Are Fox and American Idol Guilty of Age Discrimination?
April 21st, 2009 | Ellen Simon
It would have been hard to miss the heartwarming story last week about Susan Boyle’s performance on the British version of American Idol called Britain’s Got Talent. The New York Times and CBS News have extensively covered it as have most of the other media outlets.
The episode, according to the Times, has provoked a debate about the “not so young and not so beautiful” that has many people talking.
Once on stage, her interrogator, Simon Cowell, asks about her dream. To be a professional singer, she says, and as successful as Elaine Page — a statement that elicits great hilarity and hyperactive camera close-ups of the judges’ bemused disbelief and the snickering, eye-rolling audience. . . .
Cheerful and unperturbed, the contestant blithely announces that she is going to sing, “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables.
“How old are you, Susan?” asks Simon, in a tone more appropriate to an interview with a toddler.
“Forty-seven,” she says. The audience cracks up. Pixels of ridicule fill the screen, incredulity, patronizing sneers, smirks, whispers you can almost hear: Look at her, will you! Frumpy from the Fifties, got a double chin, a silly Scottish accent, hails from some tiny hamlet, can’t remember the word “villages,” and to top it off, Omigod, she’s old! Either she’s a ringer and we’re in for some weird parody of Dame Edna or we’re about to see this dowdy dame make a fool of herself on the hottest show on British telly.
Finally, Susan Boyle steps into the spotlight and opens her mouth, and before she’s sung three glorious, crystal clear notes, the audience is cheering, the judges’ jaws have dropped, and I’m choking back tears.
It is truly a great story and if you have not seen the video, I strongly suggest that you join the thirty million people who have. It will surely bring a tear to your eye.
But here’s what struck me when I first saw the story: How come she gets to try out and she’s 47? Not so in the U.S.A.
While most people may not have given it much thought, it’s pretty obvious that all of the singers on American Idol seem quite young Well they are, and it’s no coincidence
My husband is a pretty good singer (for sure I have a bit of a bias) and we have a good time at karaoke clubs. My son is an agent in the entertainment business. I mentioned to my son that I thought it would be fun if my husband tried out for American Idol — not that he would win of course, but that it would be fun to go to a tryout. After he stopped laughing he said:
He can’t try out
Why not? I said.
Because he’s not under 30.
Yes, that’s right. In order to try out for American Idol you have to be under thirty years of age. I checked the rules and here’s what I found:
You have to be a legal U.S Citizen or a permanent U.S resident. You also have to be between the ages of 16 and 29. Make sure to bring 2 forms of I.D with you, at least one form must be a photo I.D. If you are under 18 you need to have a parent or legal guardian with you.
So is it age discrimination? It’s not a real simple answer.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older from employment discrimination based on age. The ADEA applies to:
- all employees and job applicants.
- all terms and conditions of employment including: hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training.
It is crystal clear that an employer can not lawfully have a rule which prohibits it from employing anyone over the age of 30.
There are times when employers can lawfully use age in making employment decisions. For example,commercial airline pilots are required to retire at a certain age. It’s simply not safe to have 80 year old pilots flying commercial jet planes with hundreds of lives at risk.
For that logical reason, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act permits exceptions for:
a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business
That provision, commonly called the “BFOQ” exception, allows airlines as well as other industries (where safety, for example, may be an issue) to require retirement at a designated age.
But singing? What could possibly be the bona fide occupational justification for statinging that an excellent singer has to be under 30? Paul McCartney and Barbara Streisand still sound just fine. In fact, it seems to me that many singers get better with age.
The problem with this scenario is that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits age discrimination in employment and folks on American Idol are not applying for jobs, so the the act arguably does not apply.
I am not, however, completely convinced that’s the end of the story and this is why.
American Idol is broadcast by Fox. Fox Broadcasting Company is a network that is heavily regulated by the federal government.
In fact , Fox is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to do business and is subject to the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 as well as a host of other federal laws.Television networks have all sorts of civil rights compliance requirements and regulations which prohibit discrimination.
While I understand that this is not a case of discrimination in employment, it certainly seems to me that it may be a case of discrimination in the award of a contract.
This is my argument:
- when you win American Idol you get a recording contract
- the contract is offered on to those under 30
- Fox Broadcasting, through American Idol, is committing age discrimination in the award of contracts by not allowing those over 30 to compete.
I am not entirely sure whether the argument is constitutionally sound, but I am not convinced that it’s not.
As a constitutional matter, if a governmental entity awarded contracts to whites only, we would no doubt be outraged. The government would have the impossible burden of showing that it had a “compelling governmental purpose” for doing so and the alleged justification would be given “strict scrutiny”. In other words, we would have little trouble proving that the contract is unconstitutional and illegal.
But even at the lower level of constitutional scrutiny used in cases of gender or age discrimination, how could a contract awarded only to singers under the age of 30 be “rationally related to any legitimate governmental purpose” ? ( if Fox is considered to be taking governmental action because of it’s federal license or because it is heavily regulated by the federal government a constitutional analysis could kick in)
Yes, it’s all quite complicated. Constitutional law is not easy. But it’s not hard to ask this question: If American Idol only permitted white individuals to audition, or permitted only men to try out, how would we feel about it and what would we do?
Putting all of the legal complexities aside, from one Simon to another, I feel compelled to ask: why can’t the show let everyone try out to be the next American Idol?
Equal opportunity in England, but not the United States, just doesn’t seem right.
Crossposted from Ellen Simon’s blog Employee Rights Post.
About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post. Her website is www.ellensimon.net.