Skewing the Reality
By Alyssa Faigle
While watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics this past summer, a viewer would assume that the coverage they are seeing on NBC (or one of its sister networks) is an accurate depiction of the events occurring in China. However, further examination of the Olympic games shown on television reveals that the public is being shown the events and stories that the NBC network chooses to air. The network skews the Olympic reality by showing events that appeal to both men and women in primetime in order to gain a wider audience. However, this profit-making technique also highlights the gender biases and preconceived notions about women that are present in our society.
Firstly, NBC has feminized the sports shown in primetime in order to gain the biggest audience possible. By showing the events that would appeal to women in the popular primetime spot on television, NBC has increased their number of viewers. They have obtained women viewers who might not have watched during this time as opposed to if a more masculine sport was shown. In reference to NBC’s coverage of the 1996 Summer Olympic games in Atlanta, Andrews (2006) writes, “NBC manufactured its own Olympic reality centered around events deemed appropriate to female viewers and infused with sentiment intended to resonate with the female psyche…NBC was complicit in unscientifically simulating traditional feminine sensibilities within and through its broadcasts” (Andrews, 2006, page 60). In these particular games, NBC’s primetime Olympic reality was centered around gymnastics and diving – two sports that have been socially constructed to imply femininity and thus, appeal to the female audience. However, coverage of the women’s basketball, soccer, and softball teams were rarely given any air during primetime despite their success (Andrews, 2006, page 61). Since NBC’s coverage of the Olympic games is something that is constructed in order to maximize profit, it could be said that the Olympics shown on television are “fictive”. Although similar to the word “fiction”, “fictive” is something that is made, not made up (Schultz, 2009a). NBC’s primetime Olympic events are fictive since the network skews the reality of the games by showing events that will appeal to both women and men and will make NBC the greatest profit.
Additionally, NBC’s coverage of the Olympic games can also be bias and reinforce our society’s social construction of gender. In one study done at the University of North Texas, researchers looked at NBC’s televised coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The study argues that even though the biases made in the coverages of men’s and women’s sports has diminished from the Barcelona to the Sydney Olympic Games, there are still preconceived notions about gender in the broadcasts. The researchers noticed that the commentators of the events talk a lot about the physical attributes of the female athletes while they focus on the men’s athleticism (Kolsti, 2004). One of things the researchers noticed about the coverage of female events versus male events was that, “Commentators referred to female athletes by their first names only, instead of by their first and last names or just their last names, approximately 60 percent of the time…which is called the ‘hierarchy of naming’. The use of hierarchy of naming infantilizes women and presumes a lesser status than male athletes” (Kolsti, 2004, paragraph 10). In addition to this study’s other findings, it could be concluded that the gender bias in the televised Olympics is a long residual of the “Crises of White Masculinity” that occurred between the 1880s and 1920s in America. During this time period, sport was seen as a way to fight back feminizing pressures while testing a man’s bravery (Schultz, 2009b). Thus, commentary on a men’s event would include how strong and powerful men are while a reporter would note the physicality and appearance of a female in the same sport. Even though the commentary of the Olympics has become less bias over the years, there is still some hidden partiality between men’s and women’s events that could be caused by the continuity of the “Crises of White Masculinity”.
NBC is a business whose main goal is to make the maximum amount of profit possible by airing the Olympic games. The network’s televised games are fictive since the viewers are only shown the events that the company chooses to air. NBC wants the primetime events to appeal to women so they will gain more viewers, yet there is still sexist reporting in women’s Olympic events. These differing commentaries could be a long residual from when sport was viewed as a way to fight back femininity in men. Although a viewer of the Olympic games might think that the events they are watching on television are true to the happenings in real life, NBC skews the reality of the games in order to make money while consequently reinforcing the gender biases of our society.
Kolsti, N. (2004, July 15). Gender bias still evident in Olympics coverage, study says. North Texas Daily. Retrieved from http://web3.unt.edu/news/story.cfm?story=8927
Schultz, J. (2009a). Module I: Theoretical Foundations 1. Lecture presented in KNES498E. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Schultz, J. (2009b). Module III: Sport & the Emergence of Modern America, 1865-1920. Lecture presented in KNES498E. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Carter, B. (2008, August 24). On TV, Timing Is Everything at the Olympics. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/25/sports/olympics/25nbc.html?_r=1