Over the past few articles we’ve been debating the various merits of different types of qualifications if you want to get into a television career. Mostly we debated media degree versus an academic subject. The last post came from Dani, a successful producer who explained why she’s glad she did a media studies degree.
But maybe you don’t need a degree at all.
Step forward producer (and Dani’s friend), Saul Fearnley.
“Seeing as working in TV is very much like attending some sort of mass therapy group, surrounded by alcoholics, victims of mental abuse and people going very quickly off the rails, I’ll start nice and simply:
Hi. My name’s Saul, I’m a TV producer and I don’t have a degree.
I never actually had any desire to work in telly when I was younger – I went to the sort of school where the careers advice was, “either be a teacher, get pregnant, join the army or go directly to jail” – like some sort of Shameless version of Monopoly. I did alright at school, not massively well at Sixth Form, and managed to secure myself a place at Uni, where I crashed a burned in a haze of whiskey, ciggies and bad nightclubs. Not a huge amount has changed since then. Anyway, I left, tail between my legs, and worked in various jobs in Edinburgh and Glasgow – shops, bars, the odd bit of writing. Nothing exciting.
Around this time, a couple of friends of mine – one of whom, Dani Ellis, can be found elsewhere on this blog – had passed their Media Studies degrees and started working in telly in London. I decided to move down from Glasgow to London – but still, at this point, no desire to work in telly.
After a year in London, a job as a runner came up at ‘This Morning’ and one of my friends suggested I go for it. At the time, I was working in bar, so there was nothing to lose. I met the production manager, and she very kindly offered me the job. At the time, I was about 26 years old and had literally no idea what I was letting myself in for.
My first word of advice to anyone wanting to get in to TV? Leave your attitude at the door. I got in to the business pretty late. Most people will be getting work experience or a runner’s job straight out of uni at 22-years-old. I was 26, had a very strong personality, been working since I was a teenager, and was essentially doing menial tasks for an office of around 40 people. And when I say menial, I had to buy tampons and get shoes re-heeled – that sort of thing. Let’s just say it took a while for me to adjust.
Being a little bit older, and being one of the only people in the office without a degree made me all the more determined to get on to a day team and start researching, but it was hard work. Younger kids (listen to me – I’M SO OLD) were coming in the office with shiny new media degrees – and friends in the industry – and taking the researcher jobs. I wasn’t even considered, which was tough. Working on a behemoth of a team like ‘This Morning’ makes it hard for the little people to shine – and when you’re kept as busy as a runner often is, there’s very little time to help out with a bit of research. There was photocopying to do! Tampons to buy!
After a few months, another runner position came up on ‘Loose Women’, which was moving back to London for the first time in years. I was offered the job, and was soon working for a much smaller team – the difference was astounding. The budget was much, much smaller in those days, and as well as being a runner, I was also expected to Assistant Floor Manage and be in charge of autocue. If anyone ever asks you to sit in as an autocue operator, please say no. That is my second piece of advice to you. It is quite literally the most nerve-wrackingly horrendous thing I have ever, ever done. Awful. I’ve started breaking out in a cold sweat now, thinking about it.
It was on ‘Loose Women’ that the runners really felt like an integral part of the team – time was given to see what else they could do. We’d get to write briefs, which is a real skill that you’ll need to hone if you want to work in live TV. Also, one producer one the show had the misfortune to break his arm and I had to help him write his script – so I suddenly had an insight in to what a career in telly might hold. After this, the whole team moved on to ‘Today with Des and Mel’, and I was made a junior researcher, then on to ‘Loose Women’ again as a full researcher, a weird set of circumstances led me to becoming an Assistant Producer on ’60 Minute Makeover’, and eventually, within three and half years after starting as a runner, I was producing my first shows in the edit, and then on to gallery producing.
It was a pretty fast ride, and I’ve made some tremendous fuck-ups in my time – sometimes I wish I’d spent more time getting to know all the ins and outs of this odd job, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone who knows everything about making TV.
And to that end, I think I can confidently say that in the 8 years I’ve been doing this, not once have I ever thought that not having a degree has held me back. Ever.
I’ve probably met a hundred work experience kids coming in from universities, and although a handful have really surprised me with their determination and work ethic, the majority of them walk through the doors thinking that it’s all a little beneath them. A Media Studies degree is obviously a great thing to have – it can teach you discipline, great communication and writing skills – all things that I’ve had to work hard to get on my own.
But spending 20 minutes using an Avid at college making a 5 minute short film about a local homeless man, or mocking up a news room and presenting a show at Uni, can never prepare you for being on shoot, a contributor getting lost, a producer screaming in your face and a camera not working. A media degree won’t prepare you for sitting in the gallery on your first ever live show, and suddenly realising you’ve forgotten to get in clips for a guest. A piece of paper and picture of you in a cloak won’t stop you from having to start at the very bottom, just like everyone else. In fact, by the time you get your first job, your degree will become immediately irrelevant. Just like your A-Levels and your GSCEs.
If you’re determined to go to Uni – and it is lots of fun – then by all means go. But know that a Media Studies degree won’t get you a job in TV – only you can get you a job in TV. A degree in English, or Chemistry, or Fine Art or whatever will look just as nice on your CV, and stand you in better stead, just in case the Tv thing doesn’t work for you. Because, piece of advice number three, working in TV is brilliant, but even the best researchers, APs and producers can’t always find work. And after three months of unsuccessfully sending out your CV, you may wish you had something to fall back on. Which reminds me that I, actually, don’t have anything else to fall back on… I’m off for a little lie down and a cry.
Oh, by the way, the lady who used to get me to buy her tampons no longer works in TV. And the producer who broke his arm is very high up at ITV and has re-employed me a couple of times as a producer. It always helps to make a good impression.”
So there you go – it seems there are creative folk out there getting into television without any kind of degree! Shocking, I know – but it happens. Seriously though I think Dani and Saul’s stories show that it is not a simple case of getting certain qualifications all lined up for that media job, it’s about you – as Saul quite rightly pointed out – and sometimes about fate and connections. Get those qualifications but be aware that they won’t be much good unless you can sell yourself along with them.
And if you want to hear what other TV folk have to say, you can join this debate on TV Watercooler: http://www.tvwatercooler.org/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=3540
Dani’s article, in case you missed it, is here: http://wanttoworkintelevision.com/why-do-a-media-studies-degree/