Age concern 

11 January 2011

Just like other long-established media sectors such as the music industry, television seems to have its own set of unwritten rules in terms of how people are handled within its industry; specifically presenters and actors that appear in front of the camera which in turn form a public ‘front’ for the broadcaster in question.

These rules rarely make their presence felt publicly, but seem to be regarded by many within the industry as being “facts of life” that are normally not to be questioned; namely, if you reach a certain age and your face doesn’t quite fit then you’re reduced to doing panto, working cruise ships or appearing on shopping TV in the case of Peter Simon.

Plus it seems that these rules can occasionally apply to radio despite the obvious lack of accompanying visuals, which could suggest that perceptions of attitude can be an contributory factor. There can also be accusations of sexism, eg. Bruce Forsyth being kept whilst Arlene Phillips was dropped from Strictly Come Dancing.

It seems obvious that the reason why such rules aren’t more commonly challenged is due to the simple fact that there are relatively few major broadcasters, therefore you have to treat them and their agents with due care and attention if you continue to wish to be employed by them in some capacity and want to be a TV star.

Therefore to get someone – in this case, ex-Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly – to challenge these unwritten rules in public is a rarity, unless the person concerned feels that they have relatively little to lose by doing so and can also prove such intentions relatively easily; the latter presumably being a major stumbling block in most cases.

After all it’s usually the case that people are either employed on a series basis or via the means of fixed term contracts which are mysteriously not renewed for whatever reason.

However the Countryfile case was special because it involved a revamp as opposed to a new commission, and it also followed on from the high profile Arlene Phillips case that helped to imply an ageism policy within the BBC even if it may not/not supposed to have influenced the outcome of the Countryfile case action.

Presumably the general attitude seems to be that to get on in television (or radio) you not only have to be talented and reasonably good looking but also to be someone who’s “in demand” for whatever reason – having a good agent certainly helps as well.

This outcome might not adversely affect the career of Jay Hunt who started working for Channel 4 only yesterday, because such an act may be judged by some of her peers as being a byproduct of a “tough and bold decision-maker” based on those unwritten rules of broadcasting; someone just unlucky enough to have been “caught”, so to speak.

Especially given the fact that she now happens to be amongst like-minded people at Channel 4, and especially considering the glowing and very enthusiastic press release from them which accompanied her acquistion – understandable under the circumstances but possibly regrettable given hindsight.

Unfortunately this does tend to further question the judgement of Channel 4 management in appointing Hunt, especially given the channel’s relatively poor performance in recent times, with Big Brother replacement Famous and Fearless in particular doing poorly ratings-wise (and already commissioned for a second series, apparently).

And the BBC in particular will certainly have to rethink its public recruitment policy together with some of those unwritten rules as a consequence of this court case, especially as this coincides with a particularly awkward phase where the BBC is being heavily scrutinized in relation to its public activities.

The commercial sector may be just as guilty of ageism and vanity but is usually less accountable to anyone except its advertisers and regulators where applicable, therefore this case is likely to force a long term rethink even if partially prompted by the (publicly accountable) BBC being forced down this route.

For example, the sacking of Arlene Phillips from Strictly Come Dancing didn’t go down too well with a fair number of viewers, but that didn’t appear to register with BBC management as being a major concern, at least outwardly. (But hardly anything seems to do so nowadays due to a lack of PR finesse at the corporation.)

And to make matters worse, the BBC now has to rely even more heavily on a relatively small pool of presenter talent for financial reasons, having previously spent lots of money in the past on people like Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton when it was capable of doing so for business reasons that may have been relatively sound at the time.

But it does signal to the BBC that some of these unwritten rules will certainly need a major rethink, and anyone wanting to maintain a ‘young’ presenter profile within the industry will need to have a much better excuse for doing so in the future. Ultimately this may result in presenters being permitted to grow old gracefully, which can only be a good thing.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Thursday 6 October 2022