The games through the NBC lens: gender, ethnic, and national equity in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics.

Author:Billings, Andrew C.
Position:National Broadcasting Company Inc.

No megasporting event (Eastman, Newton, & Pack, 1996) encapsulates the national zeitgeist in the same manner as the Olympic telecast, with 168 million Americans (Ryan, 2006) consuming at least a portion of even the Winter Olympic Games. In 2006, American viewers again predominantly relied upon NBC's edited, prime-time coverage to glean an understanding of what comprises the Olympic experience. Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC sports, argues that "the Olympics ... are the one thing that still does put (the whole family) together in front of the television set," (Billings, 2008, p. 160). Nonetheless, the Olympics represent more than merely the opportunity to cast a wide demographic net as Americans rely on the NBC Olympic telecast as a form of chronicling history, believing they are gaining understandings of cultural, social, and political processes within the sportscast (Billings & Angelini, 2007).

With such high stakes, there is pressure for NBC to deliver compelling stories and events. As a result, narratives are created to attain nontraditional sports fans who nonetheless watch the Olympics because of its transcendent nature. Such deviations from traditional sportscasting have prompted some to contend that an Olympic telecast "is not sports, it's storytelling" (Martzke, 2004, p. 7F), with this storytelling function expanding even more in 2006 to a total of 65 prime-time hours.

Researchers have found (Billings & Angelini, 2007; Billings & Eastman, 2002, 2003; Eastman & Billings, 19991 that the Olympic experience is different depending on the gender, ethnic, or nationalistic group in which an athlete is perceived to belong. However, only one study examined all three identity variables within a Winter Olympics, with Billings & Eastman (2003) urging subsequent analyses of Winter telecasts because (1) the 2002 Games were hosted in the United States in an immediate post 9/11 era, potentially affecting results and (2) "understanding what overt and covert choices NBC executives make in bringing the Olympics to our living rooms allows viewers to more critically evaluate the version of the Olympic event they are consuming" (Billings & Eastman, 2003, p. 384).

Given the lack of cohesive agreement or longitudinal trends in regard to the previous Olympic analyses, this examination of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympic Games helps to determine whether NBC's telecast can be deemed a fair reflection of the Olympic experience. In addition, the study contributes to a growing knowledge schema in which biases can either be viewed as pervasive (repeating in more than one Olympic telecast) or singular occurrences, perhaps influenced by the context in which a specific Olympic Games is contested. By doing so, valuable insight into the evaluative nature of sports media content can be provided.

Related Literature

Most relevant to the current study is the theory of media framing (Goffman, 1974), which examines how media gatekeepers reinforce frames that hold the power to shape audience perceptions, creating new and often atypical definitions employed within belief systems. Gitlin (1980) views framing as having three primary functions: (1) selection, (2) emphasis, and (3) exclusion. These three concepts are important in the context of this study because they can be directly applied to network announcing in Olympic broadcasts as NBC makes overt choices on what to show (selection), what to show habitually (emphasis), and what to avoid (exclusion). Thus, sports that receive a modicum of air-time (selection) in the Games (e.g., bobsledding) offer different opportunities for framing the story line as from those that receive saturating coverage (emphasis) throughout a prime-time telecast (e.g., figure skating) and certainly the events (and, respectively, the athletes) that receive no prime-time coverage (exclusion) at all (e.g., biathlon).

Gender in Televised Sport

Media coverage of megasporting events such as the Olympics allows audiences to reinforce prior gendered ideologies that may privilege entrenched notions of identity (Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999; Higgs, Martin, & Weiller, 2004). Content analyses of news media coverage underscore the need to examine the role sports media play in setting the terms of societal debates about masculinity and femininity (Halbert & Latimer, 1994; Tuggle, 1997). Tuggle, Huffman, and Rosengard (2002) contend that who and what is covered at the Olympics is of great consequence to the study of women in sports because many of those athletes and the sports in which they participate receive little coverage beyond the Olympic Games. Thus, how Olympic athletes are framed on the world's largest sports stage warrants close examination.

Olympic content analyses consistently indicate that men have received the majority of the clock-time, yet the degree to which this occurs has varied depending on whether the Olympics is a Summer Games (when clock-time biases are meager) or a Winter Games (when clock-time biases are substantial). Such inconsistencies warrant another examination particularly in the Winter Games to determine whether gender biases are consistently pervasive or fluctuate depending on the host country and participating athletes (Billings & Angelini, 2007; Billings & Eastman, 2002, 2003; Eastman & Billings, 1999).

In terms of the type of commentary employed, Tuggle et al. (2002) found that women athletes garnered more media coverage in socially acceptable sports (e.g., figure skating) rather than less-acceptable team sports (e.g., bobsledding and hockey). References to women athletes typically employ expressions of aesthetic appeal such as "graceful," focusing on femininity (or the lack thereof), attractiveness and emotionality, diminishing women athletes' athletic skills and talents (Giuliano & Knight, 2001). In sum, scholars have found many instances in which sports emphasize men's power and privilege over women (Daddario, 1998; Toohey & Veal, 2000), yet the classification of these trends has oscillated considerably depending on the medium, the sport being described, and the athlete within the depiction.

Ethnicity in Televised Sport

For decades, researchers have analyzed the significance of portrayals of ethnicity (Rada & Wulfemeyer, 2005) in televised sport with many discussions of race focusing predominantly on Black athletes (Bernstein & Blain, 2003; Davis & Harris, 1998). Hardwired stereotypes, such as White athletes having superior "intelligence" and "work ethic" as compared to Black athletes (Birrell, 1989), are reinforced within the majority of sports media content studies (e.g., Billings & Eastman, 2003; Murrell & Curtis, 1994). Concurrently, Black athletes are often depicted as succeeding because of their innate skill, with Black athletes often portrayed as violent, thuggish, and selfish (Eitzen & Sage, 2003). Such comments are so entrenched that Bruce (2004) found that several commentators admitted it was difficult to accurately represent an athletic event when they overtly tried to avoid ethnic stereotypes. Additionally, Billings and Eastman (2003) claimed that overarching conclusions regarding ethnicity were difficult to assert because very few minority athletes (less than 20%) participate in the Winter Games. Nonetheless, some scholars (Hogan, 2003) argue that parts of the Games, such as the Opening Ceremonies, contain blatant ethnic biases.

Nationality in Televised Sport

Sports and nationalism are incessantly paired for maximized media impact and in no place is this more evident than in the Olympics (Bairner, 2001; Larson & Rivenburgh, 1991). Scholars such as Jarvie (1993) have argued that sport enacts a "uniquely effective medium for inculcating national feelings" (p. 74). Such partnerships between sports and countries not only provide governments with an additional outlet for discussing international political issues (Houlihan, 1994), but also hinder events such as the Olympics. As Larson and Park (1993) argue, "Nationalism has plagued the modern Olympics since their inception in 1896" (p. 35).

Clock-time also varies because of nationalism within Olympic coverage. In the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Billings and Eastman (2003) determined that Americans were mentioned more than three times as much as their relative success (as defined by medals) would warrant, a notion that was confirmed 2 years later (Billings & Angelini, 2007). For instance, in the Winter Olympics, American athletes were portrayed more courageous than their counterparts. These same athletes were ascribed more attributions of composure, meaning that these athletes jointly performed courageous/heroic feats while maintaining a form of "grace under pressure." In contrast, the success of non-American athletes was often attributed to experience (Billings & Eastman, 2003), the one variable that is directly attributable to something that happens before rather than during the actual Olympic performance.

In the Summer Games, Americans were again more likely to be credited for intellectual/internal assets (i.e., composure), while non-Americans succeeded because of athletic ability, in addition to the already identified experience variant. As such, nationalism was prevalent in both Winter and Summer Games, yet seemed to percolate in different manners depending on the telecast. Again, a study of the Torino Games would aid in the examination of whether such trends are long-term.

Hypotheses and Research Question


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