Really? Scantily-clad women are featured in NBC's prime-time coverage of the Summer Olympics? It's true!
In the Boston Globe's Uncommon Knowledge feature ("Surprising insights from the social sciences"), Kevin Lewis writes:
It's not really a surprising insight, but there you go.
AS YOU WATCH the Olympics this week, try to put yourself inside the minds of the network executives who get to decide what to broadcast. Given that you've spent billions on licensing and production costs - meaning that you need the most people from the best advertising demographics to watch - which events and athletes do you highlight? A study out of Clemson University analyzed videotapes of all prime-time Summer and Winter Olympic programming since 1996. Although the Summer Olympics covered men's and women's events about the same, the Winter Olympics was significantly biased toward men's events. The author notes that prominent coverage of women in gymnastics, swimming, diving and, lately, beach volleyball is consistent with the notion "that the Summer Games (offering many events that involve women athletes in swimsuits and leotards) will yield higher clock-time totals than the Winter Games (offering many events that involve women athletes in parkas and other less sexually charged apparel)."
In the study, which was published in the journal Television & New Media, Andrew Billings (and 16 students) watched all 348 hours of prime-time TV coverage of the 1998, 2002, and 2006 Winter Olympics and the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Summer Olympics. Why?
The objective of providing this longitudinal perspective is to highlight long-term gender trends within this very prominent sportscast by isolating men’s and women’s Olympic clock time in six consecutive Olympics. In doing so, the study underscores how the Olympic telecast itself is changing over time in terms of spotlighting different events.The results demonstrated a slight overall advantage for coverage of male over female athletes in the Summer Games (51.9% vs. 48.1%) which was only significant in 2000. In contrast, coverage of male athletes in the Winter Games was significantly greater in all three years (overall 61.6% male vs. 38.4% female). Note that pairs events (such as pairs figure skating) were excluded.
For the Summer Olympics, the big three events for men were gymnastics (28.0% of the total male coverage), track and field (23.9%), and swimming (14.5%). For women, gymnastics (40.1%), track and field (16.9%), and diving (15.0%) had the greatest coverage. Although beach volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1996, the women's competition was only televised in 2004. In that year, the women had 2 hours of prime-time coverage, compared to only 1 minute for men's beach volleyball.
Swimsuits have become more modest (and aerodynamic) over time. Has that affected TV time?
1996 Olympic Swimming event in Atlanta
Possibly, although the article did not place the longitudinal changes in that context:
For men, the sports that gained coverage in the Summer Olympics were swimming and track and field (largely the result of network timeslot shifting in which these events moved from earlier time slots to within prime-time coverage).
Adapted from Tables 1 and 2 (Billings, 2008).
There was no such change in swimsuits in the diving events, however. If anything, men's swimsuits are more skimpy than the women's in this sport. Thus, it was notable that across all three Olympics, women's diving received 7 hrs 47 min coverage (15%) while men's received 4 hrs 34 min (8.2%).
These relationships are speculative. Let's read what the author actually said:
...the Summer Olympic events in which men were more likely to be shown than women were basketball, cycling, swimming, track and field, and volleyball. While some predictions for these differences could be proffered (i.e., lingering effects of the “Dream Team” in basketball or Lance Armstrong’s effect on the world of men’s cycling), the results only speak to the significant clock time differences rather than the reasons for them.So yes, sex sells. Or put in more formal terms:
In contrast, women were more likely than men to be shown in beach volleyball (rising from no coverage to a two full hours of clock time in 2004), diving, and gymnastics. While all of these sports could be viewed as the fairly attractive/graceful category that Kane (1988) outlined (with the possible exceptions of basketball and the field sports in track and field), it is interesting to note that all of the sports in which women received the majority of the coverage involved the wearing of swimsuits or leotards. One could presume that the same desire to highlight attractive athletes would result in a desire for attractive male athletes, yet Jones, Murrell, and Jackson’s (1999) analysis found that a very different dichotomy was at work, with sports journalists highlighting “pretty” females but “powerful” males.
While this study does not attempt to interpret the cognitive processes of NBC gatekeepers in determining what to show, three additional propositions can be offered.. . .Second, attractive sports, such as beach volleyball, appear to be on the upswing, specifically for women. While men received more coverage in beach volleyball in 2000 than they did in 2004, women’s coverage increased exponentially. Part of this was likely the result of a highly skilled team, Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who won every match all year en route to a gold medal. Still, one has to note that part of the appeal of showing this event more frequently could reside in showing attractive women in swimsuits. The sexualized male gaze imparts a double standard within clock time differences, as the percentage of men athletes in sexualized situations (i.e., swimsuits/leotards) is not on the upswing nearly as much as for the women athletes.Reference
Billings, A.C. (2008). Clocking Gender Differences: Televised Olympic Clock Time in the 1996--2006 Summer and Winter Olympics. Television & New Media, 9(5), 429-441. DOI: 10.1177/1527476408315502
Analysis of all 348 prime-time hours of the 1996—2006 Olympic telecasts (three Summer, three Winter) pinpointed trends in coverage of men's and women's sports. Results indicate that while men athletes and events received the majority of clock time in all six Olympic telecasts, the Summer Olympic telecasts treated women far more equitably than the Winter Olympic telecast. The longitudinal study does not offer any reason to feel that coverage of women's athletics is improving over time, finding that the proportion of clock time devoted to men's and women's sports is relatively the same in 2006 compared to ten years earlier.
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