Paul MacArthur lives for the Olympics. And not because he’s an athlete.
MacArthur, professor of public relations and journalism at Utica College, studies the media’s coverage of the games, and how factors like gender, race, and nationality play a part. Research from his latest book, Olympic Television: Inside the Biggest Show on Earth, was recently featured in The New York Times. We talked to Professor MacArthur about his findings — and why 2016 coverage is already bucking the trend.
Men typically receive more primetime Olympic coverage than women. That gap has been significantly larger during the Winter Games than the Summer Games. Men have received more primetime coverage in every Olympiad studied since 1994, with the exception of the 2012 London Summer Games where women received 54.8 percent of the coverage. This reverse gender gap was in large part due to the success of U.S. women who captured 63 percent of the U.S. gold and 55.7 percent of all U.S. medals in London.
NBC’s primetime Olympic coverage is driven by ratings. The network focuses on sports and stories that will reach a wide audience. During the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games, more than 90 percent of NBC’s primetime coverage was dedicated to Beach Volleyball, Diving, Gymnastics, Swimming, and Track and Field. This will likely be replicated in 2016.
The network targets the primetime broadcast to women, who comprise more than 50 percent of the Olympic primetime audience, which is highly unusual for a sports program. This influences not only the sports NBC airs and excludes in primetime, but also the narratives NBC employs. NBC also tries to focus on American success stories when possible. Athletes who have achieved some kind of mainstream celebrity status will typically receive significant coverage during the Games, regardless of their success.
"Athletes who have achieved some kind of mainstream celebrity status will typically receive significant coverage during the Games, regardless of their success."
Numerous studies have shown that when media outlets cover the Olympics, they gear their content to their home audiences by focusing on home nation athletes. In the U.S., you will see more focus on American athletes. NBC’s primetime broadcast tends to focus more on American athletes during the Summer Games than the Winter Games, largely because there are more American success stories to tell during the Summer Games. While NBC gets criticized for having a broadcast that is “too American,” there is no evidence that NBC focuses on home nation athletes more than other TV networks that carry the Olympics. To the contrary: When comparing the 2014 primetime Olympic broadcasts of NBC and Canada’s CBC, we found the CBC placed significantly more emphasis on Canadian athletes than NBC placed on U.S. athletes.
During the first eight days of the Rio games, women received 58.5 percent of the coverage on NBC’s primetime Olympic broadcast. This is the largest gap in favor of women we’ve ever documented. That gap may shift when women’s gymnastics is completed, but this increased focus on women’s athletics is a positive sign.
"This is the largest gap in favor of women we’ve ever documented."
At the same time, the two sports that account for the majority of this gender gap, so far, are gymnastics and beach volleyball. Some studies suggest gymnastics is perceived as feminine sport, while beach volleyball has been criticized for how women are sometimes sexualized. So, while the increased coverage is good, at least in the primetime broadcast, we’re not seeing a lot of focus on women succeeding in sports that break away from classic gender norms. At least, not yet.
Photo courtesy Nghiem Vo.