How the Breakdown in U.K. TV Negotiations Could Disrupt Production Worldwide: ‘It’s Gonna Be Chaos’

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On Sept. 1. the five-year agreement governing crew terms and conditions on high-end TV drama productions in the U.K. runs out. If a new agreement isn’t reached by the end of the month, “it’s gonna be chaos,” warns Spencer MaDonald, national secretary for the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (Bectu), which represents British crews.

For over a year, Bectu has been battling with the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (Pact), which represents U.K. producers, in the hopes of signing a new framework governing the hiring of crew.

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If a solution isn’t found, however, in place of a collective agreement, each Bectu branch (representing different departments such as grips, sparks, sound, costume and so on) will institute their own individual set of terms. If a production doesn’t accept those terms, MacDonald warns, they may struggle to find any crew at all given how busy the landscape is. “People are jumping from job to job so they can afford to turn work down if the terms don’t match what they’re seeking,” he says.

Even those who aren’t signed up to Pact will be impacted, as the convention in the U.K. is that non-Pact members — including foreign studios and streamers — honor the terms agreed between Bectu and Pact.

Producers in the U.K. are concerned that a failure to reach an agreement will up-end the budgets they are currently preparing. “We may find ourselves in the position that the budget we’ve submitted, and the commission that we’ve been given, is completely unaffordable, and the show would collapse,” said one production source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Both sides tell Variety they are keen to reach an agreement. But so far, there is no sign a deal is on the horizon.

On Monday, Bectu’s members voted to reject Pact’s latest offer. Among the issues the union identified with the new terms were a lack of clarity over budget bands (Pact had proposed a distinction between shows costing less than £7 million ($8.3 million) an hour and those costing more) and a disagreement on whether overtime would be predicated on “shooting” or “working” time. But the principal issue, MacDonald says, is the proposal “didn’t really go far enough in terms of addressing some of the work-life balance [issues].”

Much like the IATSE bargaining process over its Basic Agreement last winter, in which the major sticking point was the industry’s long-hours culture, MacDonald says “the biggest stumbling block” in the negotiations is “unsocial hours.” “What they want is the time back,” he says of Bectu’s members. “They want the weekends, they want to go home at a reasonable time before their kids go to bed.”

But producers Variety spoke to have complained that demands for a better work-life balance aren’t being met with any concessions over pay, especially since shorter days mean longer schedules, which cost more money. “They want to earn the same but they want to work less hours and that sort of doesn’t make any sense,” says the production source.

And as Pact deputy CEO Max Rumney told Variety via email: “Historically, the rates of pay in the sector reflected recognition of the need for some antisocial hours due to factors including the availability of locations and actors.”

The traditional way to attempt to curb long hours is via overtime penalties. Among the proposals in Pact’s latest offer was a penalty for more than six consecutive working days. But producers in the U.K. are concerned that any increase in overtime will further strain budgets that are already impacted by the ongoing COVID pandemic, Brexit and, crucially, inflation. “We’re seeing a 25% increase [in budgets],” said the anonymous production source. “Fuel increases, labor, materials, catering.”

Another source, who also requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivities around the negotiations, said there were already terms in the current high end TV drama agreement that are beyond her budgets, for example, paying a rest day for every week of night shooting, a requirement she describes as “astronomical.” Night shoots are sometimes necessary and they can make a huge difference to the quality of a show, she explained. “If we have shows that are all shot in the day because we can’t afford night, that could damage our reputation across the world.”

However MacDonald stresses that, for Bectu members, the money is irrelevant. “Because the thing is, we’re seeing it in the States about, you know, trying to put punitive payments on there, and they’re still working really, really long hours.”

What Bectu have suggested, says MacDonald, is a “complete rethink about scheduling and planning.” Among the counter-proposals Bectu sent to Pact this week was a condition that weekend work and overtime could only be scheduled with approval of the crew. But it is a condition, Rumney told Variety, that “will damage the ability to schedule and, in some cases, make it impossible to produce within budgets agreed.”

A number of producers Variety spoke to for this piece emphasized that they felt caught in the middle of the negotiations when they often had very little control over the budget or deadlines, which are set by commissioners. It is a sentiment echoed by Rumney, who told Variety in a follow-up call that Pact’s members were very sympathetic to the need for a work-life balance. But, he posited, those changes needed to be incremental, at least in the agreement, because doing “everything at once” would render some productions “unaffordable.”

“To do it all at once requires a sea-change by everyone — financiers, broadcasters,” Rumney added. “Producers can’t do it by themselves.”

With the clock ticking and negotiations seemingly at an impasse, Pact has now approached both streamers and broadcasters to discuss what will happen in the event there is no new agreement in place by Sept. 1. In the meantime, producers fear the impact of the discussions may have wider repercussions, including a knock-on effect on film and even, potentially, studios and streamers relocating work abroad.

As the production source told Variety: “The negotiations that are happening now could really, seriously damage the health and buoyancy of the industry in this country.”

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