A former BBC One controller has denied claims she had attempted to target a rural affairs programme as part of a drive to attract a younger audience.
Jay Hunt said it would have been an “utterly insane” strategy to target the Countryfile programme as a way of bringing in younger viewers to the channel.
She said the revamped programme launched on prime-time television formed part of a “valued” line-up of programmes attractive to older viewers on Sunday evenings along with shows such as Songs of Praise and Lark Rise to Candleford.
“It would be nonsensical to say that in the middle of an older skewing part of the BBC One schedule ‘let’s just lurch younger, for no particular reason’,” she told the employment tribunal in central London.
“I had no ambition to make Countryfile into a younger skewing audience in any respect.”
Ms Hunt was giving evidence at an tribunal hearing brought by former Countryfile and Midlands Today presenter Miriam O’Reilly, who was dropped from the programme before it moved to a prime-time slot in April 2009.
The BBC denies a claim of age and sex discrimination brought by the 53-year-old journalist, who worked for Countryfile for seven years.
She was dropped along with female presenters Michaela Strachan, 42, Juliet Morris, 45, and Charlotte Smith, 46, in advance of its move to a prime-time slot.
The show relaunched with Julia Bradbury and former Blue Peter presenter Matt Baker with veteran broadcaster John Craven, 68, kept on for a slot called John Craven investigates.
It was also announced that they would be supported by presenters Adam Henson, James Wong, Jules Hudson and Katie Knapman.
Ms Hunt, who is currently on gardening leave before taking up a senior post at Channel 4 in January, said Countryfile was “highly prized” for attracting an older audience to the channel.
She told the tribunal Mr Craven had stayed with the programme because he was “synonymous with the brand” and had a 20-year career in peak-time broadcasting.
Giving evidence, Mark Damazer, former controller of BBC Radio 4 and Radio 7, who is now head of St Peter’s College, Oxford, defended a decision to reject a programme proposal on Wootton Bassett suggested by Ms O’Reilly.
He said the decision to reject the proposal in October 2009 was based solely on the level of coverage the Wiltshire town, famous for honouring troops killed in Afghanistan, had already received.
The decision had nothing to do with Ms O’Reilly’s age or sex or because of any articles that had appeared about the changes to the Countryfile programme, he said.
“It was based on the level of coverage there had been around Wootton Bassett and had nothing whatsoever to do with Miriam O’Reilly. I did not even know that she was involved in the proposal,” he said.
He said he did not know Ms O’Reilly on a “personal” level but knew of her work as a Radio 4 presenter on programmes such as File on Four and Costing the Earth.
She had also featured on Woman’s Hour as a presenter in 2007, he said.
“She is a good journalist and a competent presenter. I never felt that she was going to prove to be amongst the first rank of Radio 4 presenters but few people do,” Mr Damazer said.
Ms O’Reilly has told the tribunal that she was “devastated” after being told she was losing her job on Countryfile.
She was warned to be “careful with those wrinkles when high definition comes in” just nine months before she was dropped, the tribunal has heard.
The hearing continues.