Multi skilling; the future?

I got into tv production way back when because I wanted to be creative. I’m pretty sure it was Chris Evans’ antics on The Big Breakfast which planted the seed although for a few years after I harboured some sort of pretence that I was going to become the next big theatre director by ripping people’s tickets at the London Palladium. But when I eventually jumped into tv I had my career plan worked out: 5 years in the ranks, then producing, then running my own show, running an independent production company and eventually running the BBC.

I’ve always been interested in learning new skills (sometimes at the expense of sense, like my ill-fated and somewhat ridiculous attempt to pick up Esperanto), so the frenetic pace of early life at Soccer AM suited me. Whether it was because we were a small team or because Sky Sports always seemed to encourage a ‘sink or swim’ mentality, we were all called upon to do whatever it took to get the show to air on a Saturday. So we’d be calling up fans one minute, bands the next, sitting in on goal edits, chucking in a voiceover, writing a shoddy gag or knocking up a prop for Sheephead’s flea circus. As the years went by and I moved up the ladder I made less flea circuses and spent most of my time doing producery stuff like writing, checking and sitting in the gallery, but my point in all this is that most of us in the team could quite rightly call themselves multi-skilled. Unlike many productions we didn’t have the luxury of specialised archive researchers, scriptwriters or guest bookers; we all had to muck in and get the job done.

When some of us left to start Channelbee, part of the appeal for me was that we’d need to become even more diverse to survive. We’d all directed shoots and sat in on edits but we hadn’t actually used the cameras or pushed the buttons, and we certainly knew nothing about codecs, bitrates and HTML. Two years on and most of us left as half-decent self-shooting, self-editing tv and digital producers with a pretty good grounding in social media. That’s all well and good; it’s clear that with digital convergence and cost-cutting impacting every budget, production staff are going to need more than a basic grasp of technology to survive. The reason I’ve been able to go it alone rather than sitting waiting for the tv jobs to come in is because I’ve thrown myself into the learning experience, and I’m enjoying shooting in particular far more than I ever thought I would. I also believe that from a personal point of view, sitting inbetween ‘traditional’ tv and digital production is going to be useful; I’m already picking up work because of that particular experience.

There is another side to the story, however, and it’s one which worries me in quieter moments. The more production staff become all-singing, all-dancing Jacks of most trades, the less we encourage the genuine craftsmen who made our media industry one of the strongest in the world. If we’re expected to pick up a new skill every six months, what chance do we have to become the very best in just one discipline? And the more multi-skilled content producers there are, the less the rate clients/employers are willing to pay which in turn begins to price genuine experts out of the market. In the last 6 months or so I’ve had at least 3 conversations with specialists in tv/film/photography who learned and mastered their crafts in the 60′s and 70′s and who now can’t either find the work or can’t work for the rates offered. Add to this the fact that equipment needed to produce content is more accessible and affordable than ever (DSLR technology in particular has brought film-making within the pocket of most of us) and the issue becomes even more complex. I agree with the argument that reducing the barriers to production in this way expands the talent pool and therefore ultimately helps the industry, but I just wonder where we’ll be in 20 years’ time if the whole industry is self-taught and multi-skilled.

Perhaps the responsibility lies with broadcasters/studios etc who could do their bit to safeguard the future by offering on the job training, but I’m not holding my breath. The only training I had in 8 years at Sky was Health/Safety and a day on team leading. I pushed for camera and edit training at Channelbee (which, thankfully, was forthcoming) and I’ve since funded some out of my own pocket.

There’s no real answer to this and as you’ll probably gather I’m not quite sure where I stand; I’m just happy to be surfing the wave right now in order to keep my own head above water, but if you’ve got an opinion, especially if you’re involved in the industry, I’d love to hear it.

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