Age Discrimination in TV News Biz: Fogies Fight Back
Last week Larry Hoff, the 60-year-old former WPIX news anchor best known for zany antics like rappelling down a high-rise dressed as Santa Claus, became the second on-air personality for the New York City-based station to file an age-discrimination suit against the CW Television Network flagship and its owner, the Tribune Company.
The ten-year veteran of the station alleged that his effective replacement, Lisa Mateo, is decades younger and “had little previous reporting experience” when she took his place. According to Mr. Hoff, WPIX violated city and state anti-age discrimination statutes by launching a “barely concealed effort” to rid the broadcast team of “older members” after real estate billionaire Sam Zell took over the Tribune Company in 2007.
What the articles don’t discuss is whether an age-discrimination suit brought by a TV personality has any chance of success. We will.
If a network’s research shows its viewers prefer more youthful anchors, is it legally allowed to shove aside a graying personality in favor of a younger one? The short answer is no, but the network can always claim the decision was based on nondiscriminatory reasons. A 1996 decision by a federal court in southern Florida, applying federal and state age-discrimination law, shows that long-in-the-tooth TV anchors face hurdles in successfully pursuing age-discrimination claims, even if they can present rock solid evidence that their advancing ages played a role in the decisions to push them out the door.
Miami anchorman Arthur Carlson was terminated in 1993, and sued his former employer. He argued that the television station, in deciding to end his contract, had relied on focus group survey reports in which viewers were asked whether it was “nicer to watch young, good-looking people on television” and other age-related questions. The station was permitted to present evidence that it had other, nondiscriminatory reasons, for letting Mr. Carlson go, but its managers blew that opportunity by stressing their reliance on the focus-group reports. Mr. Carlson prevailed. The difference between that case and Mr. Hoff’s is that Mr. Carlson was able to clearly connect discriminatory research to the decision to terminate him; Mr. Hoff’s strongest evidence of age discrimination is snide comments about older anchors allegedly made by WPIX’s then-general manager.
Things are different across the pond. In January, a former presenter of a BBC rural affairs show scored a victory against the public broadcaster when a UK employment tribunal found that the decision to drop her from her program had been based on ageism (as the Brits call it.) The ruling prompted “the Beeb” to publicly apologize to Miriam O’Reilly and extend her an offer to discuss future projects; she instead prepared a report on age discrimination for rival network ITV.
But here in the U.S., our desire to be well-informed seems to be directly correlated to the attractiveness of the person presenting the information — recall CNN’s “sexy Paula Zahn” promo.
Whether or not that’s true (let alone fair), there’s no denying that media moguls like Mr. Zell must think about how anchors’ appearances will affect their businesses’ bottom lines. Consider the following language from an entry in the Matthew Bender legal analysis series on the relationship between personal appearance and employment discrimination law: “Television stations and networks make employment decisions for ‘on the air’ positions every day based on viewer ratings and surveys whose sole function is to determine customer preference. The ratings are tied directly to the advertising revenues that the station or network is able to generate, and perhaps even to its economic survival.”
On-air personalities haven’t been the only TV employees to complain about age discrimination. Last year, a $70 million settlement was reached in a group of lawsuits, in which TV writers accused Hollywood networks, studios and talent agencies of denying them employment opportunities due to their advancing ages. The parties settled, partly due to the level of complexity involved in litigation discovery.
Karen Scott, one-time WPIX news director, who worked off-screen, has also filed an age-discrimination suit against the station over her ouster, so it will be interesting to see if the courts treat her claim any differently than the disgruntled anchors’.
(N.B.: This reporter tried but was unable to locate any age-discrimination actions brought by an actor or actress – no doubt they’re too busy begging IMDb.com to erase their listed dates of birth so that no one will know their true ages in the first place.)