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25 September 2017Last updated
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Real Life

What it’s really like making TV today

It’s not all fun and games of thrones – but it can exciting, says this top UK producer

Mike Peake
1 Sep 2017 | 10:35 am
  • Source:Supplied

How did you get into telly, Simon?

In the mid-90s, I did a degree in TV Production at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. It was a really hands-on, vocational course, 70 per cent practical and there were less than a dozen students in my year. We were regularly reminded by the course leader how hard working in TV was, how we’d be freelancing from job to job, and how it was only a select few who would finally make the grade. So we all had a clear picture of the realities of freelancing in TV right from the off. My course tutor wasn’t wrong.

What was your big break?

It came in 1996 when I was fresh from university and started contacting TV production companies for work experience. A new satellite station called Granada Talk TV, run by the then London ITV franchise LWT, was just starting up and eager for young, multi-skilled talent. It was the early days of multi-channel TV and the team did everything from operating studio cameras to editing to even reporting on-camera. After three weeks of work experience, I told them I couldn’t afford to keep coming in and working for nothing so I was given a job! I found myself working alongside the then unknown Sasha Baron Cohen and [British newsreader] Natasha Kaplinsky.

What happened next?

After a year at Granada Talk TV, the channel ended. I thought ‘that’s it, I’ll never work in TV again’. It was fun while it lasted. Thankfully, LWT redeployed all the young talent they’d spent the last year nurturing and I went to work on various shows, hopping about on short-term project-to-project contracts. At the time, the entertainment department at LWT was the place to be for Saturday night TV. They had all the juggernaut smash-hit shows including Blind Date, Barrymore, Surprise Surprise, An Audience With and Gladiators. Some of those shows I ended up working on as a researcher.

Did any one show really stand out for you?

The programme that would change my life forever was It’ll Be Alright On The Night, the long running out-takes show written and presented by Denis Norden. By the time I was 28, I was producing the show that I’d grown up watching and loving which, at the time, aired to primetime audiences of up to 10 million viewers.

The $64,000 question: What exactly does a producer do?

The job of producer is sometimes called ‘show-runner’ these days and entails overseeing everything editorial. The best comparison to understand the role of a producer is to think of what a newspaper editor does. The producer will have overall control of assembling and managing the team, the show running order, the host, the guests and they’ll have to work within a budget, which is ever-challenging.

What things typically keep you awake at night during a production?

Dwindling budgets and my personal quest to push myself to make exciting new programmes.

How much does it cost to make TV these days?

The advent of new technology means that anybody with a smartphone can be a programme-maker. Professional video cameras are getting more and more affordable and the production values achievable on small budgets are amazing. That said, there is still a demand for top-quality content, as illustrated by the amount of epic dramas currently on TV, and producers will pay top dollar if an idea is irresistible.

What kind of things do TV channels love because they are cheap and popular?

Each channel has something of an individual identity and it seems that the programmes that get commissioned are always a ‘natural fit’ for that broadcaster. Viewers don’t like change and that’s why broadcasters never stray far from the tried-and-tested formats that they know work. Many channels have a set-tariff for any given slot and, like any business these days, it’s a buyer’s market. So it’s up to the production company and broadcaster to come up with ideas that fit within those parameters.

You’ve done live TV too – including the William and Catherine royal wedding for the US. What are your top fears when doing a live broadcast?

The Wedding of William and Kate was an epic four-hour live TV marathon. We had various commentators such as Ivana Trump and Rupert Everett in the studio and there was a schedule of where William and Kate would be and at what time, which was planned down to the second. The first two hours of our show, which aired in various countries around the world on the TLC network, followed the action as it happened, but filling the last two hours of airtime after the wedding frenzy was over was more tricky. Once we’d seen the action replays and enjoyed the dress and the kiss again and again, all that really was left to speculate over was where they might go on their honeymoon.

What was your worst day at the office?

As a freelancer, every day working is a good day.

And your greatest professional moment?

I’m very proud to have produced Denis Norden in his last four years before he retired back in 2006. It’ll be Alright On The Night was the first blooper show on the planet and paved the way for the genre. As many people will know, Denis started his career as a writer in the golden age of radio and to glean from him some of the fundamentals of comedy is something I’ll treasure forever.

How long is a typical working day?

It varies from programme to programme. Some shows are relentless, others are well-oiled machines. Freelancing in TV is about finding a good balance from one contract to another and keeping things creatively exciting.

Where is the smart producer finding work these days?

When I started in TV, most producers stuck to their individual roles. Twenty years later, everybody in TV is multi-skilled. It definitely helps to shoot, edit, know every side of the business. I’m the sort of producer that knows every line of the budget too, which helps me always come in on the money and hopefully ensures I continue to be hireable.

You’ve done lots of shows with celebrity hosts and presenters – any good stories?

In my early days as a researcher, I worked on Friday Night’s All Wright hosted by former Arsenal footballer Ian Wright, a late-night chat show that seemed to attract the biggest names in the business. Mariah Carey showed up to the studio with 35 people in her entourage. That was quite an eye-opener. On the flipside, Sir Cliff Richard made himself available to guest on the show at very short notice just when we were in need of a star booking for our Christmas Special. He had one simple request; a nice bottle of Rosemount Chardonnay.

What’s the biggest myth about making TV shows?

It is a myth that working in TV is glamorous. Like any job, it’s hard work and has its unglamorous moments. Personally, I try to keep those to a minimum!

What would be your ultimate career goal?

Any producer’s goal is to make programmes that lots of people watch and enjoy. That’s all I could hope to do, and keep on doing.

Mike Peake

Mike Peake