Ageism and the BBC: It’s a Wonderful World!

Want to be on TV? Must be young and pretty

In 80 years of existence, the BBC has been called many things, ranging from innovative to the purveyor of ‘quality’, through pretentious or boring. For a number of years, though, the public channel has been increasingly deemed ‘ageist’ or ‘sexist’, more so than ever before.


Miriam-OReillyMiriam O’Reilly 


Indeed, ever since Countryfile presenters – along with Tom Heap and Ben Fogle, who both eventually returned – were evinced from Countryfile back in 2008, an ageism and sexism controversy was sparked, only to be further kindled by Arlene Phillips’ replacement with Alesha Dixon on Strictly Come Dancing the following year, and ‘relaunched’ in 2010, when O’Reilly decided to sue the BBC for age and sex discrimination, a case she would win the following year.


Nevertheless, in not renewing the contract of one their star male presenters, David Attenborough (among others), the British Broadcaster has since applied a wider ageism policy, not only limited to female presenters. But let’s rewind a bit.


1IMAGE1David Attenborough (left) 


What to do with an eighty something national icon?

BBC One’s Nature documentaries have been written and narrated since 1952 by Sir David Attenborough, who also acted as controller on BBC Two and director of programming of both channels in the 1960s. Attenborough, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995, is seen as a national icon in the UK, having been one of the faces of British Television for six decades.
Frozen Planet,one of the  BBC’s big-budget documentaries, aired its seven episodes in late 2011. Followed by 8 million viewers in the UK, Frozen Planet marked Attenborough’s last documentary series for the Beeb, the following ones being presented by a variety of well-known TV faces, from Top Gear’s Richard Hammond and then new face of Countryfile (pun intended), Julia Bradbury for Planet Earth Live to former Time Lord, David Tennant for Earthflight.


How, then, did the BBC manage to make the transition between the face of its Nature documentary series to other TV hosts? Thanks to Louis Armstrong… and with Attenborough’s help! Indeed, the aging national icon – and former BBC2 controller – did not seem to hold a grudge against the BBC, even defending them, regarding his particular case, during an interview for the Evening Standard: ‘I’m 86. If you’re a network controller, you’re not going to say, “Why don’t we do a four-year project with him?”’.


It’s a wonderful world… watch it with us!

The transition from the Attenborough era to the next one was carefully planned, and took the form of a commercial which first aired right at the end of the last Frozen Planet episode. Named after the eponymous song used throughout, the 2-minute long, music-licensed Television spot, conceived by UK agency RKCR/Y&R, uses the music of Louis Armstrong’s famous song, “What a Wonderful World” and portrays many segments, all coming from past BBC One documentaries about Nature.



At the end of the spot, the last image fades out, before a satellite image of the planet, centered around the Middle East, appears. The image is taken at nighttime, as easily seen by the signs of electric light, particularly noticeable. On the screen is written “It’s a wonderful world,”. The rest of the sentence appears two seconds later, as the Earth keeps spinning, and the sentence now reads “It’s a wonderful world, watch it with us” – that is, ‘us’ at BBC One, not ‘him’, Attenborough). What appears to be a gleam of sunlight subsequently appears – metaphorically alluding to the upcoming new era of nature documentaries – before a last scene fades in. David Attenborough is finally shown, laughing in the company of two chimpanzees.


By showing beautiful images to the audience while ‘nursing’ it with the TV presenter-turned-singer’s calming voice, the creative minds perhaps hoped to pay a breathtaking tribute to BBC One’s former documentaries, while paying a touching one to the man who wrote and narrated them for nearly six decades.


Age is age… but ratings are ratings!

Earthflight, BBC One’s following nature documentary, which started airing only 3 weeks after the end of Frozen Planet, attracted an average of over 5 million viewers during its six episodes. Similarly, Six-parter Planet Earth Live, which started airing in May 2012 was watched by over 5 million viewers.


With such disappointing ratings compared to successful Frozen Planet’s 8 millions, something had to be done. Indeed, even if the BBC is not officially in the ratings business, ‘audiences are at the heart of everything they do’. It was therefore time to turn to a familiar face.. David? David? Oh, there you are… looking at (the) Sky, were you? [as Attenborough was making 3D documentaries for cable channel Sky at that time]


Even though Sir David may not (yet?) be working on four-year projects for the BBC, he hosted in November 2012 yet another Nature documentary, albeit on BBC Two this time, as a one-off special, entitled Attenborough’s Ark. And on 2 January 2013, Attenborough officially made his comeback to BBC One, with the six-part Africa documentary, attracting 6.5 million viewers right away (against 6.8 for the Frozen Planet premiere (wait for it), but 35% higher than the current average for this spot). Welcome back, David! You’re looking younger, suddenly…


Truth be said, David Attenborough is not the only male presenter to have been supposedly taken off their air due to their age. Indeed, as aforementioned, others presenters have since made such claims, such as the former BBC correspondent Michael Cole, although he defended the producers’ right to choose the presenters they liked, a position likewise held by Lord Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson, who defended the broadcaster’s decision to remove O’Reilly from the air. Attenborough, however, is not the only male presenters to have made a comeback to the BBC (alike the aforementioned cases of Heap and Fogle), contrary to their female counterparts, the only exception being O’Reilly, who was rehired after the trial, though allegedly treated with hostility.


Where are we now?

The chain of accusations and suits over sexism and ageism reached another level earlier last year, as it was announced last year that up to 30 different women were planning to similarly take the BBC to court. Beeb, be warned: to quote Aimee Mann, ‘it’s not going to stop’… Without any more tangible news on the matter since, however, the BBC has enjoyed a break from such controversies for the past few months, and even went on make fun of the matter through Ceefax’s departing note from 21 October 2012, which humourously stated that it had been ‘frozen out by the powers that be, yet another victim of BBC ageism’.



Whether one supports Cole’s arguments regarding the right and liberty that should be given to BBC producers, or the complaints made by O’Reilly over ageism and sexism, one can always appreciate humour every once in a while…