STUDY: NBC More Likely To Cover Men’s Olympic Events, Show Women In Sports With Minimal Clothing

Fencing gold-medalist Mariel Zagunis, at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Writing in the Pacific Standard recently, Tom Jacobs pointed to two new studies that reveal a decidedly mixed picture of NBC’s prime-time Olympic coverage when it comes to gender equitability.

The first study, out of the University of Delaware, found that in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics men received almost 23 hours of prime-time coverage, versus a little less than 13 hours for women. The second study, from the University of North Carolina, look at the Summer Olympics in 2008 as well as previous years, and discovered a more equitable balance: 46.3 percent of air time went to women in 2008, and 47.9 percent in 2004. However, coverage of women’s events tilted heavily towards what the researchers termed “socially acceptable” sports for women, and sports with minimal clothing where women can be displayed as physically attractive:

[N]early three-quarters of the women’s coverage was devoted to gymnastics, swimming, diving and beach volleyball.


Track and field, where the clothing is almost as minimal, made up another 13 percent of the women’s prime-time coverage. “The remaining sports represented—rowing, cycling, and fencing—are not, by traditional standards, ‘socially acceptable’ sports for women, and make up approximately 2 percent of coverage,” the researchers write.

“Women who take part in sports that involve either power or hard-body contact are particularly unlikely to receive media coverage. When women engage in stereotypical feminine events, or look pretty or graceful, they will receive coverage, but they risk being shunned if they venture from that space.”

For example, the women’s court volleyball competition received no coverage in 2004 — despite the American team winning the silver medal — while the coverage of men’s volleyball was split almost equally between court and beach. This emphasis on the portrayal of women’s attractiveness and gendered qualities may also provide context for the much more male-centric coverage in the 2010 Winter Olympics, as winter sports by their nature generally provide women fewer opportunities to fit into these categories.

The make-up of the audience whom NBC is trying to please, however, provides a more complicated narrative than mere pandering to male sports fans: For the Summer Olympics in 2008, women over 18 totaled 49 percent of viewers while men over 18 came in at only 41 percent. The top-rated events for that year were women’s gymnastics, with men’s and women’s swimming events coming in second.