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Mind the Gap: BBC Pay Crisis Shakes U.K. Television Industry

The BBC lit a fire under the British television industry when it published the earnings of its top talent by name. The data dump revealed that two-thirds of BBC stars earning more than £150,000 ($195,000) are men. When it comes to age, the picture is even worse: Four times as many men over 50 fall in that salary bracket as women over 50. Ethnic minority stars are also severely underrepresented.

The BBC was forced to release the figures by the British government. Under pressure, director general Tony Hall pledged to give women equal pay and airtime by 2020 but said on July 23 that he would try to reach that goal even earlier after 40 senior female staffers, in an open letter, called on him to “act now.”

While many cheer Hall’s commitment, it’s questionable whether the rest of the industry will follow suit, despite the influence the BBC wields in the U.K. broadcasting landscape.

Ironically, the gender pay blowup erupted the same week that ITV named Carolyn McCall as its first female CEO. Fellow commercial broadcaster Channel 4 has also appointed a woman, Alex Mahon, as its next boss. Indeed, the U.K. TV business has plenty of powerful female leaders behind the scenes, but on screen women lag behind in the salary stakes.

“We always hope things have changed, and it’s disappointing when you find out they haven’t,” said Lilla Hurst, who has worked for broadcasters and independent producers and now runs funding and distribution agency Drive. “A lot of women in media feel they can’t ask for more money.”

However laudable the goal, measuring the BBC’s progress in achieving parity by 2020 could prove difficult. That’s because many of the shows with highly paid talent are moving to the Beeb’s new production arm, BBC Studios. As a private commercial entity, BBC Studios does not have to, and will not, disclose pay details.

Neither do the BBC’s rivals, which makes evaluating the full extent of the gender pay gap throughout the industry, let alone eliminating it, a very tough proposition. “The BBC spawns creativity and pays less than the commercial broadcasters,” said Jon Thoday of Avalon Entertainment, who has negotiated some of the biggest talent deals in British TV. “The government should have made them divulge figures too. By excluding the indies, Channel 4 and ITV, they have removed the marketplace from the discussion, and that was a mistake.”

Beeb’s Payroll Problems
Women trail men significantly.
96 Number of people at the BBC earning more than £150,000
2:1 Ratio of men earning more than £150,000 to women earning more than £150,000
0 Number of women among top seven earners

Channel 4 commissions its programs from independents and says talent pay is a matter for those producers. ITV said all employment contracts are confidential.

Sky is squarely set against releasing numbers. “It’s not something we’re going to be doing,” said Zai Bennett, director of programming for Sky U.K. “I don’t think it’s particularly healthy, because it could easily be inflationary.”

Forget inflation; try hyperinflation, according to Hall.

“We are now in a world of incredible competition and hyperinflation,” he said, warning that the list of BBC stars and their salaries amounted to a “poachers’ charter” that would drive up prices for talent at a time when the Beeb is trying hard to bring its costs down.

John Whittingdale was the U.K. minister who forced the BBC to publish star earnings by name and said the organization should say, “Good luck, we wish you all the best,” if talent gets a big-bucks offer.

In terms of where those better offers might come from, the U.S. channels and SVOD players are cited among the likely candidates, though one American streaming boss shrugged off the newly published numbers as having little influence on his decisions. On the drama side, the list of high earners is topped by soap opera stars with local appeal, but “Lie to Me” lead Tim Roth and outgoing “Doctor Who” star Peter Capaldi have profiles beyond the U.K. A few entertainment presenters have already moved across the Atlantic, the most notable recent success being James Corden, host of CBS’  “The Late Late Show.” Graham Norton is known in the U.S., too; his talk show goes out on BBC America.

Hannah Chambers, who runs comedy
talent agency Chambers Management, said the BBC’s figures present too simplified a picture to enable would-be poachers to make much use of them.  “The report reveals pay without the necessary context,” she said. “It’s hard to make like-for-like comparisons because you need to look at the number of hours someone works, the budget for the show, the time slot.”

Chambers also thinks talent reps should be doing a better job winning fair deals for women. “The finger should be pointed at the agents who have male and female clients and allow the females to get paid less,” she said. “There is always wrangling over money, but people need to push back.”

For the BBC, the puzzle is how to equalize the salary scales while balancing the books. Reducing pay for male stars is one possibility, but the situation is a challenging one for the world’s highest-profile public broadcaster given the increasing competition for talent.

“A decade ago we might have been up against ITV or Sky or commercial radio. Now it’s Netflix, Amazon and Apple,” Hall said. “And they’re willing to invest huge amounts of money with no certain return in an attempt to capture market share, pushing up costs across the board.”

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