10 February 2021
All this comes as a new Director General and Chairman take over the reins at the BBC, which faces a hostile Conservative government that has questioned the corporation’s reliance on the licence fee.
Our colleague Teale Failla, the first recipient of the Somewhere MBA LGBT+ Scholarship and winner of an Academic Excellence Award, spent last year speaking to a wide range of people working in TV in the UK. She found that people in senior roles rarely make time to develop their leadership and people-management skills, resulting in staff being worked into the ground.
“It is a misperception that having high expectations and standards causes stress. That’s not the case at all; it’s poor leadership that causes stress. A good leader will have high expectations but treat their creative team with respect and inspire them to produce their best work. Bad leadership causes stress and often leads to harassment in the TV industry.
“Most are familiar with the #MeToo movement which began in the US and parallels the UK industry in many ways. We’ve all heard of the ‘casting couch’, but it took women standing up and saying no more for everyone to really come to grips with how pervasive and damaging sexual harassment is.
“However, what gets less attention is non-sexual harassment. I’ve experienced this myself and it was one of the things that spurred me to pursue an MBA so that I could learn ways of managing and leading people that are better not just for staff, but for managers and the organisation overall. Every person I talked to had a story to tell about not just harassment, but the negative aspects of how the industry is set up which leads to poor mental health and low self-worth. We expect people, especially in the beginning, to do crap work for no pay and be treated like scum in the process, all as a matter of course. Those that speak up are told that’s just the industry and they need to develop a thick skin in order to make it. That’s absolutely ridiculous to me, not just because it’s so wrong, but because I don’t know how you can expect to get the best out of creative talent by treating them horribly and making them sleep deprived from working 16 hour days as standard. It’s completely illogical and counter to leadership and management research, not just in film and television, but across industries.
“Many I interviewed claimed that the main problem is the lack of time, because time is money. It is difficult for leaders to make the time for any kind of management training when they are under pressure themselves, and that pressure trickles down. Yet no one could say whose money and how much they were losing.
“We need to change our perspective and re-evaluate our priorities. Understanding how to lead creative teams well leads to greater efficiency and higher profit; we just need to make that investment.”
During the pandemic, television productions across the world came to a halt. What do you think this has provided the industry with an opportunity to do?
Covid gave all of us a great opportunity to examine how and why we do things the way we do them. It also gave us perspective of what is really important in life. In an industry that can’t rest, we were forced to.
Freelancers by and large had to break from working in the industry while executives scrambled to come up with solutions to get new programming on the air in a pandemic. We saw a lot of people making television from home and over video conferencing. Digital transformation has gotten a well-needed kick in the pants. But really, time should be given to leadership and management training. It’s not just for executives, but anyone in a leadership position: producers, directors, heads of department — anyone leading other people. When I went to film school, these skills weren’t really covered. It was all about the creative, the technical, or directing actors. We were never taught how to lead creative teams and get the best out of them. People in creative or technical fields across industries who do well get promoted to management positions, yet they are not actually taught how to manage people or organisations. These things are somehow assumed to be innate, but they definitely are not.
Tell us more about your findings to do with mental health in the TV workforce. What can be done to address this and why is it important?
I heard first-hand the effects of poor leadership on mental health from my interviews. It wasn’t just people in lower positions who talked about being mistreated. Practically everyone at every level had stories of some kind of harassment, even executive producers whom you might think would be at the top of the chain. When I asked what they thought caused that mistreatment, it was suggested their bosses were being mistreated as well. I spoke with one executive producer who, when they complained about being mistreated by their boss who was a commissioning editor, their boss said they felt like quitting every day because they too were so unhappy. So this is really pervasive and it just takes one person at the top to create a toxic environment for everybody.
Participants in my study named working conditions, poor leadership and harassment as the main causes of mental health issues. My participants also knew people in the industry who had taken their own lives or made attempts. One participant recalled a shoot that had to scramble to fill in for someone who had left a suicide note on set rather than perhaps shut down for the day. Shoots cannot shut down, not for bereavement, suicide, nothing. I asked people what would happen if they had a death in the family — could they take time off work? The freelancers didn’t have an answer, because the ‘show must go on’ with or without them, and if they get replaced, they may not work again. I hope that with Covid causing productions to halt, we might start to change our priorities including hiring and employment practices. Honestly, since doing my research, the phrase ‘The Show Must Go On’ will never be the same to me.
Is there an opportunity to tackle these issues with new leadership at the BBC?
The new Director General comes from a television background, having led BBC Studios and Marketing previously so he has industry experience which is a plus. However, he is also a former conservative politician himself which might raise concerns as there are debates as to whether the BBC should be publicly funded. But what worries me and others in the LGBT+ community is his apparent confusion between impartiality and defending basic human rights. For instance, his rules on journalistic bias have been extremely vague and many in the LGBT+ community and allies are still unsure of whether attending Pride events or otherwise showing support might jeopardise their employment. Human rights should never be up for debate or be seen as a ‘controversial’ topic.
I fear, therefore, that the new leadership at the BBC in many ways may just be a reincarnation of the old guard. It’s still early days, however, and I hope to see progress in developing their people, particularly as the BBC has had issues with equal pay for women in recent years which I have not seen be fully reconciled. I’m more impressed by the new leadership at ITV. I think they’re doing a lot of great things with lowering their impact on climate change, transparency, personal development and digital transformation. In general though, I would like to see more leaders in these positions who have experience producing television programmes and leading creative teams, particularly freelance teams. So many issues in television leadership come to the fore when you are in that environment which can be hard to see or empathise with sitting in an office.
Lack of diversity on and off screen remains a huge issue. Based on your research and experience, what advice would you give the industry?
Right now, there are increasing diversity initiatives in organisations which is great. However, they tend to be one-off schemes. We have to completely overhaul how we look at programming, how we hire, and how we develop our people. This is change management and it involves everyone from staff to line managers, Directors General and board members being actively on board. You can’t just hire a diversity officer and expect them to work miracles if the rest of the team isn’t with them. That takes charismatic leadership from the top inspiring their people to move with them in a new direction because it benefits them as well as the organisation.
Therefore, diversity and inclusion should be the cornerstone of every decision, from hiring to programming and everything in between. Too often commissioning editors turn down a script because they already have a sitcom with a female lead or a Black creator or a procedural with a gay character etc. Never has anyone said, ‘We can’t have two white straight male leads…’ More execs need to champion young, underrepresented talent and hire based on potential, not just experience. Hiring based solely on experience just perpetuates the status quo. Because bias is systemic, organisations cannot sit back and wait for diverse candidates or scripts to just come to them. They have to seek them out, create spaces for them to flourish, and begin partnerships with organisations that support people of underrepresented backgrounds.