The Games through the NBC Lens: Gender, Ethnic, and National Equity in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics

Article excerpt

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). …