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The Real Life of a Television Runner

Working in television is not the easy option. And by far the most difficult bit is getting a foot in the door and, once you’ve managed that, keeping that door open. The first rung in television is the runner role. Exciting though it may be to get that first job, for most people it will be the beginning of a long hard slog.

 

 

 

Louise McNamara is an experienced runner and someone I had the pleasure of working with on a live daytime show for Sky1.  She is hard-working, willing, resourceful and has heaps of that essential qualification – a sense of humour. If we were to demand a pair of women’s Irish dancing shoes in an outrageous size 9 with only hours to spare before they were required live on air – Louise would find them!  She has agreed to share her story and she’s not holding back. Want to know the reality of life as a runner? Then here it is:


“The best way to describe my time in television is to liken it to taking one of those back country roads that you think is a short cut, but in actuality turns out to double the length of your journey. If you are anything like me you’ll be too stubborn to turn back when the going gets tough, and instead you’ll just keep on going in the bitter hope you’ll eventually get onto that motorway – the highway to employment and success!

I started out in a fairly conventional way. I was exceptionally fortunate to have a contact, my Mum’s best friend’s son, who was a post-production engineer at ITV. He got me a job as a post-production runner on ITV’s ‘Dancing on Ice’ programme. Despite my easy route onto the road, I felt on the back foot, because unlike many others I hadn’t got a media degree. As a result I had little or no idea on how television worked.

That first job was perfect in the sense that I had an opportunity to learn quite a bit on how everything worked and apart from ensuring that the editors were fed and watered, it wasn’t tremendously busy.  So while it was great, it didn’t really do much for me in preparation for the life of a real runner!

The Runner’s Duties

My enthusiasm on ‘Dancing on Ice’ served me well and I literally walked from that job straight into a long contract as a post-production runner at the London Studios on the Southbank.  There I was part of a team of five who looked after roughly 35 edit suites.

The morning started at 8am with the job of distributing fruit and water to all the edit suites. By the time that job was finished all the editors and producers had arrived to start their day of editing various programmes – and thus began the dreaded toast run.

A Runner’s Pain!

The toast run still takes centre stage of the worst task I have ever had to do as a runner. Every day was filled with complaints – “Ugh, this toast is cold”, “I have been waiting twenty minutes”, “There is too much marmite on this”, “I asked for peanut butter NO butter”. It was just awful. I once was walking down the corridor balancing a box filled with about twenty bags of toast in one hand, and five coffees in a holder in the other when a woman came up to me and screamed in my face.

“How dare you keep the executive producer of such and such show waiting?”

It was the closest I have come to crying on a job. It was awful. The rest of the day was filled with regular tea runs, lunch runs, distributing afternoon ‘treats’, more tea runs, if you are lucky getting time to have your own lunch, squeezing in a dinner run before clocking off around 7pm. That first week alone I knocked up nearly 60 hours. In reality there was absolutely no time during your working day to actually learn what you wanted and needed to learn. You had to rely on your observations and maybe shadowing on your precious days off. But despite all this, I absolutely loved it!

Due to my lack of prior knowledge or experience in television I didn’t really have an idea of what area I wanted to focus in on. I had fallen into post production, and I really enjoyed it – but I didn’t feel that it was exactly the career I wanted to pursue. Fortunately my boss realised this and after three months she transferred me to studio.

A Studio Runner

Studio life was equally if not more busy than post, but it was a lot more exciting. The plus side of being a studio runner is that you are not confined to one production. So in any given week you could be working on the likes of ‘Graham Norton’, ‘Have I Got News For You’, and ‘Loose Women’. The days are long, usually 14-15 hour days (you were usually the first to arrive in the morning and last to leave in the evening). Your duties are varied, you can be roped into anything from tea and lunch runs to ferrying people to and from the studio; you could be on a roll, doing some interesting work and then be brought crashing down to earth by someone informing you that “the toilets are disgusting, can you do something about that?”

It was an exciting fast paced environment to be around. Every single day you would meet or see someone famous, whether it be high-fiving Will Smith, or bringing Carol McGiffin her lunch. It was a world completely different from anything I had ever even imagined doing and I adored it.

The down side of being a studio runner is not being a member of a one team. Because you don’t belong to a particular production you are looked upon as an extra. Unless you get really involved with a team you are usually just called upon to do tea runs and fix photocopiers (which burn like hell!). Usually the bigger the show, the easier it is to get lost in the crowd, this happened to me quite a bit. You would slave for weeks on end on a show, and when it was done you wouldn’t even get a ‘thanks’.

Advice for runners

The most important thing I found to do is to keep smiling, and never for a moment convince yourself that you are better than this. Try and make as many contacts with as many people in different departments as possible. Whether it be a producer who you hope will one day give you a job, or the cleaners who if onside will come and empty the bin bags in one of the client areas quicker. People who work in the canteen are a key ally as they are the ones that will give you free food – something that is exceptionally welcoming given the pennies that you earn.

The Money

The money is shocking. I figured out recently that I earned more working 36hrs in a video shop than I did working 60hrs a week as a runner. If you enjoy it enough you will find a way, although living on the breadline becomes a way of life. I know many people who couldn’t handle the trials and tribulations as a runner, and quit to seek a normal career. Money matters aside, maintaining that enthusiasm and passion is the key to surviving.

I finally decided that I ultimately wanted to end up as a producer; I was quite excited about the future and seeing how my route would progress. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the impact of entering unemployment at possibly the worst time for television. It was the summer of 2009, the recession was biting and there was very little being made.

My work life halted and didn’t know what to do. It was three long months of having literally no money and heavily relying on my Dad to continuously bail me out. It’s a very hard pill to swallow; you keep feeling sorry for yourself and thinking ‘I have spent a year and a half working my ass off and for what?’

Finding work

After three months and after sending out hundreds of CV’s I got offered a running job through someone I knew. Two months later, I found myself unemployed again, back to square one. I spent my two months polishing my CV, emailing and ringing people, and still nothing. Until one Friday morning I received a call from a woman in desperate need of an experienced runner to start on the Monday (which again came through a former employer and had nothing to do with the CV’s I had sent out).

The contract was for initially five months and eventually extended for nine. The relief of having a stable job was amazing, and the added bonus was I was working with probably the best team I ever worked with. The work was tough, being the only runner I had to split myself into three people – but it was a fantastic education on learning all the different aspects of how of live TV.

However, all good things must come to an end, and when that production ended I found myself unemployed yet again. I found myself in an unusual predicament  as now employers deemed me too experienced for runner jobs (one saying they were ‘overly impressed ‘by my CV), but were also unwilling to interview or take a chance on me for a researching role.

Moving on

After three months of work in drips and drabs, I was offered a production secretary role on a pilot show for ITV 1. It wasn’t exactly the promotion I was looking for, but the overwhelming relief I felt when I was offered that job was indescribable.  After two and half years of running I finally had made some progress!

I still haven’t abandoned my dreams of one day becoming a producer, and I hope that one day someone will take their chances on me being a researcher. For the time being, however, I am enjoying my time – although it’s shocking how much I miss the madness of running around like a headless chicken!”

Many thanks, Louise. That’s telling it how it really is. And I hope all production people reading this make an effort to nurture those runners and at least remember to say ‘thank you’!

 

19 comments

  • Chris Alford says:

    Disgusting the contempt people show for anyone who is an assistant? Do the actors or presenters ever give a thought for poor girls like this? This behaviour is disgusting. I now really never want to work in T.V. ever.

  • Chris Alford says:

    I love Doctor Who, but what I hate in the special features in the DVD’s is how they portray the union in the T.V. industry. Talk about right wing propaganda. I think the need for more union members is stronger than ever.
    I don’t think I could do her Job. I would most likely say “F__K Off” if I was spoken to like that.
    I know they say to have a ‘thick skin’ in the media industry but I think the saying of a ‘thick skin’
    is used as an excuse to treat people badly and was used historically to justify workers poor conditions
    long ago.

  • Billy says:

    So, basically, it’s a job for rich kids who don’t need the bother of a living wage and you spend most of your time doing menial work while being treated like a turd on someone’s shoe by people with personality disorders and little discernable talent except for bullying. Oh, how glamorous and exciting. No wonder 98% of TV is utter shite. No, really. I honestly think you have to be a bit of an airhead to be into this as much as you are. or are you just looking forward to the day when you get to break workplace law and treat people like turds yourself? Whatever, it is clearly not a place for anyone with a scrap of personal integrity or dignity. Vapid schmoozers, certainly. Any job where some stupid bitch screams in your face over tea or toast is not worth having. That kind of behavior should result in an industrial tribunal, not a giggly anecdote about how OMGMAD TV people are and an enthusiasm for the same environment.

    • Hmmm – well that is indeed one point of view! Thanks for your comment, Billy.
      There are, however, plenty of people who join television because they want to communicate to others, because they love ideas and bringing them to life, because they love working as a team. Like any business there are good bits and bad and nice people to work with and idiots.
      There is, in my opinion, no excuse for treating people badly and with disrespect – whether in the workplace or not. It’s a shame but there are a number of vapid schmoozers in television. There are also loads of hard-working, dedicated and lovely people who provide support encouragement and sometimes great friendship.
      BTW I don’t think Lou’s story is a ‘giggly anecdote’ – more of a brave, passionate and heartfelt account of the difficulties that can face people trying to enter the profession.

    • Louise McNamara says:

      Funny, I haven’t read this article since I wrote it, so never noticed these comments before. Whilst I appreciate everyones opinions, good or bad, I feel the need to defend myself on a couple of things mentioned by Billy in the above statement.

      1). I am in no way a rich kid. I come from a very modest background in the west of Ireland. I have been working in various jobs, and earning my own money since I was 14. Granted, I did depend on my Dad to bail me out when I was unemployed, but that was it, in no way was it a hand out.

      2). Whilst I documented in my blog some bad experiences I had, I didn’t mention and perhaps I should have, the wonderful and lovely people I met along the way (the creator of this site to name one). To be honest, I met more crazy and horrible people when I spent three years working in a video shop then I have in my 4 year TV career. Not defending bullying in sense of the word, but hierarchy happens every career field, not just television.

      3). 98% of TV might be shite, but it’s all a learning curve to make the 2% of gold.

      4). I am not an airhead. I might not have a degree but I would like to think I have some degree of intelligence (no pun intended).

      5). I once had someone scream in my face because the DVD I sold them wasn’t wrapped in the clingfilm it usually is. Like I say, I don’t condone shouting at people over minor things, but it is not only in the ‘horrid world of television’ that things like this happen.

      6). I HATE abbreviations and avoid using them at all cost.

  • Ben Dawson says:

    A very interesting read which brought up a few questions linking to my own personal endeavors.

    I am half way through a Television and Film Design degree, and have just failed the second year because of home life causing hurdles [suicide and illness, just so people don’t perceive me as a lazy student!]. Obviously at a time like this you become disheartened and wonder if it’s the thing for you, but then I’m constantly witnessing things and seeing the potential in them for scripts and programmes. I spend evenings watching shows wondering why certain camera angles were used, or why the sound wasn’t sorted in that external shot of Emmerdale.

    I guess it’s a case of persevering. But right now financially it’s almost impossible. Because of trying a year prior on a different course, and now failing my second year, I only have one year of Student Finance available, and two years of Uni left [at least!]. So I either personally finance this resit year impossibly, or use my Finance to pay for this year, and blindly struggle to solve my final and most important year.

    Ironically, and the reason I posted my back story here in the first place, I have been thinking of whether looking for running work would be a worthwhile idea in terms of killing two birds with one stone. Experience, and money. But seeing I’m pre-degree and the money is inevitably bleak, I guess it’s not really a positive direction to take at this stage in my personal education/career.

    One day, one day…

    • Hi Ben, and thanks for telling your story. Some may disagree with me but a degree is not essential – maybe preferable and certainly if you want to get into research but you would most likely still have to get into the business via a runner’s job – and not many demand a degree for running. I would suggest you try and complete the degree – would be a shame to waste what you’ve already done and could prove useful later on. BUT if that proves impossible then don’t see it as the end of your TV dream. You should definitely try and get a runner’s job – get any experience you can in holidays or whenever. That experience will get you a better chance of getting a TV job after your degree.
      We are publishing an article by a graduate on her work experience on here very soon.

      • Jriles says:

        This is laughable, I think one day many who work in the tv industry will wake up and realise how sad their lives have been.

        Dancing On Ice? I’m a Celeb? BB? All vehicles to raise the profile of an individual. A dull, self serving and vain one at that. Tv is dying a slow death, why? Quite simply because it’s made for dumb people.

        There is very little content, most of the time it’s telling you what it’s going to do then telling you what it will do next then finally after the advert tell you what you’ve missed!

        For anyone who wants a life of fullfilment, do something else. Something more productive. Any recent graduate should avoid it like the plague. Working for camp sociopaths who sit there brain storming new ideas for reality programming that are the most painfully retarded shows is a lesson in futility.

        Take the BBC for example a corporation that makes Eastenders, The One Show and other such garbage all whilst covering up and aiding Britain’s worst pedophile Jimmy Saville is no company anyone with a brain should go near. This wasn’t an isolated incident, others raped their way through the decades too another example being Stuart Hall.

        Then there is ITV an utterly shameful corporation. Many of it’s shows that require a phone in to vote are rigged. Cocaine use is rampat with the staff along with other nefarious substances.

        Don’t listen to any of what this chick has to say, brainwashed is the word I’m looking for. TV goood TV good. People good….low pay good….trolly dolly gooood…..said in zombie voice.

        Lolz.

        • admin says:

          Thank you for your comment – I enjoyed reading it. Not sure how useful it is to readers on this site but all views welcome. Got to say that I’ve had the best time working in TV, very often making shows or strands that have positive content. However I do agree that some shows are very thin on content. PRTS (premium rate telephone services) are very closely monitored these days and I doubt that any TV show would get away with “rigging” the voting system.

          Shu

  • Runners wanted for ITV’s Dancing on Ice « So You Want to Work in Television? says:

    […] […]

  • Getting that first job in television – and keeping it! « So You Want to Work in Television? says:

    […] Make sure you know what you are applying for. Do research on what a runner does in TV and be sure that you are capable and willing to do it. There are a number of articles on this site you can read, including this very frank account from a TV runner: . […]

  • great read, what’s Louise McNamara upto now? Is she still a runner?
    Any runners interested in sharing their experiences, tips on the BBC College of Production website.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/collegeofproduction/

    email: Steven.Sunmor2@bbc.co.uk and get involved.

    Best
    S

  • Chris Dodd says:

    This is a brilliant post, that really explores what life as a runner is like.

    For me the thing I take away from is the need for more structured entry routes into the media. This comes up time and time again, but mostly the advice is you need to start out as a runner. From the experience Louise has shared, it seems there is very little opportunity as a runner to develop productions skills (highlighted by her lack of progression into a researcher roll).

    This is aside from the fact that to survive as a runner means living on far less than a living wage. Retail is a notoriously low-paid industry, but the comparison with runners wages is truly shocking. Again this raises the issue of accessibility of media careers, and the fact that the industry are missing out on recruiting highly skilled and talented job seekers.

    Is being a runner really the best entry route to a career in TV?

  • What a Runner does in the TV Location Department | So You Want to Work in TV says:

    […] Thank you Ryan. Some very good advice there and if you’d like another view from a runner who was more studio-based then make sure you read ‘The Real Life of a Runner’. […]

  • […] a runner, but there still wasn’t much to do specifically just for me. I did some research into television runners before the week began and I understand their role completely, and how they work there way up, but […]

  • Elaine J says:

    Very interesting site – have subscribed not because I want to work in TV (bit too old to start all over again!) but because I’m writing a book in which some of the action takes place in that setting and I want to get it right.

    My observation on bullying is that it happens in every industry, sadly, and should not be tolerated if at all possible; I resigned from a job after 8 months many years ago for the same reason, but I know that not everyone who experiences bullying has that option – I was young at the time, had no mortgage or dependants and was able to walk away- not everyone can (or may feel that they can, more importantly).

    As for the Dr Who “right-wing propaganda” …I disagree; simply people who love and are proud of what they do sharing their enthusiasm with the audience, nothing wrong with that. Christopher Eccleston kept his counsel until many years had passed, presumably not wanting to damage a brilliant show for the sake of a few bullies, and kudos to him for following his principles.

    • Shu says:

      Thanks for your comment, Elaine, and if you want any insights in the world of TV then you’re in the right place! You’re right – bullying happens everywhere and it is, of course, abhorrent. If anyone reading this has experienced bullying in the TV workplace then I’d love to hear about it – anonymously if necessary. It’s a subject we touched upon on this site but would love to do more on it sometime. You might want to check out this article too, Elaine: http://wanttoworkintelevision.com/is-your-tv-boss-a-bully

      Shu

  • Rob says:

    “How dare you keep the executive producer of such and such show waiting?”

    Here’s a thought about that: F**K YOU!
    I would’ve had to restrain myself from throwing that coffee into her f***ing face.

    Actually, I only came across this here while doing research on whether there are any companies in the TV/film industry in London that DON’T use runners. It’s a concept I haven’t really come across in any other country so far. And everything I’ve read about it up to this point sounds absolutely horrible. Like something I don’t want to support by working there.

  • […] to give you a better chance of employability in the media industry is by interning or becoming a ‘runner’. Regardless of which field that you want to go into you will need passion for and knowledge of […]

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