How To Get A Job In Television
If you're wondering how to start a career in the television industry you've come to the right place. This section shows you the process involved, how to make the right decisions and how to and find that elusive first job.
Background & Disclaimer
This page was written by Dave Owen, Television Director
My experience in television has ranged from working as a news cameraman to director of an outside broadcast unit (including responsibility for hiring staff). During this time I have helped many people learn how to get themselves established in the television industry.
As a director for a moderate-sized OB (outside broadcast) operation, I have been an employer in what I refer to as the "middle level" of TV production. This means I need competent operators who are able to produce high-quality content for national television, but I don't have the need or budget to hire the absolute best in the business. Therefore I'm more likely to hire people at the middle or lower end of the market, including students and new graduates.
Opinions vary about the best approach to take when beginning your television career. The opinions on this page are mine alone. I recommend that you find as many different opinions as you can before deciding which path suits you best.
Now, down to business...
What do you want to do?
The first question you need to ask is which area of television you want to work in, and in what capacity. The requirements for different vocations are varied, so you need to plan your training path according to your particular ambitions.
On the other hand, it's also a good idea to keep your options open. Many people find that they end up with a very different job to the one they had originally wanted. This is one advantage of beginning your training with a general media studies course - it will give you a good grounding in many different disciplines and may help you decide which you prefer.
This brings us to....
Formal Education or On-the-Job Training?
This is one of the most difficult questions facing those about to embark on a media career. Do you spend years and large bundles of money gaining an impressive qualification, or do you wander straight down to the local TV station and ask for a job?
Ask 10 different managers and you'll probably get five answers each way. The fact is that different employers have different priorities. Some will insist on qualifications, some will insist on previous experience, some will take any newbie off the street. Naturally, larger and more prestigious organisations will tend to have higher expectations.
If you have a specific career path in mind make sure you know what will be required. There is little point aiming to be Head of Programming at a large station if you don't first aim to acquire a formal qualification - you will simply be too disadvantaged against your competitors. On the other hand, if your goal is to be an excellent camera operator, you may be wasting your time at university.
The table below summarises my opinion about the requirements for several common job types:
|AREA OF EMPLOYMENT
|TYPE OF REQUIREMENTS
(Camera operator, editor, etc)
|Formal qualifications are less important, experience is the key.
(Presenter, actor, etc)
|Formal qualifications are not usually important. Personal attributes such as self-confidence and people skills are critical. You will also need to be "camera-friendly" (a dicey topic which we won't go into here).
(Movie or television critic, etc)
|Formal qualifications are usually important, or at least an understanding of academic protocol. Practical experience is not usually a requirement.
|Formal qualifications are very important and a reasonable level of practical experience will often be expected.
Obviously different companies will have different levels of employment criteria. Your local volunteer cable channel may take anyone who is willing to turn up for work, but large companies get so many applicants they may immediately discount anyone without formal training just to shorten the list.
Personally I don't care too much about formal qualifications when evaluating applicants. This is partly because I've seen enough incompetent graduates to believe academic qualifications don't necessarily result in practical abilities. I'm also somewhat biased by my own experience - my formal media qualifications are practically nonexistent. I did start a media studies degree but I became frustrated with the slow pace and irrelevant material so I went out on my own. Almost immediately I began working in live television. By the time I would have finished my degree and been looking for my first job, I was already a junior director.
What Do Employers Look For?
There's no getting away from it - someone with experience is more desirable. However it's not always critical and you shouldn't be put off if you don't yet have it. Lack of experience will make things slower for you at the start but it needn't stop you.
It is also possible to be "over-experienced". If I interview someone with extensive experience for an entry-level job, I might be concerned that this is a fill-in job for them and they won't stay long. Sometimes it suits me to hire someone with a lot to learn because I expect them to stay with us for at least the duration of their "apprenticeship".
If you have no experience, the good news is that there are jobs available. You could look for entry-level positions such as camera and sound assistants, cable-runners, etc. Once you have a foot in the door you have made the hardest step.
Motivation and Commitment
The quality of our television production depends heavily on how motivated our operators are. As a director I rely on things like camera operators finding good shots. One highly motivated person can contribute more to the programme than several ordinary ones.
Reliability is essential. If you're the sort of person who always makes sure you use your full entitlement of sick days, you are unlikely to be popular in television. If you're tardy with time-keeping, forget this career. In live TV, one person being one minute late is all it takes to ruin everyone's day.
As an employer I also know that someone with enough motivation can go from being a newbie to an excellent asset in a short space of time, so this attribute will go a long way to compensate for any lack of experience.
When I first started employing I rated this as being very important. Since then, having seen a number of people flourish who didn't initially appear to be naturals, I have softened my attitude slightly. I still favour people who learn quickly but I won't fire you if you take a bit longer to pick things up.
Still, you need to be honest with yourself and seek genuine evaluation. This is a competitive field and if you don't have at least some natural aptitude you will always be at a disadvantage.
You will be required to work with people from many walks of life, often in high-stress situations. You need to be able to get on with people - those you work with and those you deal with as part of the job. For example, a typical camera operator or presenter may have to do things such as:
- Make people comfortable appearing on camera for the first time
- Elicit information from reluctant sources
- Focus on the job whilst being harassed by members of the public
- Deal with people who are grieving, under stress, in trouble, etc.
"It's not what you know, it's who you know".
There's no denying that having contacts in the industry is helpful. This applies not only to new entrants, but for any career move at any stage. I won't say any more because it's fairly self-explanatory. Just be aware that it makes sense to cultivate and maintain good contacts.
So What Do I Do Now?
If you feel that a formal qualification will be to your advantage, investigate as many options as you can. There are many types and levels of training and you must be sure that the school or college you attend will be the most beneficial. Do your homework and find out what each school offers, what the course objectives are, exactly what qualifications you will receive, etc.
If you want to leap straight into a job, find out who the production houses are in your area. Your options will (hopefully) range from small commercial video producers to large television channels. If you find a job in a large company you'll have all the advantages of their resources and experience, but small companies also have their bonuses. For example, a small operation may be more likely to give you a fast track to experience in a range of roles.
Whatever you decide, you can give yourself a head start now. Read the tutorials on this website and find other educational resources. Learn learn learn. Buy or borrow your own camera and practice, practice, practice. If you can't find paid work immediately, see if there are any volunteer TV stations near you - you can get invaluable experience which will help you find employment.
Television is a hugely rewarding career. Don't be intimidated, the people who work in the industry are normal folk just like you. If you have a professional, responsible attitude and are willing to learn and work hard then there is no reason you can't join in the fun. Good luck!
See Also... How to Make a Demo Reel