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.”