13th May 2017
I Can Be... a Television Researcher
I Can Be meets Lesley Davies, Television researcher for factual and documentary films at Wall to Wall TV.
Have you always wanted to be a TV researcher?
Not really. When I chose my GCSEs and A-Levels I chose subjects that I was good at and that I was interested in. I was always going to go down the humanities route rather than studying science or maths. Looking back I think I probably should have chosen maths, because I was quite good at it and not having maths can be a barrier to things. I chose to study history at university, because it’s so broad. Graduating with a history degree can allow you to go into so many different things and, since I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I thought that would be a good idea.
When I graduated I did work experience in lots of different industries but TV was what I really enjoyed. What I really love doing is research and my job gives me the opportunity to do that across lots of different areas. TV is very competitive so I gave myself a timeframe to get into the industry. I was lucky enough to get a runner position and then it went from there.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a TV researcher?
There are two really important pieces of advice. The first would be to think hard about whether it is what you want to do. There are some really great things about the role and some drawbacks that you put aside when you are pursuing it. For example, it’s primarily free-lance so you aren’t always employed. It can be difficult to take holidays when you want to and you are always trying to make good first impressions. So much rests on doing well in each short project to ensure that you get work on another project.
If it is what you really want to do then you just have to be relentless and not afraid to be dogged in your pursuit of opportunities. At the very beginning you have to really go for it, by emailing and meeting as many people as you can. You may have to work for free or do jobs which you are perhaps over-qualified for but, as soon as you break into the industry, it’s really fun and soon enough you will be doing the things that you really want to do. The career progression in TV is so fast that you stay within each type of role for about a year, it’s so fast moving. I would say just really go for it if it’s what you want to do!
Do you feel that being a woman has made any difference to your career?
It has made a slight difference. I remember, early on in my career, I was doing work experience placements at a production company. My manager preferred me to the other person doing work experience as I was a girl and she used to tell me that girls were better at the job than boys. As a runner you have to have excellent organisation and interpersonal skills and, I don’t think that men are any less likely to have those skills, but there is a perception in the industry that women are better at communicating within those roles.
So it has almost been an advantage for you at times?
Yes I think so. It is only very subtly expressed. TV is quite a female heavy industry in some areas. Production managers, who manage budgets and organise everything, are predominantly women. Directing and producing isn’t necessarily male-heavy but there are a lot more men working in those roles than in other areas of the industry. I work in the editorial side of TV rather than the organisational side and sometimes I do feel that male directors and producers treat female researchers slightly differently to how they would treat a man. Tensions can often be quite high within TV as deadlines are so tight and sometimes I feel that female junior members of staff suffer more in terms of people being rude to them or venting at them. In general though, TV is definitely an industry that is open to both sexes.
What do you have for lunch?
My lunch is varied depending on whether I have just been paid or not! Today I ate a baked potato with coronation chicken that I cooked at home last night. I make lots of soups too. Around pay day I’ll treat myself to sushi or a really nice salad from the food market on Leather Lane.
What and who has helped you to get to where you are now? Is there any one person that has particularly helped you?
In terms of a person, it would have been the lady who mentored me in my first TV work experience. I still see her now because we work in the same company. She put so much effort into helping the people who came to do work experience. You can sometimes get pushed to the side but she looked at each person’s skills and worked out which productions would be relevant to their interests, best utilise their skills and really benefit them. I stayed in contact with her afterwards and she was always giving me really great advice and putting my name forward for projects. She championed me a little and that experience really made me want to go into TV. That was a turning point for me.
In terms of my career, the most important thing that ever happened was when I got my first full-time, paid runner job at ITV studios in Manchester. That was my big break. I was so fortunate that I had a full-time position for a year and that I got to work across so many different productions. It gave me that base of experience to move up into something else.
Speaking of moving into other things, you still have aspirations when you are an adult. Where would you like to be in the future?
That’s quite difficult! TV is a bit of a funny industry because you can move up really quickly but there is a ceiling. The route is starting as a researcher, becoming an assistant producer and then moving on to being a producer-director. From there you can go into lots of different worlds. You could become a series producer, an executive producer, head of daytime TV or children’s TV or even become CEO of your own company! You could go in to commissioning new programmes. It’s really varied and lots of people are a little older then so have other things going on, like having children. Quite often people get to the producer-director level and choose to stay there because that’s where you are really making programmes and doing what TV actually is, so to speak. For me, I’m not sure. Because TV is so exhausting, hopefully in ten years I will be a producer-director thinking about what I want to do next.
How do you get to work?
I cycle. It takes me about 25 minutes on the way there and 20 minutes on the way back.
Why does it take you longer on the way there?
Because it’s up a big hill!
What is the best thing about being a TV researcher?
I think the best thing is that my job is so diverse. I get to do loads of different things and to go to lots of interesting and different places that I would never normally go to or places that I would only go to on holiday. As a TV researcher, you get to meet lots of really interesting people who are experts in their field and you can learn so much from them. In a week you could be filming something on location; you could be on a recce – which is visiting a place that you might want to film; you could be writing research and influencing the content or message of the film; you could be chatting to professors or contributors on the phone or, if you work in development, you could be writing your own proposals to be turned into a TV programme. The best thing about my job is how varied it is and how many fun things I get to do.
If you weren’t a TV researcher, what would your plan B have been? What would you have been instead?
If I wasn’t a TV researcher, I think I’d either be a teacher or work in a press office. I deal a lot with press departments and their jobs always sound quite appealing. You get to look at a lot of different content and write press pieces and learn about your areas of interest. It’s also a bit more 9 to 5 than my job which would be quite nice. I’ve always thought about teaching too but never really pursued it. I’m pretty happy doing what I do.