Friday, 14 January 2011

Ageism at the BBC.

Good to see that former Countryfile presenter, Miriam O’Reilly, has won her employment tribunal against the BBC on the grounds of ageism and victimisation. It is way past time that the BBC, and the rest, got pulled up for this sort of thing.

Former BBC1 controller Jay Hunt however claimed that O’Reilly’s claims were “entirely and categorically untrue” and “profoundly distressing and utterly offensive.” Must have stayed up all night working on that one.

The fact is that the tribunal agreed with O’Reilly, not the BBC. They were found guilty as charged.

But, let’s think back here.
Who was it that thought it a good idea to give a rural affairs programme a seven o’ clock evening slot at the weekend?
I suspect no one. But their hand was forced when the corporation decided to empty the coffers to show motor racing.

The BBC is pretty much obliged to show a programme like Countryside. But the ‘out of the way’ Sunday morning, amongst religion and politics, became problematic when they decided to splash out millions to broadcast Formula 1 racing. Southern hemisphere events require the Sunday morning. Something had to go. No one wants politics at primetime. And a religious affairs programme, hot on the heels of “Songs of Praise”, is unthinkable at anytime of the day.

However, there was no way that the programme, which dealt earnestly with rural affairs, could have been moved to a primetime slot in its old format. Primetime requires the lowest common denominator. It must be populist. It cannot be challenging. It needed presenters that primetime viewers recognised (even if I don’t).
Miriam O’Reilly along with the other female presenters, Juliet Morris and Michaela Strachan, didn’t fit the bill.

So, a new look sexed-up Countryfile was the order of the day. What we got was a bland magazine format designed for urban viewers more interested in the traditional countryside pursuits of off-road racing, paint-balling and leaving litter all over the place was the solution.
Out went the authority that comes with experienced presenters and in came the shallow ambition of youth. A perception that the attraction is more with what the primetime slot could mean for their careers than any interest countryside still lingers. 

The Beeb have much of the rise in viewing figures Countryfile does alright in the Beeb’s viewing list getting around six-plus million viewers and generally keeping its place in their top-ten list.
But, it should be remembered that viewing figures do not necessarily reflect programme quality. Rather, they show viewer choice. And that depends on what the other lot are showing. A quick look at ITV’s offerings for this time-slot show that Countryfile lacks serious competition. And let’s not forget that multi-channel broadcasters such as the BBC quite rightly manipulate their channel schedules to offer choice not competition.

Countryfile is not a story of a programme being moved to new tome-slot. It is about a programme being in the road of motor racing. It is about a programme being reinvented for a whole new audience. An audience that by and large has little interest in rural affairs.

And while I would recognise Miriam O’Reilly, Juliet Morris and Michaela Strachan if I met them in a busy city street, I can’t say the same of their replacements supposing I saw them hanging around a farm doing a piece on “Where Milk Comes From.”