Behind the scenes of social class on TV

A Leeds researcher has teamed up with the BBC, Channel 4 and Candour Productions to analyse the role of social class, on screen and behind the scenes of TV production.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the BBC and Channel 4 will work with the research team to support access to two drama productions, where the academics will analyse the series from production to reception.

Led by Beth Johnson, Professor of Television and Media Studies at the University of Leeds’ School of Media and Communication, the research will consider the backgrounds of people who produce TV, how social class is represented in each TV show, and how each series is understood by the public.

Research shows that class is crucial in shaping what gets commissioned for television, who gets roles on and off screen, and the sorts of representations of social class that are broadcast and made available to download or stream.

Professor Beth Johnson, School of Media and Communication

The researchers will also collaborate with Candour Productions, a Leeds-based, BAFTA-winning production company, to create a film based on the findings. 

Professor Johnson said: “From policy concerns about working-class access to the sector, through to class as a prominent point of discussion in BAFTA award winners' speeches, class is important to national conversations about TV.

“Research shows that class is crucial in shaping what gets commissioned for television, who gets roles on and off screen, and the sorts of representations of social class that are broadcast and made available to download or stream. Despite efforts to level the playing field, the TV workforce remains dominated by those from professional and managerial backgrounds; labour market structures and pay rates advantage those with economic and social resources; and experiences of working-class individuals are misunderstood and misrepresented.”

Channel 4 Creative Diversity Lead, Neila Butt said: “We are really pleased to be taking part in this project as it lies at the heart of the work of the creative diversity team. This gives us an opportunity to explore and help in the research of the socio-economic backgrounds of on and off-screen representation within our programmes and the wider industry. It helps focus on an area in the evolving landscape of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

BBC Head of Creative Diversity, Jessica Schibli said: “As a public service broadcaster, we’re committed to providing value for all audiences, so we’re pleased to be supporting this project. It will provide a comprehensive understanding of how social class helps shape the television industry from commissioning to production, especially in the genre of television drama. The research will also provide insights on how audiences respond to socio-economic diversity on screen.”

The ambitious new project, titled ‘What’s on? Rethinking class in television’ is the first of its kind to consider how inequalities such as race, gender and sexuality intersect with social class. 

Professor Johnson and her team, which includes Professor Dave O’Brien (University of Manchester), Dr Laura Minor (University of Salford) and a two-year post-doctoral researcher will conduct interviews with commissioners, producers, on-screen talent and crew members while the programmes are made. 

As they are broadcast and made available on streaming services, the researchers will closely analyse how each show represents social class.  

After the dramas have been aired, focus groups with audience members and viewership data from the project partners will be used to understand how viewers respond to the representations of class. 

The results will be used to find ways of addressing and reducing intersectional class inequalities in the television industry, aiming to change policy, practice and discourse.  

Anna Hall, Creative Director at Candour Productions, said: “Candour are delighted to be involved in this piece of crucial research. We surveyed all our team recently and found that 67% of our staff came from a lower socio-economic background.

“This is virtually unheard of in TV and we are so proud that we can continue to champion film-makers and TV professionals from a range of diverse backgrounds to work with us. But more still needs to be done and this research will play a huge role in understanding why there continue to be so many barriers.”

Further information

Email University of Leeds Press Officer Mia Saunders at with media enquiries. 

Image: Adobe Stock.