According to television insiders, their industry does a poor job of depicting the interests of the elderly, is replete with discrimination and presents outdated notions of older adults.
In a recent survey conducted by the UCLA School of Medicine, half of those responding said they believe older people are portrayed unrealistically on television and 64 percent said the industry does an inadequate job of characterizing the concerns of the elderly.More than 1,500 members of the Academy of Television Arts and Science - an organization of 24 peer groups for TV professionals, including performers, writers, producers, directors, makeup artists, hairstylists and costume designers - ages 10 to 97, responded to the survey about portrayals of the elderly on television, employment practices affecting older workers in the industry and general knowledge of and personal opinions about aging.
Still, more than half of those surveyed said TV depictions of the elderly had improved in recent years, and almost two-thirds were able to identify programs with positive images of older adults. "Golden Girls," "Empty Nest," "Murder She Wrote," "Matlock" and "L.A. Law" were the top five programs cited.
Over 75 percent of respondents said there should be more programs featuring older characters, but most believe advertisers play a major role in deciding which programs make it on the air. In fact, 85 percent of respondents said there would be more programs focusing on older adults if advertisers were more concerned about selling to the 50-and-over market. With present conditions in the business, 42 percent said it is a waste of time to try to pitch a program with an older lead because it probably won't get on the air.
Within the industry, almost half of those responding to the survey said they had experienced some sort of discrimination and 59 percent of these respondents said it was because they were considered too old. Performers, writers and directors were cited as those most likely to experience age discrimination and difficulty in obtaining work. In dealing with this discrimination, 28 percent of the respondents had at some time claimed to be younger than they were or avoided disclosing their age in order to get or keep a job in the television industry. One-fourth said that at some point in their careers, someone had suggested they alter their appearance to look younger. Sixty percent said they even dreaded getting gray hair.
While more than half (60 percent) of the respondents said that old age begins after 65, 87 percent said that a person at that age is already considered "over the hill" in the television industry. Nevertheless, approximately 75 percent planned to continue working past the age of 65. A large majority (82 percent) said that their lives had improved with age, and 75 percent said they became more creative as they got older.
The survey also attempted to assess television professionals' general knowledge of aging issues. The respondents were given a 25-question true-false quiz about various aging-related subjects, which researchers have also administered to other groups nationally. On average, respondents in this survey answered only 15 of these questions correctly - a poorer result than that of other groups that had taken the test.
Funded by the Administration on Aging, the survey was conducted by the UCLA Multicampus Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology along with UCLA's Anna and Harry Borun Center for Gerontological Research under a project called "Enhancing Awareness of Aging Among Leaders in the Television Industry." The project will sponsor workshops and develop fact sheets and a directory of specialists on aging who can serve as media consultants, with the goal of helping television professionals create informed, more realistic portrayals of the elderly.
Send questions about growing older to On Aging, P.O. Box 84256, Los Angeles, Calif. 90073. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; individual answers cannot be provided.