For every Olympics since 1994’s Lillehammer Games, Andy Billings has broken down how much time the primetime broadcast spends covering male athletes and female athletes. Usually, men get significantly more of the clock time. But this year, when Billings, who directs the University of Alabama’s sports communications program, and his collaborators ran an initial data-crunch on the first week of the Sochi Olympics, NBC’s coverage was looking more equitable. Through the Friday night of Valentine’s Day, NBC spent 47.6 percent its time covering men and 37.6 percent of its time covering women, with the remainder going to pair sports, like ice dancing.
That counts as an improvement. “It’s a 10-percent gap favoring male athletes, which is smaller than normal,” said Billings, late last week. (Researchers like Billings focus on NBC’s primetime coverage because it reaches the most people—averaging 22.5 million per night, according to the Washington Post.) At the last winter Olympics, in Vancouver, the gap was 20 percent. And, at that point in the Games, women’s figure skating hadn’t even started yet.
By the end of the two weeks, the gap had narrowed even further: Men got 45.4 percent of clock time, women 41.4 percent, and pairs 13.2 percent.
Despite what the Onion might say about our attention span for Olympic women’s hockey—“Come back and read this…300 words about a talented team of female athletes on the verge of Olympic gold isn’t going to kill you” is one of its more gentle excoriations—the Olympics is one of the few times, ever, that the media pays attention to female athletes. And while there are some indications that the media is spending a more time talking about women during the Olympics, there is still ample room for improving how female athletes are covered.
As a rule, NBC spends a smaller proportion of its time on women than on men during the winter Olympics—the gap between coverage of the two genders is larger. In the summer Olympics, women get a fairer share of attention, and, in the 2012 summer Games, NBC actually spent more time on women than men.
“We’ve seen a turn since the London Games; I don’t know if it’s a blip or a trend,” says Billings. “But with London, for the first time in 20 years—maybe the first time ever—women received 55 percent of the clock time within NBC’s telecast.”
Normally, the US sports media spends—if we’re being generous—less than 5 percent of its time covering women in sports. Sociologists Cheryl Cooky and Michael Messner have been conducting a longitudinal “Gender in Televised Sports” study, and in 2009 they found that during a six-week sample, ESPN’s Sports Center spent 1.4 percent of its time on women, and three local affiliates dedicated 1.6 percent of their sports coverage to female athletes. This was “the lowest proportion ever recorded” in the study, but even the record highs were unimpressive—8.7 percent in 1999; 6.3 percent in 2004.
This makes Olympics broadcasts seem like a utopia of gender equality, although Cooky points out that it’s an easier commitment for outlets like NBC to make. “You already have all the media at the event covering men’s sports,” she says. “It’s easy to cover both men and women—your staff, your resources, it’s all there.”
And nationalism can make female athleticism more palatable. “These aren’t necessarily women downhill skiers or hockey players—they’re American hockey players,” Cooky says. “It’s much more comfortable for our culture to get behind women’s sports participation because we’re supporting them as American athletes.”
“If your primary concern is to see the US win medals, the last couple of Olympics, the woman are winning the majority of the medals, [so] you’re going to be showing more women’s sport,” says Billings.
While equal clock time on NBC is a start, it matters, too, what broadcasters and commentators are saying while they’re watching women achieve these feats of athleticism.
“It’s not just a matter of how much—you need to look at how they’re being presented,” says James Angelini, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware, who works with Billings on the Olympics clock time research. “In many cases, they’re still being compared to male athletes in the same sports.”
Angelini noticed, for instance, that during the women’s snowboarding competitions this year, the commentators would talk about the strength of an athlete’s performance and then note that, even so, the women’s version of snowboarding was about five years behind the men’s competition in what athletes are able to accomplish. Commentators will often create narratives that cast female athletes as “queens” needing to be deposed. Or, worse, one (female) commentator referred to the US women’s hockey team as “chicks with sticks.”
These likely aren’t isolated comments. While Angelini hasn’t coded the tape for this Olympics yet, in past years, in-depth analysis of the commentary has shown that broadcasters tell different stories about athletes of different genders. “When a woman succeeds in competing, you hear them talk about how she was lucky. With men, it’s all about their ability and their commitment,” says Angelini. “If she falls or misses a shot, that’s when her athletic ability comes into question.”
Coverage doesn’t necessarily track medal count, either. In the summer Olympics, for instance, coverage focuses on four or five events. “It’s not across-the-board coverage of women,” says C.A. Tuggle, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “The women in grace sports, or not-contact sports, have been getting coverage.” If you’re a gymnast, diver, runner, swimmer, or volleyball player, you’re more likely to be covered. If you compete in judo or shotput, you’re out of luck. In 2012, women’s boxing—a new and therefore, one would think, newsworthy event—wasn’t broadcast in primetime at all.
Instead, the coverage focuses on these few socially acceptable sports. “The one that puzzles me is diving. We might win a bronze here or there, but the Chinese just dominate in diving,” says Tuggle. “And yet there is a ton of diving coverage. As a fan, I’m wondering, why so much diving? Why not show me something else?”
Even playing volleyball won’t necessarily get an athlete on TV. In 2008, when all four American Olympic volleyball teams (beach and indoor, men’s and women’s) medaled, the women’s beach volleyball team received more coverage than either men’s team; the women’s indoor team wasn’t covered at all. It’s easy to chalk up that difference to the uniform—bikinis for the beach, shirts and (still very short) shorts indoors. But women’s beach volleyball also featured the killer team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. With May-Treanor retired, next cycle there’s a better chance of determining, as Angelini puts it, “Are [reporters] spending a lot of time on beach volleyball because they’re in bikinis or because they’re the dominant team?”
In general, says Cooky, the hypersexualization of women in sports is easing. “But female athletes are still portrayed in those conventional, stereotypical ways, and within narrowly constructed ideas about femininity and what’s appropriate for women in our culture,” she says. When women are covered, they’re often cast in traditional female roles, as wives, girlfriends, daughters or mothers.
The 2010 “Gender in Televised Sports” report includes a tidy example of this phenomenon—a Sports Center report on Sanya Richards, a track-and-field Olympian who, at the time, had won two Olympic gold medals. That’s not how she’s first identified, though. Here’s how the piece began: “My name is Aaron Ross, of the New York Giants. And I want to tell you today about my fiancé, Sanya Richards.”
Since then, Richard has become Richard-Ross. And—oh, yeah—won two more Olympic golds.