Liz Holliday

Communications Specialist

ONLINE WORK: PERISCOPE POST: GOLDEN GIRLS UNITE

This is an article I wrote for the London publication ‘The Periscope Post’ on January 13th 2011:

Women must battle ageism to remain on TV after 40. Photo credit: ST33VO

Women have been trying to find their place within the typically male dominated field of television broadcast since the early 1970s. Thanks to pioneers of the business, women like Barbara Walters, who in 1976 became the first woman to anchor network TV, have proven themselves worthy in a world full of men. And now that the glass ceiling has been broken, women are asserting their presence in the field more than ever.

However, as the recent Miriam O’Reilly case shows us, it isn’t all sunshine and roses for the women in television broadcasting. The double-standard expectations of youth and beauty unfairly seem to be a real threat to veteran women in the broadcasting field.

O’Reilly, 53, was dropped from her BBC show, “Countryfile”, when it moved to prime time in April 2009. Although her sex discrimination case against her former employers failed, she brought an ageism suit against the BBC; it took two years, but an employment tribunal finally agreed with O’Reilly this week that the BBC unfairly dismissed her. Now, the BBC claims they “would like to discuss working with her in the future.” The fact that the announcement came after O’Reilly took the BBC to court only seems to tarnish the sincerity of the statement.

This is far from the first case of an older woman being replaced for a younger model to appease viewership. The most famous ageism case goes back to the early 1980s: Before O’Reilly won her battle against the BBC, U.S. journalist Christine Craft won a similar suit in 1981. Craft was demoted from her anchoring position after only nine months, following poor ratings in appearance and demeanor. Craft claimed the reason for her demotion was that she was “too old, too unattractive, and not deferential enough to men”.

Some say that the ascetical demands of television are blind to gender, however this is simply not the case. While both sexes adhere to the demands of looking good on camera, aging does not affect men in the same way as women. Last year, Britain’s Skillset revealed that “75 percent of men in TV are aged 35 or over compared to just 52 percent of women.” According to The Guardian, Skillset also found that “only one in 10 women working in television is over 50 – half are under 35.” So while it is perfectly acceptable for men to remain on air well after their hair has turned gray, women are dropped at the first sign of a wrinkle.

Women seem to get stuck serving a type of figurehead role on television, to be painted and preened to the pleasure of the onlooker. If this weren’t the case, than why would it matter if a 53-year-old were the face of a prime time slot? Even images of CBS’s Katie Couric were altered in promotional ads to make her appearance more youthful back in 2006. At the time The New York Times reported, “As part of a cover story in its promotional magazine Watch, a picture of Ms. Couric taken at that event has been altered to give her noticeable slimmer physique and fewer facial lines.”  Does NBC’s Brian Williams have to put up with demands like that? Probably not. It seems that while older men get to be “silver foxes” or distinguished, older women are described as haggard or dowdy.

It is not to say that seasoned women over 40 do not exist on television, because they most certainly do (Oprah and Barbra Walters can attest to that). However, studies have shown that they appear less often than their younger, female counterparts. This suggests that the seasoned women of broadcasting are not only competing with men for airtime, but younger, fitter women as well.

If Oprah and Barbra can maintain viewership over the years, why don’t networks trust other women to do the same? In a “post-feminist” society where women and men are supposed to be on a level playing field, it is a shame that networks are pinning women against each other.

It can only be hoped that the BBC will learn from the mistake of firing O’Reilly. It would be the first step in appreciating, and accepting, seasoned female presenters. Ageism cases such as this have been going on for far too long, and frankly take us back to the days where women were to be seen and not heard. As it stands, the women in broadcasting expect a career spanning that of a professional athlete: In lieu of athletic ability is a woman’s age, and when the wrinkles start to show, it’s off to the bench, with newer “fitter” women taking the field.

This is not to say that being a presenter should be a lifetime guarantee; television broadcasting, after all, is not the U.S. Supreme Court (of which members cannot be fired, only impeached). However, until age starts to affect the quality of broadcasting being transmitted, women should not have to worry about being fired because of crow’s feet or a few gray hairs.

2 Responses to “ONLINE WORK: PERISCOPE POST: GOLDEN GIRLS UNITE”

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  2. idiolycle says:

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