Full disclosure – I work for the BBC, but not in an area responsible for commissioning or producing programming. I’m also obviously speaking for myself and my words do not represent the opinions of the BBC.
“BBC in fresh ageism row as just one in five presenters is over 50” roars the Mail. And a lot of their Fleet Street colleagues follow suit. Once again the BBC is accused of cynically dismissing its presenters the moment they hit their 50th birthday. And this time – rather than having to base their stories on the moans of some disgruntled prima-donna – they have actual evidence! With numbers and everything…
Well, kinda. In an astonishingly unimaginative move, someone’s done a survey*. Specifically, Anchor – a company who operate residential care homes for the elderly. They’ve commissioned some research into the age of actors and presenters appearing on TV which, conveniently, confirms the previously held assumption that the BBC is prejudiced against wrinklies.
Anchor make the research (carried out by PCP, a market research company) available on their website. And credit to PCP, it’s actually not bad (although I’m perplexed as to why ITV appears to have almost double the number of performers of any other channel). They explain their methodology, provide lots of data and context, which makes it much easier to fact check.
Which is sadly, where the Mail’s headline begins to unravel.
It’s true that across the five terrestrial channels surveyed, people aged over 50 are under represented relative to their frequency in the population (22% vs. 34%). However, if you split this into 50-64 and 65+ age groups, it’s clear that the underrepresentation is primarily amongst those aged 65 and older (8% vs. 16%) rather than those aged between 50 and 64 (14% vs. 18%).
Aha! Proof of TV’s terrible ageism! Well, perhaps not. 65 is the retirement age in the UK (currently 60 for women, although it’s soon to increase to 65). So I’d imagine, if you looked around most workplaces – whether they’re a TV studio, a shop, a school, an office or a newsroom – you’d find quite a sharp drop off in the number of over 65s there too. At a certain point, no matter what your career, most people decide to retire. It’s true that TV isn’t like other jobs – and that there’s a need to reflect society on screen – but with 8% of performers aged 65+, that’s hardly ignoring them.
[Possibly tasteless side note – in addition to not wanting to work any more, I’m sure that a certain proportion of over 65s are not actually capable of working any more, suffering from conditions that might necessitate them to live in, I don’t know, some kind of residential care home?]
So – we’ve found proof of TV’s ageism in general. So what of the Mail’s headline implying that the BBC is the worst offender. Again, the data doesn’t actually support the Mail’s conclusion. It’s true that BBC One has a lower proportion of 50+ than ITV1 (PCP ignore ITV’s digital channels) – but more than either Channel 4 or Five. And BBC Two actually has the highest proportion of over 50s on screen, with 37% – which is higher than their incidence in the population (34%)!
So, the BBC is no worse than average – and in fact over represents older people on one of its channels. In fairness to the Mail, they do acknowledge this later in the article – not that they’d let that disrupt a good headline.
The only age group consistently underrepresented (and by significantly larger margins) are under 18s. Across all TV channels, only 5% of faces are under 18, while they make up 21% of the population. Where are the lobbyists for young actors, cruelly denied their time on screen, just because of their age?
Finally, PCP back up their analysis with a survey, asking the public for their opinion on older people on TV. Their conclusions include:
“BBC1 and BBC2 were more likely than other channels to be perceived by the general population as depicting a positive impression of older people.”
“David Attenborough was much the most popular choice as the media personality perceived to best portray a positive image of older people.”
I’ll let those quotes speak for themselves.
To conclude, we’ve found that ageism exists in TV, but impacts young people more than older people. That BBC Two actually over represents older people on screen. And that audiences generally believe that the BBC does a good job of representing them on screen.
Of course, most of the anti-BBC spin is present in the original press release from Anchor, then simply regurgitated by media outlets keen to promote another anti-BBC story. It’s almost as if they’d done it deliberately, knowing that it would make the story more likely to get picked up…
The BBC is far from perfect. And it’s wrong to ever fire anyone simply because of their age. But disingenuous PR like this, lapped up by a lazy press, have now led to a culture where programme makers feel incapable of replacing older high profile performers (no matter how expensive or in need of recasting they are) for fear that they’ll go straight to the press crying ‘Ageism!’. This prevents new performers from getting time on screen – and in fact pushes up costs for the BBC (as less high profile performers are cheaper to employ).
*Incidentally, I’d love to sit in on one of these PR companies’ pitch meetings – “So, you asked us to come up with a campaign to get your brand lots of media coverage. And what we’ve got will knock your socks off… Have you ever considered doing a survey? We just pick a topic tangentially related to what you do, ask a few questions and conveniently come up with a headline friendly conclusion that cheekily confirms or subverts conventional wisdom. If we publish on a slow news day, we could hit page 4 of Metro!”