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Female Olympians Sidetracked from Prime Time TV

Female athletes continue to get short shrift on prime-time Olympic coverage.
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Estonian athlete Kaie Kand runs in the Women's Heptathlon 800 meter at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. She won her 800 heat but finished 33rd overall in the event. (Pete Niesen /

Estonian athlete Kaie Kand runs in the Women's Heptathlon 800 meter at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. She won her 800 heat but finished 33rd overall in the event. (Pete Niesen /

When it comes to gender-neutral coverage, NBC’s prime-time Olympics telecast is no medalist.

That’s the conclusion of two newly published studies looking at the American television network’s prime-time coverage of the most recent summer and winter Olympics.

One reported female athletes were marginalized during the 2010 winter Olympics, receiving only 37.8 percent of prime-time coverage. The other found they did significantly better during the 2008 summer Olympics, receiving 46.3 percent of air time during the broadcast network’s evening programming.

However, that figure was down from 47.9 percent in 2004. Furthermore, nearly all of the coverage was confined to a few specific sports the researchers term “socially acceptable,” including swimming and gymnastics.

“Even today, it seems that women are accepted as athletes only if they continue to look and act as women are expected to look and act,” write Kelly Davis and C.A. Tuggle of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who co-authored the study of the 2008 coverage.

Davis and Tuggle report women made up 48 percent of the U.S. team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and earned 48 percent of the nation’s 110 medals—precisely the same number as the American men. (Mixed-gender teams won another four.) “Nevertheless, males received more airtime, especially in individual events,” they write.

Perhaps more tellingly, nearly three-quarters of the women's coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball. Notice anything they have in common? The researchers did.

“It is now customary for the participants in all of these events … to wear the equivalent of a bathing suit,” they note in their analysis, which appears in the journal Electronic News.

Track and field, where the clothing is almost as minimal, made up another 13 percent of the women’s prime-time coverage. “The remaining sports represented—rowing, cycling, and fencing—are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and make up approximately 2 percent of coverage,” the researchers write.

“Women who take part in sports that involve either power or hard-body contact are particularly unlikely to receive media coverage. When women engage in stereotypical feminine events, or look pretty or graceful, they will receive coverage, but they risk being shunned if they venture from that space.”

That no doubt also applies to the winter Olympics, where there are fewer opportunities for female athletes to exhibit those qualities (figure skating being the obvious exception). This may explain why, during the 2008 Vancouver games, men cumulatively received nearly 23 hours of prime-time coverage on NBC, compared to just under 13 hours for women.

“Seventy-five percent of the top 20 mentioned athletes were men, including eight of the top 10,” reports a research team led by James Angelini of the University of Delaware. “While gold- and bronze-medal winning alpine skier Lindsey Vonn was the second most-mentioned athlete overall, she received less than half of Apolo Anton Ohno’s mentions.”

Davis and Tuggle did not analyze the mention of specific names in their study of the 2008 summer games. But they report that just over 60 percent of the athletes interviewed during the prime-time coverage were men.

None of these findings are intended as a slam on NBC. (For the London games, Angelini and his colleagues will be screening and analyzing the BBC coverage along with that of the American network; it will be interesting to see if there are significant differences.)

The UNC researchers emphasize they are not arguing that NBC is “intentionally marginalizing any athletes.” Rather, they write, the network—cognizant of the need for high ratings—is responding to the public’s preferences. (The top-rated events of the 2008 summer games were women's gymnastics, followed by men's and women's swimming competitions.)

Don't assume that means pandering to sexist male sports lovers. Traditionally, the Olympics are the only sporting event that draws a majority female television audience. For NBC's 2008 coverage, the biggest demographic group was women 18 and over, who made up 49 percent of total viewership. Men ages 18 and older made up only 41 percent.

The Olympics telecasts are a huge ratings draw--214 million people, more than two-thirds of the American population, caught at least some of NBC's 2008 coverage--so an argument can be made that the programmers know what people want to see. Their decisions suggest we love our women athletes, but only when they’re showing a lot of skin, and/or participating in sports our society considers acceptably feminine.

Perhaps that attitude is slowly shifting; Time magazine's 2012 Olympic covers notably emphasize the athleticism of female athletes, as opposed to their sex appeal. Whether that change in emphasis also applies to television will have to await the studies on this year's coverage. We're looking at you, Bob Costas, and we're taking notes.