Olympics & The Media: Who’s Getting Airtime?


A new study of NBC’s coverage of the last two Olympics shows that, despite the parity in terms of gender of athletes competing and who is watching at home, the sports covered disproportionately feature men:

Female Athletes Sidetracked from Prime Time TV:

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.

The article goes on to say that the majority of coverage of women features them in sports that highlight women in bathing suits or tight apparel, such gymnastics, swimming diving and beach volleyball. Track and field got 13% of the airtime, and the remaining events- rowing, cycling, and fencing- received only 2% of media coverage.

Things are even worse at the winter Olympics:

 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.

The authors believe this disparity comes from the kind of sports that are featured in the winter Olympics: less skintight clothing, more hurtling down luges.

These analysis are of the coverage of the last two Olympics, not 2012. Do we have reason to believe things are different, now? On the one hand, Time’s cover’s of female athletes focused far more on their athleticism than their sex appeal . On the other hand, all this. It’s unfortunate that, in a year where the US sent more female athletes to the games than men, and every single country for the first time ever has women on their team, that so much of the coverage of the athletes still treats women athletes different than their male counterparts.


Vanessa Wright