Women dominate new production executive roles at Sky Sports following major restructure
At SVG Europe’s recent Women in Sports Media Initiative summer networking event, Sky UK’s Inga Ruehl interviewed her colleagues at Sky Sports, Bridget Bremner and Jennie Blackmore, two of three new female production executives in freshly created roles.
The trio discussed Bremner and Blackmore’s career journeys, how they got to their current roles within Sky, and how the new roles of production executive have disrupted as well as helped streamline the structure at Sky Sports.
Ruehl, head of studios for Sky Production Services, began with an introduction to the major changes that have occurred within the broadcaster over the past few years, which has resulted in a complete restructure of the Sky division and the creation of the role of production executive.
Blackmore, who covers cricket, golf and boxing under her production executive title, started in television around 16 years ago as production secretary on Channel 4 cricket while working at Sunset+Vine. “I worked more of the logistics route up through the business at Sunset+Vine; I was production secretary, production coordinator, then I joined the short-lived Setanta Sports as a production manager, and then I was lucky enough to go straight into Sky Sports as a production manager. We’ve just had a big restructure in our department, and these production executives jobs came up and I was lucky enough to get one,” she said.
Meanwhile, South African Bridget Bremner started her career in her home country, with the SABC. She started in television training, as a training assistant, and did all the training of every aspect of television that they were doing back then, she explained. “At the time I thought I wanted to produce, but I thought if I’m going to produce I want to be able to know what happens behind the scenes, so took an opportunity that came up on outside broadcast working as an event manager, which is equivalent to a sort of unit manager role. I went into that OB environment where there were not a lot of women, but when the opportunity came up I became the first woman in South Africa in that position.”
After that Bremner moved to another OB company, then eventually to the UK. “I was freelance for the first five years or so here and then became a production manager at Sky. With that I worked on a lot of the football, and a lot of the football, and a lot of the football! In the restructure last year there were opportunities for the production executive role and I think I was very lucky to get one. In that role currently my portfolio is looking after Formula 1, Rugby League, Rugby Union and multi sports, which is everything else which is not football, cricket, golf and boxing.”
Changing face of Sky Sports
On how Sky Sports has changed recently, Bremner said modifications were overdue; for around 25 years there had not been any changes in its structure or how Sky Sports operated. She commented: “Sky Sports hadn’t been through any of these changes, while a lot of the rest of Sky had. But I think that with the whole broadcast environment changing, the industry has changed, rights have changed, the way we broadcast – not just linear but non-linear – has changed, and I think there was really a need within Sky Sports specifically to change with that.”
Sky Sports’ evolution was driven by the way content needed to be produced, Bremner went on: “Our content teams, who everyone normally refers to as production teams at Sky, their remit was changing so our department, which provides delivery and support to them, really needed to change and adapt to that as well. Before, our production coordinators were based in the office and our production managers were on the road, so you didn’t see them very often, but [our content production] was very OB-based and one of the big changes is it’s not just OBs [anymore that are responsible for producing content]; it’s the non-linear, it’s the studio elements, it’s all of that encompassing all our teams to get them all to work across content, not just the OBs as we’ve traditionally been doing for many years,” said Bremner.
Ruehl asked how the traditional content teams had reacted to the changes. She added that nearly all the heads of content, bar one, are male. Blackmore answered: “We were the last department in Sky to go through some big changes, so they were aware things were changing.”
She added that as part of the changes at Sky Sports, now the digital teams sit within the original content teams. “The content teams were very OB-based, but now the digital and social media is a really big part of the content teams. As production managers and a production team, we are now really involved with that side as well. It’s a big change; we were very OB-based and that now is just not the way Sky’s business is any more.”
The volume of content produced by Sky Sports is phenomenal, said Ruehl. Blackmore commented that the new production executive roles would, in other companies, most likely be called head of production. However because of the size of Sky’s Sports’ rights deals, the sports need to be divided amongst three executives in order for them to be managed smoothly.
As an example of the volume of sport being covered, in 2017 Sky Sports had 1,100 outside broadcasts for which it was host broadcaster. Blackmore said: “With that goes the entire planning of the event, not just turning up on site and taking someone else’s pictures. We had a situation on the Easter Bank Holiday where we had 26 live OBs in one weekend; the scale of what we do is huge.
“I’ve worked at independent production companies where the focus is different and the volume isn’t the same, and it’s quite a big thing to get your head round just how much live content we do, and that’s just OBs I’m talking about; I’m not talking about the studios, the galleries, the live blogs, or anything on social media; it’s a huge amount of volume that we look after,” said Blackmore.
Under the previous structure at Sky Sports, James Clement used to run 20 production managers. The department restructure means Philip Marshall is the head of production, then the three production executives, then six senior production managers, followed by 11 production managers and 22 production coordinators.
“You can see why there was a need for this restructuring process, to give people – coordinators and production managers – a lot more focus on developing them, on working closely with the content teams, which they honestly hadn’t had time for before,” said Blackmore. Now, there is a lot more presence in the office and content teams work tightly together with production staff, she noted. “It’s a new way of working, but it’s the right way,” she added.
Is it a man’s world?
“So Sky Sports; is it a man’s world?” Ruehl asked Blackmore and Bremner. Blackmore commented: “Bridget had done freelance work for Sky before I started, but we both roughly came on as staff at around the same time; I was nine years ago, Bridget was 10. When we started there was actually only three women production managers; us two and one of our colleagues, Amanda. That has changed dramatically in the nine years I’ve been there.
“I would say for me, production managers in Sky Sports did used to be a man’s world,” continued Blackmore. “The role was very technical back then, which for me bought a lot of insecurities, coming into that world and having not just the male production managers, but coming on site at an OB and nearly the entire OB crew would be male as well. Again that has changed quite dramatically. Sky Sports I think is certainly a lot more 50/50 in terms of production managers and production coordinators. With the size of our department, we’ve got a big range.”
Ruehl asked Blackmore about how she dealt with the feelings of insecurity she initially felt when working at Sky Sports. “When I look back on it, nobody ever made me feel like I didn’t belong or wasn’t good enough to be a production manager. It was very much my own insecurities about not coming from a technical background that I think were the only things that ever held me back in the first place.
“Once I managed to get over that and focus on actually what I was good at, and asking questions about the things I didn’t understand and be completely honest if I didn’t understand how something worked on an OB, once I got past that, I really just focused on what I was good at as a production manager.”
Bremner added: “At the time I came into Sky Sports I was on football, and football was particularly male dominated. Maybe not many women ventured into football; I think we had one female AP in football at the time who is now one of our very accomplished football directors.
“I think for myself, coming from an industry in South Africa where it’s definitely a man’s world, I didn’t feel threatened or intimidated by it; I was used to it so I probably didn’t even notice,” Bremner reminisced. “When I went into the OB world [in South Africa] I replaced a lady who was a secretary in the OB department. One of the things she did, as they were quite [geographically] removed from the main building and canteen, was she made sandwiches on the side and she sold them. When I arrived, [the OB team, which was all-male] said, ‘so where’s the sandwiches?’. I never made any sandwiches, but it was hardcore I think.
“Like Jennie, I think the key thing was making sure people knew you didn’t know everything – I didn’t know all the technical information but I wanted to learn. So I tapped into that from the people around me. There’s so much to learn, whether it’s from an engineer, a camera person or a VT operator, and making sure you’re open to that changes people’s attitudes towards you. So for me then coming into Sky Sports, the only time you do notice ladies is when you’re looking for the toilet and you’re on an OB, and there’s just one!”
Women taking control
On how to manage older colleagues, particularly those that are male, Bremner said, “to not feel threatened by that”. She added: “The fact the someone is older and has more experience and you’re managing that somebody means you have to understand there’s nothing wrong with not knowing everything; you’re not expected to have all the answers. Some of the answers are with your team all around you and so that’s where you can actually learn from the people that have got far more years than you, or far more productions under their belt.
“You have to be true to yourself and also I think you have to demonstrate integrity and I think that’s very important because if you have that, there’s no need to feel threatened by somebody else’s experience, because you know what your experiences are, you know what your weaknesses are, and you know the things you need to build on, but you also know what your strengths are,” Bremner continued. “In the same way with someone with less experience, being generous and sharing your knowledge is important. People have been generous with me, and that’s how I’ve got to where I am today,” she noted.
Blackmore added that along with that advice, it was important to be confident enough to acknowledge people’s ideas but to make your own decisions, while Bremner added that if the result of that is a failure, it was equally crucial to own up to making a wrong decision. She concluded: “Hold your hand up and say, ‘you know, you were right,’ and what’s the harm in that?”
Balancing work with family
Finally, the question of balancing a high-flying career with family came up. The new production executive roles involve a significant amount of travel, and Ruehl asked Bremner and Blackmore how they balanced that travel with a family life.
Blackmore commented: “You just make it work. If I didn’t have a three year old, the length of day and the amount I work probably would be the same, but you just have different priorities and timescales, and you perhaps get things done a little quicker as you know you have to leave to go and do the nursery run. If I know I’ve got to do the nursery run, bath her, put her to bed, and then sit and do a couple of hours of emails or catching up with work, then that’s just what I need to do because I want to have a family and I want to have the job that I have, and I want to still see friends and I just manage somehow to work a way around it and fit it all in.
“I won’t lie; it’s brutal and it’s hard, and a nice glass of wine plays a great role at the end of the day!,” Blackmore added. “If I didn’t have to leave to do the nursery run I probably wouldn’t be in the office at 7.30am to make up for that, but it’s about choices and you can make it work.”
Sky helps provide the flexibility that parents need, added both Ruehl and Blackmore, who noted: “[Sky is great at allowing] the kind of flexible working in terms of being able to just fit into your day what you need to do, speak to the people you need to speak to, have the meetings you need to have, but you work it around your timescale, and I have to say Phil and James have always been amazing at that. There is no ‘you need to be sat at your desk from 9 till 5’; you do a good job, you get the work done, if your child is sick and you have to work from home for the day so be it, as long as you get the work done and people aren’t having to chase you for things, it works.”