BBC case fuels debate on changing the face of TV


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LONDON – 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.