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NEWS > Careers and Mentoring > INTO: Television Distribution

INTO: Television Distribution

An experienced Director of Programming, Emma Collin (nee Lawley, Old Fish, 1987-94) writes about the various stepping stones she took and the lifestyle of television distribution.

I oscillated between science and the arts at school and was ultimately frustrated when I had to narrow my field to three subjects at A Level. I stubbornly insisted on taking Latin (huge mistake!), English and History – but had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with them! I was accepted at Bristol University to study English and soon found myself surrounded by Drama and English scholars – more of the former. The university buzzed with talk of Matt Lucas and his burgeoning tv career, and I shared digs with Marcus Brigstocke who was determined to be on stage and screen. Talented no doubt, but ultimately grit and determination got him there!

I was never a performer, however, with Bristol being the home of Natural History television, my love for the natural world and factual programming led me to believe that it was worth knocking on a few doors. They were all firmly (but politely) shut in my face. Not least because a pre-requisite for a career in natural history production tends to be a zoology degree (back to that A Level dilemma!). One notable interview resulted in the advice “We think you ought to spend some time in London”. So that’s what I did!

I came home to Essex and begged some work experience with the BBC’s “On the Record” through our local MP and then wondered what to do next! I found a maternity cover job in Content Management at the Essex Chronicle (Daily Mail Group), and while they offered me a full-time role, the Bristol advice lingered. So I applied for jobs in marketing, PR, journalism and television in London and then heard about a role in television distribution at Jim Henson’s (I did fleetingly wonder if I would be flogging TV sets off the back of a van!). I had no idea that ‘distribution’ was a thing! The role was for a PA, but it seemed a great stepping stone into the industry. 

The venue for Henson’s UK operation was in Camden and a magnificent Aladdin’s cave of wondrous puppets – I was sold and desperate for the job! It would include international travel, watching heaps of Henson’s programming and supporting two amazing women in licensing content around the globe. However, I received the ‘nicest’ rejection possible. I was heartbroken. “You are too bright, and we think you will get bored”, who were they kidding? I would have been all over this! However, all was not lost as one of my interviewers had a best friend who was launching his own distribution company in film and drama. It would be more involved, more responsibility and further stretch my skills (so she said!). So I trotted off to the interview (countless interviews all over London is what I remember vividly), but I got the job! 

Getting the ‘dream’ job is only the beginning – this industry is not for the faint-hearted. A good friend was quick to observe, “This isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle”. The work is 24/7. Global time-zones mean that someone somewhere is always switched on. Top-level executives at major UK networks will email from 5am through to 11pm. Deadlines mean working on weekends – there is no 9 to 5! Your colleagues and clients are your friends, and any other social life is often curtailed. You have to learn quickly to discern the doers from the talkers. It’s a lucrative and (seemingly!) glamorous industry that can attract many chancers and time-wasters; for every success story, there are thousands of failures. You need a particular mindset that rolls with the punches and embraces ‘the learning pit’!

However, I now have a 50/50 shareholding in an internationally recognised business. I develop and license programming from children’s animation to documentaries, through film and drama to all networks around the globe. I have been involved in a myriad of projects, from elephants in Gabon, animation for the BBC/Disney and ITV, David Blaine, Uri Geller, bluechip BBC natural history (it came good in the end!), drama with BAFTA award-winning producers and numerous feature films (including my all-time favourite, Dirty Dancing!). I have produced for UKTV and Discovery, as well as a feature film; and liaised with CEOs of prominent NGOs. My work could not be more diverse or interesting. I have travelled extensively in my career, from Asia to the Americas; I have a superb global network of friends and colleagues and highly recommend this field of the industry. It incorporates finance, strategy, creativity and entrepreneurialism.

My greatest piece of advice, whatever your chosen career, is to ask for advice. If you don’t know someone who knows someone, be brave and “cold call” – not for a job, but for advice (but do be prepared to accept a no!). Network like crazy, but be authentic and hardworking. Show a flash of inspiration in all you do (I was offered a marketing job because my covering letter was tailored and pushed boundaries, using multimedia to describe who I was).

But never stop ‘working’ or making the most of your time on this planet. How you spend your time, the qualities and lessons that can be learned, are invaluable. Whether you think it will have a direct bearing or not! I got the Henson’s interview possibly because of my grades and degree, but it was also down to my work experience. The main thing that stood out for her was my spending six months working as a chambermaid to pay for my gap year.  It was the grit and tenacity, a “can do”, “will do” attitude that served me well! 

Oh and the former interviewer at Hensons – she is now godmother to my son! Be kind, be courteous in all you do: you never know where someone or something will lead. As one door closes, another always opens. Good Luck!

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