concerned about their financial security over the next six months, and 75% reported that they were struggling with their mental well-being. 

“The middle ground of television has gone,” Ralph tells The Lead. “The mid-week drama, there’s bits of it left, and people will tell you there’s a lot of television being made, but the number of people who are actually working on that programme is much, much smaller than before.” Earlier this year, Channel 4 announced that Hollyoaks will now have three weekly episodes instead of five. Whereas ITV has cut their stars’ hours to make them film scenes “back-to-back”.

According to John Barclay, Equity Union’s Assistant General Secretary for Recorded Media, multiple factors have led to the decline of jobs: a flagging economy with high inflation, the arrival of streaming services, a decline in TV advertising, and a lack of state support for freelance workers. “Continuing drama series have been dealt a real blow in the past six months and the detrimental impacts extend beyond the members of the casts, who are faced with job losses, to the wider industry,” the union said in a statement. “The likes of Hollyoaks and Doctors offer something unique to viewers, and indeed to the wider culture, which the high-end television production of the global streamers cannot hope to emulate – just like the UK audience which they reflect, they are distinctive and special.”

“People are functioning within a system where the primary motivator behind anything getting made is profit,” Ralph continues. “So then you get constant questions of: Is it high-end? Is it shiny? Have we got a big star in it? Can we sell it internationally?” The screenwriter, who is himself from a working-class background, is concerned about the knock-on effects these conditions will have on locally told stories. “You won’t get working class or marginal or diverse voices telling these stories. You’ll get the big names telling shiny stories.” In May, it was revealed that less than 10% of film and TV creatives are from working-class backgrounds.

In recent years, parts of the TV and film industry made commitments to diversify its workforce. Yet data from the Creative Diversity Network reveals multiple areas of continuing concern, particularly in off-screen and senior roles. “Our 2023 report found that women are making fewer contributions than they were four years ago, with the decline driven by a reduction in senior roles, a spokesperson tells The Lead. “Disabled people and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic minority individuals are still under-represented in all senior roles and craft roles generally remain very segregated.” BECTU's latest report indicates that the recent job shortage could disproportionately impact women and people of colour, further deepening diversity issues. 

“There are fewer gritty stories and even those productions, when they get them away and commissioned by the BBC or Channel 4, the first conversation will be: ‘We need you to make it for this price point’, and it will be way less than they can afford to make it for,” Ralph says. According to the screenwriter, actors involved in Channel 4’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office production, which was watched by over 13 million people, accepted lower pay than usual to ensure the show's production. The four-part drama was still reported to lose ITV a million pounds.

Yet many can’t afford to stay or work for less, resulting in an industry brain drain. “A lot of people, when that decision came down to axe Doctors, left the industry,” Ralph says, explaining that people’s stable salaries, which weren’t huge to start with, have been wiped. The 51-year-old hasn’t lost all hope yet. “I don’t have a plan B. No.” He hopes to see new projects take off the ground in the next few months. 

Nothing to produce

According to the British Film Institute, UK spending on film productions in the first quarter of 2024 was 45% lower than reported in the first three months of 2023. This large drop can be explained by strike actions by Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA between May and November 2023, which led to many large-budget productions halting in the UK for the duration. These strikes affected workers like Sophie*.  

“I was made redundant at my last job because of productions not being greenlit. The same has occurred at the new job within the same year,” Sophie*, who has worked in production for four years, tells The Lead. She believes production companies are squeezing out mid-level employees. “Projects that should have been greenlit have fallen through. There’s very little financial support and so much risk.” 

While the future seems uncertain, she remains hopeful the situation will stabilise. “I was chatting to a very established producer, and there’s a mentality of ‘survive until 2025’. Everyone is clinging onto their jobs right now, and I know loads of peers who have been made redundant.” 

Like Sophie, Jay* has mid-level experience, working as an Assistant Producer for TV comedy productions since 2018. “The problem is that channels aren’t commissioning enough shows, so production companies aren’t making anything.” A company they used to work for, Zeppotron, was once one of the country's biggest comedy production companies. 

In 2019, Zeppotron had four studio comedy entertainment shows, in production simultaneously. Since 2020, they have been dropped or put on indefinite production breaks. “Our boss explained to us that the commercial channels don’t have enough money to commission shows because, in a cost of living crisis, you can’t sell as much advertising. Whereas the BBC has spent their rainy day money on the Queen’s funeral, coronation and Eurovision.”

Nothing to audition for

“Going to drama school. I was shielded from [the lack of jobs] for two years,” says Camilla Makhmudi, a 26-year-old actor from London. “The way our tutors described the industry was completely different from what it actually was.” In reality, the actor and everyone she knows work full-time jobs outside the field. “That’s been true of actors forever, but people have ditched part-time work because there are no auditions to make the time for, and also no money."

She finds it hard to believe that before Covid-19, actors would audition for theatre, film, and TV roles all week. “Even if they didn't land roles, they were still auditioning frequently. Whereas now, I know people who are signed with top agents, at the top agencies, and they've had one audition in six months.” Camilla explains that many of the advertised roles last a week or, at most, a month. Despite the likes of Netflix changing the film and TV landscape in the UK, the actor hasn’t felt the benefits. “If streaming is getting so big, then why aren’t the job sites catching up to the demand?”

Her main concern is that the industry feels impenetrable. “How can I possibly get that first step onto the ladder when there are no opportunities?” 

Like many others, Camilla is hopeful that things will improve but understands this won’t be the case for everyone looking for work. “Actors are very resilient, and most of us will think we will be the ones to get the job. I think that’s why so many of us won’t quit despite things being bleak” One year after graduating, she wants to stay optimistic. “People want to watch films. It's a huge industry that's constantly evolving and changing.”

Survive until 2025

So what can be done? 

Equity's John Barclay believes things will look up by 2025, with film productions resuming after last year’s writers' strikes and “TV channels reassessing how to move forward with programming in a new landscape of big streamers”. Beyond industry stabilisation, he also suggests continued government support through tax initiatives that entice production companies to film in the UK. “Big productions are crucial for local economies,” he says, citing the economic benefits Game of Thrones brought into Northern Ireland. 

Another way government policy can help workers is by improving their livelihoods as freelancers and offering them specific support. “In Ireland, they recently trialled giving artists UBI, greatly helping people who are in between jobs. We should be seeing more of that kind of thing here,” he says.

With a new government on the horizon, BECTU wants to see proper and sustained investment in the creative workforce after years of cuts within the arts and protection for freelance workers. They also want politicians to work with industry to demand a greater focus on equality and diversity. “This election will be pivotal in addressing these issues and will ultimately shape the future of the industry,” the union said in a recent statement.

Equity and BECTU’s demands are concrete. Yet, workers remain cautiously optimistic. They'll believe in change when they see it.

“Everyone’s gone: ‘It looks like in 2025 things will turn around. ‘Survive until 2025’,” says Philip Ralph. “And my contention is, what is happening in 2025 that’s going to be better than what’s happening now?’”

*names have been changed

You might also like...