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C21’s Big Picture is an ongoing initiative to support positive change in and through the content business across four key areas of focus: inclusivity & diversity, sustainability & environment, business practice & operations, and content & storytelling.

‘To be a freelancer in TV you need to enjoy roller coaster rides’

Edi Smockum, director at London-based thinkBIGGER!, looks back on a year full of uncertainty and not much in the way of work – particularly if you are a freelancer.

The past year has, without a doubt, been one of the most challenging in the industry, as commissioning has slowed down to a crawl. It seems particularly cruel, coming on the back of one of the busiest years on record, which itself was preceded by the uncertainties of Covid.

To be a freelancer in television during the past few years, you would need to enjoy roller coaster rides, or have a very understanding bank manager.

UK media workers’ union Bectu, as well as several other organisations, including The Film & TV Charity, have all reported the desperation of those who are out of work and any talent manager you speak to will tell you about the large numbers of applications they are receiving for each job they advertise – many from very over-qualified people.

Surveys, including a recent one by the TV Collective, suggest talent is considering leaving the industry in unprecedented numbers – while ScreenSkills’ latest high-end television (HETV) strategy predicts deficits of more than 25,000 in HETV in future years.

As this crisis passes, we may be left in a position that too many people have left the industry and we will be scrambling for talent once again. Isn’t it time we had a skills strategy that addresses the skills gaps in the industry and retains talent for the long term?

In the good old days, as many senior execs are keen to tell us, the BBC was the training ground and ever since the growth of other content platforms we have struggled as an industry to a have a comprehensive, cohesive plan to develop and support freelancers in the industry.

ScreenSkills, tasked with training freelancers, offers many good programmes but it has just lost the £23m (US$28m) it received from the British Film Institute as that organisation devolves skills training to the nations and regions.

While money is being directed to areas that are most in need, it still doesn’t feel like we have a joined-up industry. University programmes for film and television have proliferated in the past 20 years but do not seem to be the best places to learn about the industry. If you have been to a careers fair – where graduating students don’t know the difference between editorial and production – you will know what I mean.

There are many good programmes for new entrants run by broadcasters, streamers and organisations (I should declare here my company, thinkBIGGER!, runs one on behalf of Channel 4), but how do we measure and therefore replicate the successful ones?

I have bored many of my contacts outside the industry in the past few months looking at training – from my hairdresser to Formula 1 – and investment in the longer term throughout a career seems to be key.

The freelance nature of television hasn’t helped develop careers. Short-term contracts with no investment in people’s future has led to a lot of frustration in the industry, leaving the freelancer responsible for their own progression and left to navigate an industry that is never straightforward and where it is often difficult to understand how to get ahead.

While ScreenSkills’ bursaries have helped a great deal with this, there is still a lot of “what do I do next?” and “I will do anything to keep working” in the industry. This doesn’t allow anyone to take a measured approach to their careers.

We have to make it both attractive and sustainable to ask people to invest in their own careers – and at the moment, we simply aren’t offering that.

C21’s Big Picture is an ongoing initiative to support positive change in and through the content business across four key areas of focus: inclusivity & diversity, sustainability & environment, business practice & operations and content & storytelling.


Edi Smockum
Edi Smockum is managing director of thinkBIGGER!, a talent development, management and consultancy company which specialises in groups historically excluded from the television industry. She began her television career in Canada before moving to the UK and working for the BBC for seven years as a producer. After a five-year stint in Paris working with Radio France International, returned to the UK and became head of short courses at the National Film & Television School, where she had previously been a freelance trainer. In 2007, she applied to Channel 4 for a job she didn’t get, and was subsequently asked by the broadcaster to set up a company to run a new-entrant training programme for underrepresented people — and thinkBIGGER! was born.