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Television Production Assistant

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Write here only if you have personal experience of working as a television production assistant. Why did you decide to become one? What are your qualifications? What are the ups and downs of the profession?

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      29.04.2009 21:42
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      An interesting insight into the TV industry

      A while back, I wrote a review about a work placement I did at LBC Radio in London Town. Someone suggested I write reviews within the careers section (cmh4135 - you have been name-dropped!) so upon that suggestion I have done just that.

      I'm currently working as a "Production Assistant" for a company in London. More colloquially known as a "Runner", or dare I suggest "General Dogsbody" it's a job I've now had since the end of November last year. Before you ask the obvious question, it's for Princess Productions. For those with a basic grasp of production companies, granted it's not as much a household name as someone like Tiger Aspects, Endemol or Talkback Thames, but it has programme back catalogue that is relatively impressive.

      Having graduated with a broadcast journalism degree, it's loosely connected with what I spent three years churning away at, but having spent time as the Station Manager for the Student Union's TV station, I felt I'd try my hand at TV production. And seeing as there's fewer and fewer jobs going in broadcast journalism almost by the day due to radio station takeovers and the demise of local TV news, it was also partly a case of beggars can't be choosers.

      Nowadays the companies many three shows are Five's "The Wright Stuff" - a staple show of the company for years now. Channel 4's "T4" - something anyone under a certain age will be amazingly familiar with and anyone above a certain age will think it's a typo of a classical pop group. And finally BBC's "Something For The Weekend", a light-hearted 'magazine' programme for Sunday mornings.

      My involvement with these shows and day-to-day tasks within the company differ regularly. A usual day can consist of just being an office runner, which means commuting around London collecting and dropping off tapes and/or DVDs to various TV channels/production companies/agencies. If I had some kind of 'tube miles' card that would reward me for the miles I've done on the Underground since I've been working there, I'd have certainly earned enough money not to go by Tube anymore!

      The requirement to work weekends is necessary, especially with shows such as T4 and SFTW being broadcast live, or in the case of the former, film Saturday live and then pre-record all the Sunday links. Because of these two shows, it usually means not a week goes by when I'm not required to work on one or the other. Now, this appears extremely glamorous to the untrained eye, but often on studio days for shows likes this when it's basically an autocue and nothing else, the Production Assistant is rarely needed and so often I'll find myself stood on the studio floor watching the T4 presenters, or washing up Simon Rimmer's dirty dishes on SFTW!

      Now, I could at this point destroy all the 'tricks of the trade'...think of it as a "Breaking the Magician's Code", but slightly less impressive...following on from my last point, for those familiar with the show, Rimmer does indeed write the recipes, but on the day a team of home economists are in from 5am (yes, 5am on a Sunday morning!), cooking, frying, baking, grilling, gutting, freezing, poaching, roasting, stewing, boiling, lambasting all the dishes so they're ready for air. Rimmer will go through a "dress-rehearsal" of all the dishes from about 7.30am, which often results in the crew eating steak and kidney pie for breakfast. Tasty, if a little unconventional. The end result is all the food is prepared for the show's broadcast at 10am...lovely stuff. I should point out, the guests have the option of eating the food they get given at the end of the show, but often the cameramen gorge on whatever they can get their hands on the moment the end credits finish. (Granted, I should include myself within this accusation!)

      T4 has fewer 'codes' to break. The obvious one is that Sunday is never filmed live, as SFTW are using the studios at that time for a start. Often interviews are done live, but ones of locations are filmed up to several weeks in advance to coincide with press-junkets for example. This is one of the perks of working for the company and being a Production Assistant. A crew will always need one, so I've managed to meet and greet a few famous faces along the way...(now the moral question of whether I should name drop them comes to mind or whether I should stay quiet as a matter of good taste and decency...)

      I have very little to do with The Wright Stuff, as they used to have their own Runner, until cutbacks shrunk the size of the team. My one and only task for the show is answering the phones. Now, this could result in me writing a stupendously hilarious sit-com based around a theme similar to this as, without holding anything back, we get some absolutely nutcases ring up! Of course, the majority appear to be rightful thinking members of society sharing their pennies-worth for the good of informative and discussion-based television programming. Then the odd one crops up with a comment starting with "I'm not racist but..." and off they go for ten minutes. If you happen to be someone who rings the show, of course keep calling in...there are only three of us to answer the phones, and for a show broadcast on a terrestrial channel, that's pretty ludicrous considering the potential audience.

      Another show that allowed me to meet and greet a whole host of famous faces was one of the company's biggest shows that it's produced - "The Sunday Night Project", or Friday as it once was of course. Filmed between December and February, it was an enjoyable, if an often-sapping production to work on. Although the production itself had three Assistants purely contracted to it, I worked all but two of the studio days. This consisted of being at the London Studios in Waterloo for 8am, going through production preparation - handing out scripts, preparing Green Rooms etc. - to then standing on the studio floor to act as stand-ins for sketches, (yes, I get on screen a few times during the series...notably during the Catherine Tate episode as one of the "dancers" in the Lady Gaga parody) and then doing the same for the dress-rehearsal. After shepherding the audience in, you can literally just stand on the studio floor for the real thing, which often takes approximately two hours but is obviously edited down quite substantially. Afterwards you'd have to help out in the Green Room which allowed you to 'mingle' with the relatively rich and famous, but meant you'd never finish work until gone 11pm. A long working day to say the least.

      One final show I worked on, predominantly before Xmas, was the "Orange Unsigned Act". Broadcast on weekends on Channel 4, (during T4 I should point out) it's a sort of X-Factor for emo-kids, avant-garde weirdoes and singer-songwriters who didn't want to sell-out. For those unaware of the programme, after the stage where a selection of bands and songwriters were selected from the audition phase, the bands went on a 'tour' around the country, showcasing their music to audiences and being judged by the likes of musical-mogul Simon Gavin, ex-Blur bassist (or now, current Blur bassist) Alex James, and likeable northern girl Lauren Laverne. Each week one of two acts would be booted off until it got to two live semi-finals and the final. My task during the tour dates would differ from logging one of the roaming cameras, to operating the boom-mic for one of the interview cameras. On the tour, I went to Manchester and Oxford, the latter being a three-day trip, which resulted in a 15-hour filming day on the second day, but a good catch up with uni mates from around Manchester the day before.

      Unfortunately though, with those two shows no longer in production for the time being, the weekdays are becoming gradually more insipid with each passing day. The gloss of a new job has gone and instead I'm often just commuting around London fetching and dropping off tapes. Hardly worth a three-year degree don't you think?

      The company, apparently, has a 'reputation' with others as being quite a harsh institute to work for. By this I mean, outside of work it appears very few people socialise. There are some great people there, but the 'big-wigs' appear to have been born with a silver spoon and are about as approachable as vat of Ebola. That may appear harsh, but there's also an element of humour in there.

      Would I recommend working there? If you're easily star-struck I wouldn't as I've seen, met and chatted to quite a few famous faces so you can't afford to be a gawping wreck. The likes of the T4 presenters I often chat to and all seem sane, down-to-earth individuals. But for the whole of it, being a Production Assistant is very unrewarding, especially in the 'current climate' when no new shows are being commissioned so there's no future prospects to progress within the company. Naturally, those who've never been a runner before look down at you, but those who have, and you can usually tell who they are, treat you like a normal friend.

      And to end...what was that I was saying about name-dropping?? Oh go on then...Jennifer Aniston, Paris Hilton, Tom Jones, Anne Robinson, James Corden, Zac Efron, Simon Pegg, Lady Gaga, Kaiser Chiefs, Hugh Jackman, Owen Wilson, Justin Lee Collins, Alan Carr, Lily Allen, Harry Enfield, The Saturdays, David Walliams, Mark Ronson....need I go on?!

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