NBC News has sparked charges of age discrimination by announcing it is transferring 25 producers, directors and news writers, nearly all of them over 40, into a "pool" created to serve all its news broadcasts.

Of the 21 union employees placed in the pool -- nicknamed "the drowning pool" by insiders -- more than half are over 50, according to the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians. Salaries of those being transferred will be cut by as much as 10 percent, the union says.

NBC officials strongly deny the discrimination charge, which the union formally raised this week with the National Labor Relations Board in a grievance proceeding.

"It looks like a concerted effort to move out senior people," says John Clark, president of NABET's Local 11 in New York. "The company hopes they'll be frustrated ... and that they'll leave."

But Executive News Director Don Browne says NBC is looking for "a more efficient way to do business" in an era of industry cutbacks.

"This isn't an age issue... . It's not based on anything but performance," Browne says. He notes that 18 other employees have been laid off and that most were younger people.

Pool members will be on call for assignments from any NBC broadcast instead of working for a particular program. NBC spokeswoman Peg Hubble says that while their base pay will be cut, it will be increased temporarily while they are on assignment for certain shows.

Those being reassigned from "NBC Nightly News" include investigative producer Pat Lynch, 52, who was sued unsuccessfully by Lyndon LaRouche after her reports on the now-imprisoned political extremist, and Sy Pearlman, 59, a former executive producer and Tel Aviv bureau chief who has won a Peabody and other awards.

Some staffers are incensed at Browne's recent comment to the Washington Journalism Review that the transfers were "strictly based on ability."

"I am surprised to read that this decision was strictly based on ability," Lynch says, "particularly in light of my having received the most distinguished awards in journalism, including two Emmys, a DuPont-Columbia award and a 1990 Ohio State award."

Lynch says Steve Friedman, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News," told her that her work was "an indulgence that 'Nightly News' can no longer afford" and that he wanted people who could "churn them out." Lynch says Friedman did not respond directly when asked if he felt she could not churn them out at her age.

"Longer investigative stories take time and money, and budgets and bottom line are a major concern right now," Lynch says. "Delays are a necessary evil because you have to be careful and responsible."

Although Friedman denies making the comments, he says that "I did not believe this was a vehicle for her kind of work. I can't live with someone who does eight or nine pieces a year."

Friedman, who recently rejoined the network after working at the ill-fated "USA Today: The Television Show," says his personnel decisions had "nothing to do with age" or "quality," but with "philosophy" and "productivity."

"I'm not really into seven- or eight-minute pieces on a 22-minute show," he says. "There are other outlets for that. I'm looking at 2 1/2- to three-minute pieces."

Bernie Brown, 63, says his transfer was announced after he shared in an Emmy award for coverage of the Romanian revolution as a senior producer for the weekend "Nightly News." He says he is the target of "retaliation" for joining a union lawsuit on overtime pay. Brown says his salary will be cut from $995 to $895 a week.

Despite the transfers and layoffs, officials say the news division is hiring 100 new employees for the new Jane Pauley show, an "Expose" investigative unit and a 24-hour news service.

NABET Vice President Calvin Siemer says Don Browne told union officials at a meeting that those being reassigned were "leftovers" who were not wanted by their old shows. Browne denies making the comment, saying many of those transferred are "pretty talented people."

"People in television who are decrying all this business, bottom-line mentality, these are the same people who played the ratings game to get higher salaries," Friedman says. "You cannot have it both ways."