The Gender Gap in Olympics Coverage: Narrower This Year!

Researchers say NBC spent proportionally more time showing female athletes at Sochi than at previous Games.
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Julie Chu of the United States participating in the Closing Ceremony. (Darron Cummings / AP)

On Friday, I highlighted a few of the many studies of how NBC's Olympic broadcasts have portrayed female athletes in the past. It didn't exactly inspire national pride: Not only have women been underrepresented in proportion to the number of medals they bring home, but they've also been given fewer opportunities to speak on camera and have been characterized as having less athletic skill than male athletes.

Because the studies were typically published in journals a few years after the particular games took place, I guessed it would be some time before analysis of the 2014 Winter Olympics coverage would be available. But within a day of the closing ceremony, the numbers were in—and they brought good news.

A team led by University of Alabama's Andrew Billings, who has routinely studied gender biases in Olympic broadcasts over the years, analyzed 18 consecutive nights of coverage. The researchers found that while men still receive more of the attention, the gender gap was narrowing.

Male athletes received 45.4 percent of the coverage, female athletes received 41.4 percent, and the rest was devoted to pairs. That four-percent gap in clock time is a big improvement from the average 20-percent gap present in Olympic broadcasts from 1994-2010, according to a University of Alabama news release.

"The U.S. medals were equally split amongst men and women, so this move toward gender equity appears quite real," Billings wrote in an email.

Billings couldn't point to any particular reason for the improvement. Some of the biggest stories of the Olympics this year have been about female athletes—Ashley Wagner, Kim Yuna, Mikaela Shiffrin—but Billings, the author of Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television, notes that the Olympics have always produced female stars, from Lindsey Vonn to Michelle Kwan, and he didn't observe any noticeable changes in how NBC covered the games. (Billings still plans to analyze how athletes are mentioned and described by commentators.)

Alpine skiing and snowboarding were among the sports with the most equal coverage between the genders, while others heavily favored one or the other: Ladies' figure skating received double the coverage that men's figure skating did, but the opposite was true for freestyle skiing. The competitiveness of the athletes and their likelihood of winning medals accounts for some of these choices, said Billings, but there is plenty of debate about what the ideal Olympic broadcast coverage should look like. 

As the the exclusive U.S. broadcaster, NBC wants to show the country's athletes succeeding, so coverage will naturally favor American athletes disproportionate to their contributions to the Games. (Americans only own nine percent of medals awarded at Sochi, Billings said.) But because male Olympians typically outnumber female Olympians (both overall in the games and on the U.S. team—London in 2012 was an exception), is gender equity in broadcast coverage really the goal to strive for? Billings thinks so.

"They should be able to highlight men and women in equal measure, assuming their performances are similar, as they were in Sochi," he said. "Some disagree with my notion of 50/50, arguing that we should instead examine the proportion of participants in the overall Olympic Games. Yet, I disagree with this logic, as NBC's primetime telecast focuses on medal contenders and final rounds. There are only six skaters in the final rotation of both men's and ladies' figure skating, so it shouldn't make much difference how many non-contending performances are left on the floor."

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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