ScreenSkills CEO Seetha Kumar interviewed by the Royal Television Society

ScreenSkills CEO Seetha Kumar was interviewed recently by Andrew Billen for the Royal Television Society about her career in broadcasting and the ongoing work of ScreenSkills to ensure the UK’s television industry continues to thrive and develop a skilled workforce.

The full interview, which follows her appointment as the first woman of colour to be awarded an RTS fellowship, is available on the RTS website here, with some highlights below:

On skills shortages in the television industry:

It is the best of times: the television business is booming. It is the worst of times: there is a skill shortage, so wage costs are soaring. Yet shouldn’t that make it the best of times again? Won’t television be forced to find and train a new generation of programme-makers who won’t all be white and middle class? This, I tell Seetha Kumar, the ambitious chief executive of ScreenSkills, is a battle she can win.

“You make it sound so simple,” says Kumar. She is in her office close to Euston station where her skills-body charity works to ensure that film and television find the people to make the magic happen. She has been telling me how the industry needs to think through a new “skills pipeline”, scrape the opacity from its gateways, end the biases that exclude and, before all that, nurture a “whole-child” approach in schools, where creativity and technical skills are meshed, rather than divided.

So she still thinks it could all go wrong? “No, I hope that you’re right. I think we should win. There is a genuine economic and social purpose to effect change in our industry, and we have a moment in time to do it. I just think, as always – and I say this to people internally – anything worthwhile and challenging is never easy.”

On representation and diversity in the industry:

“I just think, across the piece, if you look at the research that Ofcom has done, that we are making very slow strides.”

Is the industry racist? “I don’t think the industry is racist. There are incidents where people have behaved in a racist way, they have bullied or behaved unpleasantly, but I would say it’s unfair to say the industry is racist. It’s not.”

It just mirrors itself? It’s attracted to what it recognises? “That’s a human instinct.”

There is now a consensus that the market, as well as justice, demands more opportunities for minorities, yet there is a disagreement over how those opportunities can be created. ScreenSkills identifies skills gaps, provides career information, mentors, trains, offers bursaries and even holds workshops on unconscious bias. At the RTS Cambridge Convention last year, however, Sir Lenny Henry said it was time to scrap diversity schemes and initiatives. He argued, instead, for diversity tax breaks and contestable funds for diverse programming.

“Where I agreed with him is on the multitude of initiatives,” she says. “But for me, the issue is really not to have a plethora of initiatives that will take you anywhere, but to link them back to pathways to where the needs are.

“I’ll give you an example. In unscripted, we’ve been running a series-producer programme and, as of mid-March, we have probably more than 100 alumni. Their progression has been fantastic. Many of them are series producers, if not higher.”

On ScreenSkills plans for the future:

[When Seetha arrived, the organisation was funded to the tune of £28m, the majority coming from government, with £5.3m from the BFI and £3.5m from industry. This year, the total is £13.3m (£6.8m from industry; more than £5m from the BFI; and some cash from other sources, including from Arts Council England and £500,000 from DCMS to run a specific creative careers programme.]

Kumar rechristened it ScreenSkills and refocused it so that it targeted – well, screens. Throughout 2017, staff left and were not replaced but, at the end of the year, ScreenSkills won a £19.5m contract from the BFI [to deliver the Future Film Skills strategy] and appointed a dynamic new head of film, Gareth Ellis-Unwin.

So all is well now? “It’s not as simple as that. ScreenSkills got through the hump and we are rebuilding. I think it’s got good industry support, brilliant skills councils and we can track exactly what we do. However, if we’re going to change our industry seriously and get it to grow and stay growing, particularly in key hubs across the nation’s regions, we need a 10-year plan for skills and talent – and I think we should lead it.”

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