BBC case fuels debate on changing the face of TV

One colleague offered her hair dye. Another told her "it's time for botox." A third said her wrinkles could be a problem in this new era of high-definition TV.

Veteran TV presenter Miriam O'Reilly was eventually taken off air, and she decided to fight back — challenging the venerable BBC in a closely watched age-discrimination case. Last month, a British employment tribunal ruled in her favor in a decision that provides fodder in a growing debate about age-discrimination in TV and film.

"The worldwide trend is to move away from age-based decisions in employment," said Martin Levine, a professor of law and gerontology at the University of Southern California, especially as many countries end mandatory retirement ages.

"I don't think any industry, even TV and film, are strong enough to stand up to these trends," he said in an interview.

Some media experts believe rapidly aging societies and rising retirement ages in the developed world may slowly start reshaping expectations about the kinds of faces people expect to see on the screen, opening the door to more roles for older people in visual media.

"Age has long been a blind spot because of the cult of youth surrounding TV," said Charlie Beckett, director of the London School of Economics' media think tank, adding the O'Reilly case is just the kind of "wake-up call" TV companies need regarding the age of the audience they serve and its expectations.

Shifting demographics will change how TV companies such as the BBC interpret their markets, their identity and their brand, he said — the only question is when.

On Jan. 14, the Employment Tribunal in London found that O'Reilly, a BBC-TV veteran, had been the victim of age discrimination when she was dropped in March 2009 from "Countryfile," a rural affairs TV show the British Broadcasting Corp. was redesigning and moving to prime time. Most, but not all, of the presenters who replaced O'Reilly, then 51, were younger than she was.

During the case, witnesses testified about TV's relentless demand for "refreshing faces" and "spring chickens." O'Reilly told the tribunal she was stung by her colleagues' offhand comments about her need for fixers such as hair dye and botox.

The BBC apologized to O'Reilly and offered to discuss future job opportunities with her, but the tribunal did not order it to pay damages.

In its judgment, the tribunal said: "The wish to appeal to a prime time audience, including younger viewers, is a legitimate aim. However, we do not accept that it has been established that choosing younger presenters is required to appeal to such an audience. It is not a means of achieving that aim.

"Even if it was ... it would not be proportionate to do away with older presenters simply to pander the assumed prejudices of some younger viewers."

The U.S. passed its Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1967. Britain didn't follow suit until 2006. The European Commission has its own directive on age and employment, but EU countries normally handle discrimination claims according to national law.

In general, such laws bar discrimination based on age in hiring, promotions, wages, termination of employment, layoffs and benefits. The U.N. says the number of people 65 and older is expected to more than double worldwide by 2050.

But age-related employment laws also can work the other way. The United States has set mandatory retirement ages for jobs such as commercial airline pilots, air traffic controllers and police officers because of the skills the jobs require and the safety of the people they serve.

As societies age, debates also have emerged in the United States about whether judges and doctors should have mandatory retirement ages, too, or even regular cognitive and physical screening, to make sure they retain their skills and sharpness of mind into their 70s and beyond.

But in most professions, a 50-something can't be hired or fired, or rejected as a job applicant, simply because the boss would like someone younger, as Hollywood recently discovered.

Last year, 17 TV networks and production studios, and seven talent agencies, reached an out-of-court settlement in class-action age discrimination lawsuit brought by 165 TV writers.

The companies — including major TV networks and talent agencies — denied ever using age discrimination while deciding whether to hire or represent the writers. But the settlement, regarding cases dating back nearly 10 years, paid the claimants a total of $70 million.

Another U.S. TV personality also has an age discrimination court case pending in New York.

In October, Sal Marchiano, a veteran TV sportscaster, filed suit in a federal court, accusing a former general manager of WPIX-TV/Channel 11 — owned by the Tribune Company — of age discrimination when she did not renew his contract in 2008. Marchiano — who is 69 years old, and had worked at the station for 14 years — is seeking his job back and damages.

Richard C. Wald, the Fred Friendly professor of Media and Society at Columbia University in New York, says that evolving social attitudes have vastly improved the roles and influence that women have in visual media in countries such as Britain — and that can be expected to carry over to the elderly.

"The truth is that 50-60 years ago, the BBC did not think that a woman's voice carried authority. Therefore no woman, young or old, could become a news presenter on an important program," he said.

Today, age for the intelligent woman is becoming an indicator of experience, wisdom, competence, as it is for the intelligent man, he said.

"I believe the changing roles of women will enhance the perception that competence is a value in both genders, that competence in news presentation — in a world beset with problems — is a great value and so perceptions of age will become more nuanced," Wald said.