Ageism in TV: A Perception or Reality?

Ageism in TV: A Perception or Reality?

Judging by the constant debate on our discussion forum, it seems this sensitive topic of ageism just won’t fade away. Looking back over the previous weeks’ threads it seems there is a genuine fear that anyone over the age of 35 is finished in this industry. Is this being fuelled by the high profile spates covered in the media of late or a genuine belief that talented, hard working people are being overlooked simply because they can be easily replaced by someone younger?

I’m sure you all remember the Arlene Phillips/Alesha Dixon debacle and the more recent ranting of Kirsty Young which implied that it was women in particular that were being discriminated against. And as Brucie signs up for another series of Strictly Come Dancing (what is it about that show?) alongside the much younger, Tessa Daly, its easy to see where that opinion manifests itself. Its probably fair to say that there are not too many shows of aging women working alongside younger men.

What does the research say? A recent Daily Mail article claimed that the average age for female presenters appearing in prime time slots has jumped from 32 years and 7 months from the 1950s to an average age of 40 today. In contrast, the average age of men on TV has actually fallen slightly from 46 years and 9 months in the 1950s to 46 years today.

The Radio Times looked at 800 presenters who have appeared on BBC1 and ITV in the 7pm to 10.30pm slot over the past six decades and concluded that although women on TV are generally fewer and younger than men, there has been a gradual convergence in numbers and age.

When the beeb was tackled on the issue, Jay Hunt, BBC One Controller came out fighting, claiming that allegations she has an ageist attitude were “ridiculous”. The broadcasting boss was criticised when aside from Phillips/Dixon story, Miriam O’Reilly, 52, claimed to be a victim of ageism after being axed from Country File and replaced by Julia Bradbury, 36.

However, speaking to The Guardian, Hunt insisted: “The simple fact is I am a 43-year-old woman. I feel passionate about how BBC One reflects the audience back to itself. “It is absolutely ridiculous to think that I would want to alienate older female viewers by taking older female presenters off the television. That would be completely illogical.

“The facts are the opposite. Anne Robinson is back on BBC One presenting Watchdog, and Sheila Hancock will be part of the panel on Over the Rainbow. Sue Johnston stars in A Passionate Woman. I don’t recognise the charge.”

The charity, Age Concern, would seem to disagree when looking across the whole industry. A survey carried out for them found that the proportion of people aged over 60 appearing on TV fell from 10% in 1998 to 7% this year. Just 8% of people who appear on factual programmes are aged over 60, while in fictional productions they count for a mere 6% of the cast.

So, lots of comment and stats on high profile, front of camera folk but what about people making the shows – the vast majority of PB members?
To get a better steer on this, I talked to a few production managers and wasn’t overly surprised by what they said. One revealed that when it comes to getting the right person for the job, age doesn’t really come into it: “if the role requires someone with lots of experience then by nature that person is very likely to be older”.

Another, completely dismissed the age issue: “passion, talent and flexibility is what counts. I’ve worked with people that have been in the industry for decades and have as much enthusiasm as when they first started. They’re the people you want to work with”.

However, one production manager did confess that if there are issues with hiring an ‘older person’, its simply down to that individual: “some people can be a bit inflexible, maybe a tad set in their ways on how things should be done and the way they are prepared to work. Younger people are more willing to adapt, possibly because they know they have to”.

And is TV worse than any other industry? Like everything else, television moves on and adapts. Its an unfortunate truth that no job is secure, and people will, at some point be asked to step down. No one should feel they have a right to land a job. In a tough market having the right attitude, keeping that passion will stand you in much better stead that simply blaming a younger generation for your woes.