How To Get a Job in Television: Updated

Review, by Beth Bacon.

Elsa Sharp wrote the bestselling How to Get a Job in Television in 2008. Since then, Sharp has worked her way up at the BBC and is now Talent Executive for BBC Current Affairs. Necessarily, Sharp has now published an updated version of that original book and it is also available as a shortened eBook edition.

How to Get a Job in Television: Updated begins by explaining Sharp’s background. Starting this way illustrates a similar technique that can be used on LinkedIn and IMDB: tracking back through the career of someone you admire can demonstrate how they got to where they are today. Sharp allows the book to speak for itself: i.e., follow this advice and you too might carve out a similar route to success.

Sharp’s subtitles work as a sort of tree diagram: if you tick these boxes, then you can move onto the next step. This makes the book easy to navigate and satisfying for those of us that often doubt ourselves.

The guide helps to demystify the television industry and works to remove the long-held belief that getting a job in telly is about ‘who you know’ and ‘luck’ (that’s not to say networking and luck are unimportant). Sharp describes the best approach to getting a job in such a cutthroat line of work; it’s all about the three p’s: ‘patience, planning and persistence’. This, in turn, will hopefully help to make the industry more accessible and diverse. As Sharp mentions, ‘The BBC has a rider stipulating that TV production companies who make shows for them must ensure that 20% of their production teams are diverse.’ This is great, but we can always do better.  

Although Sharp’s eBook is informative and straightforward, it falls a little flat where workers’ rights are concerned. I understand that Sharp is trying to breed determined and proactive Runners when she describes how someone, who is now a Producer Director, ‘When he got his first job as a runner he slept in his car.’ I think this mindset is very dated and dangerous. There are many ways to get jobs in telly without having to sleep in your car. Runners should not be taken advantage of. Sharp also states that ‘In order to get paid work on a programme it’s essential to have some experience of working in TV by doing a placement at a TV company’. Working for free breeds elitism, as only those that can afford to do unpaid work experience will put themselves forward for it. Although I know Sharp is a hugely experienced and well-regarded member of the BBC, I think she could have used this platform to highlight the injustices that are still prevalent within our industry.

How To Get a Job In Television: Updated is not just for those who haven’t been on a set before. There are many aspects of the book that discuss areas of working in TV that many seasoned freelancers might not yet have reflected upon. This certainly is the case for me. Sharp recommends to ‘understand their [Production companies’] brands’, which makes complete sense. After all, if you’re applying for a long contract with a company, you want to make sure they align with your own values and interests. Sharp also reveals how ‘Many freelancers will work between three or four companies who make shows in a certain genre, moving around almost seasonally. They build long standing and enduring work friendships which serve as a network for future job opportunities.’ I hadn’t thought about applying to companies I had worked for in the past and building on those foundations that are already formed. This just goes to show, there is always so much more to learn. Every day is a school day in telly. In this way, How to Get a Job in Television provokes self-reflection and new perspectives.  

Sharp’s book is to inform. I love the way Sharp is brutally honest about the realities of the world of television. She describes how ‘It can seem off putting at first, insecure and unstable, but it is possible to develop the skills and experience to progress and having the right attitude and accepting these difficulties is key.’ TV is not for the faint-hearted and this should be understood from the get-go. Sharp describes how ‘It can destroy and make monsters of some. Bullying is rife and can bring out the worst behaviour to meet deadlines and deliver.’ It is good that this is mentioned, so to prepare newbies for the worst. Bullying is often swept under the carpet and not spoken about. Drawing attention to this issue illustrates that those at the top are aware of it and happy to discuss its danger. But, then again, by far and away most encounters I’ve experienced in TV, so far, have been positive and welcoming, and I’d advise those looking for a career in television not to be dissuaded by these words.

Using this can-do attitude, Sharp demonstrates the importance of sticking up for yourself through the example of wages: The ‘unofficial rate card’ where there are ‘pay ranges’. If you’re in an interview for an entry-level position and you’re uncertain what to say when they ask, ‘what’s your rate?’, you should consult this table. If you have been working as a Runner or Researcher for a while and your pay has gone up over time, it is fair to quote them your wage from your previous contract. For example, when I started out as a Runner, I was on a flat rate of £90 per day. After about a year of work I was getting paid £120 per day, plus expenses. So, whenever asked my rate in interviews I’d always make sure to quote them the rate given my experience at that time. The message to take back from this is: don’t undersell yourself.

I would recommend buying Sharp’s new book, provided you can manage your expectations. The range of jobs that can be pursued within the business are thoroughly explained from someone who has been in this line of work for many years.  There is also an incredibly useful ‘TV Industry Organisations’ section at the end, which lists all the places to apply for jobs. However, if you believe in workers’ rights and making the future brighter for those starting at the bottom, then I would recognise that Sharp’s anecdotes are past their sell-by date. Nonetheless, How to Get a Job in Television: Updated does what it says on the cover: it offers sound advice for getting a foot in the door of the TV world by a well-seasoned and highly regarded professional.

How To Get A Job in Television Updated by Elsa Sharp costs £5 and is available to buy here