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Blacklist Gone--Now It's a Graylist, Conferees Believe : Television: 'Maturity and the Media' attracts 500, many over 50. Ageism is the dominant question and answer.

September 13, 1993|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forty years ago, when television was beginning to grow along with the baby-boom generation, Hollywood suffered through the infamous blacklist of suspected communists and alleged fellow-travelers. Is there now a graylist against actors, writers, producers and directors of a certain age?

That seemed the primary question and inevitable conclusion at a daylong conference Saturday at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood. Co-sponsored by the academy and the American Assn. of Retired Persons, along with UCLA's Center on Aging and the Motion Picture and Televison Fund, the conference also dealt with the portrayal of older people on TV as well as the increasing numbers and growing financial clout of older Americans.

Although the conference title was more upbeat--"Age Has a Future: Maturity and the Media"--the dominant theme among more than 500 industry attendees, a substantial number of whom appeared to be over 50, was ageism.

Panelists tended to describe "older," in industry terms, as over 35 and 40 for men, while for women, at least according to activist lawyer and talk-radio host Gloria Allred, who moderated a panel, it seems to mean over 30.

A 1992 UCLA survey presented to the conference found:

* 47% said they had been discriminated against in the TV industry because of their age, with 59% of these respondents saying they were discriminated against because they were too old.

* One out of four said they were told to alter their appearance to appear more youthful.

* 69% felt that most decision-makers in TV did not have a good understanding of the characteristics and concerns of older adults.

The metaphor, almost the rallying cry of the event, was a giant cartoon displayed on-screen of a young industry executive, his feet comfortably stretched across his desk, asking the older applicant: "So what have you done?" The response, which from the delighted hoots in the auditorium might have amounted to some wishful thinking: "Before you were born or after?"

Grim silence however attended the 17-minute showing of "Power and Fear: The Hollywood Graylist," comparing the blacklist era with what it portrays as today's discrimination. Narrated by actor Richard Kiley, his hair more salt than pepper, the film depicted the consequences of discrimination as ranging from heart attacks and suicides simply to wasted talent.

Loreen Arbus, a producer of the documentary, said that a number of those whose stories are told in the film were afraid to appear as themselves.

"In television-speak, experience means liability," said Mort Thaw, former chairman of the Age Awareness Committee of the Writers Guild of America, West. Meanwhile awards and credits "received 10, 20 years ago are detriments to a writing career. . . ."

"Mature writers," he added, "aren't sealed off in some cocoon of ignorance, insensate, emotionally paralytic. . . . They're alive, alert, vital. . . . Will any 30-year-old executive today grant that he/she has only 10/20 more positive years before brain atrophy sets in?"

During the 1990-91 season, according of William T. Bielby, professor and chair of the sociology department at UC Santa Barbara, 19 series, including "Cheers," "Wonder Years," "Seinfeld" and "L.A. Law," had no writers over 50. At the other end of the spectrum, "MacGyver," "Dallas" and "Murder She Wrote," in that order, had the best record of older writer employment, ranging from more than 60% to 40%.

At the conference, the retired persons association presented its annual media award to CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky for being, as AARP Executive Director Horace B. Deets noted, "in the forefront of challenging the television networks to create more programming for older viewers."

Sagansky, whose network airs the ever-popular "Murder She Wrote," now in its 10th season, said networkers and advertisers are "finally learning" that they ignore older Americans "at their own perilous risk. NBC had a precipitous ratings drop last year when they decided that the older audience wasn't important. ABC and Fox have both made recent pronouncements that they are now looking to cast a wider net. . . . To my competitors, I say. 'Welcome to the party. It's about time. . . .' "

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