Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

"Naturally" Less Exciting? Visual Production of Men's and Women's Track and Field Coverage during the 2004 Olympics

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

"Naturally" Less Exciting? Visual Production of Men's and Women's Track and Field Coverage during the 2004 Olympics

Article excerpt

When Canadian writer Binks (2004) suggested on the CBC Web that the media should increase airtime for women's hockey, the comment prompted swift reader reaction. One wrote, bluntly, "Women's sport will always have difficulty succeeding in the entertainment world because fourth and fifth rate men's sport is still better" (Binks, 2004, Letters, para. 5). Another reader gave Binks "the brutal truth." "There is not much interest in watching most women's sports ... Women's sport may not have the intensity level of the men's sports, may be slower paced or not on the same skill level. This may be hard to swallow for some people, but it's the truth" (Binks, 2004, Letters, para. 5).

These comments reflect the attitude that women's athletics are "naturally" less interesting than men's (Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999). The truth is, however, that sport delivered via mass media involves far more than action by athletes. Commentary and visual production combine to project the sports experience to viewers, as explored to varying degrees by scholars since the 1980s (Duncan & Hasbrook, 1988; Higgs & Weiller, 1994; Messner, Duncan, & Cooky, 2003; Messner, Duncan, & Jensen, 1993; Messner, Duncan, & Wachs, 1996). Clarke and Clarke (1982) describe the mediated viewing experience, "Between us and the event stand the cameras, camera angles, producers' choice of shots, and commentators' interpretations" (p. 73).

This study focuses on what happens "between us and the event," in relation to gender, by examining visual production techniques in a mediated sporting event. Studying production techniques can show how sport is constructed as entertaining; doing so with an event that features men and women in the same activities sheds light on how coverage may be constructed differently depending on the gender of the athletes (Borcila, 2000; Higgs & Weiller, 1994). Focusing solely on television production techniques is a deviation from past studies that have examined commentary as prime in the framing of athletes (Billings & Angelini, 2007; Billings & Eastman, 2003; Eastman & Billings, 2001; Messner et al., 1993). However, the power of visuals in a medium defined and remembered for its images (we watch TV) cannot be overstated, "The picture is the story" (Fitch & McCurry, 2004, p. 107).

This study examines NBC's 2004 men's and women's Olympic track and field telecasts through Zettl's (1999) applied media aesthetics approach that examines the amount and type of coverage as exhibited through visual production. The study asks if the visual production frames the events in ways that would present them as equally visually exciting. Visual excitement is understood to be the result of the production of events using techniques that can enhance viewers' emotional engagement and visual stimulation. Implied is the idea that an event can be presented in ways that encourage perceptions of it as one that is active, interesting, and entertaining (Hanjalic, 2006; Sandomir, 2004). Production of sports events may either challenge or reinforce the "commonsense" idea that women's sports are naturally less entertaining than men's (Hallmark & Armstrong, 1999).

The Olympics provide an ideal venue for this study. They showcase men and women competing in many of the same events in the same venues almost simultaneously, thus removing many external factors that could lead to different production choices based on gender. Further, the Olympics are among the most-watched events in the world; the 2004 telecasts reached 3.9 billion people worldwide (Global TV Viewing, 2004).

Literature Review

The relationship between sports and media is so interdependent that Jhally labeled it the "sports/media complex" (Jhally, 1989, p. 70). Scholars have indicted the sports/media complex for reinforcing masculine hegemony, defined as the "taken-for-granted" system of gendered power relations reinforced by the ideology that (White) men are, and should be, "naturally" at the head of the socio-economic hierarchy. …

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