Greer, J., Hardin, M., and Homan, C. (2009) ‘”Naturally” Less Exciting? Visual Production of Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Coverage During the 2004 Olympics’, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media,  53(2):  173–189.

There is a common view that women’s sports are inherently less interesting, which explains their coverage in the media.  However, this ignores commentary and visual production as factors in their own right.  This study explores visual production techniques and compares how these are used when covering men and women doing athletics.  Lots of past studies have looked at commentary [references page 174], but this study choice to pin down the effects of visuals.

Coverage of the 2004 Olympic track and field telecasts are analysed using Zettl’s* ‘applied media aesthetics approach’.  The argument is that particular production techniques increase visual excitement and therefore emotional engagement, making coverage more interesting.  The Olympics is an excellent case study, showing good proportions of men and women competing in the same events, and with a large worldwide audience.

The ‘sports/media complex”, a term invented by Jhally, reinforces male hegemony.  Women athletes are both ignored and presented as inferior or marginal.  Lots of previous studies have argued this.  In particular, women are seen as a naturally less suitable for sport, ‘weaker, more prone to emotional outbursts, and less able to handle the stress’ (175), and are often sexualised. Analysts include Messner.  Previous analysis has shown that women athletes have stories written about their personal lives, or their attractiveness, while male athletes’ performance is more commonly mentioned, and they were seen as more courageous or more skilful.  Whole sports are seen as gender appropriate—those with body contact are masculine, while those featuring aesthetic performances are feminine.  Some are also gender neutral, as rated by particular groups, including college students.  They include track and field events, with some obvious exceptions such as shot put, discus and javelin.  Visual representations can obviously reinforce these perceptions.

Zettl’s analytic framework looks at two dimensional space, three dimensional space, and four dimensional space.  For two dimensional space, the ‘field of view’ is analysed in terms of camera shots used: long shots take a detached and impersonal stance, whereas close-ups focus on individual subjects, and ‘invite more viewer involvement’ (177).  In three dimensional space, the ‘point of view’ is important, this can involve looking up, straight on or down, and these represent different comments on the importance of the subject [compare with the open university work on pitch-level cameras shooting players against the background of the crowd].  In four dimensional space, time and motion are the elements.  Motion can be manipulated to depict real time, or slow motion: slow motion is significant in demonstrating athletic skill.  There are other options such as ‘rail-cam’, where the camera moves along the rail to keep pace with the athletes,’ simul-cam’ where several images can be seen on the screen at the same time, enabling comparison of athletes, and ‘stro-motion’ where a motion is broken down into a series of static images.  [What about steadicam, where the cameraman moves as if he were a companion?  This is often seen at work after the event when the athletes finish a race, for example].

These different effects relate to viewer interest, and this can be supplemented by matters such as the length of shot [frequency of cuts].  One study cited ‘concluded that varying the camera shots prompted viewers to rate a news story as more credible’ (179).  Zettl has been also used to analyse political coverage, and soap operas.  Using these techniques becomes a matter of producers’ assessment of events.

Some analysis has explored the visual presentation of athletics or basketball, including the use of onscreen graphics (which varied for coverage of men and women’s basketball).  Another study of camera shots in women’s volleyball noticed the emphasis on chests and buttocks.  However, this study is on Olympic coverage.  The researchers wanted to see whether men’s and women’s events differed in terms of running time and prime time, and then to apply Zettl.  62 hours of primetime coverage was analysed.  This form of content analysis does have problems, especially in handling ambiguous or contradictory images.  Segments were isolated according to type of coverage (interview, background, event etc) , these were divided by gender (a majority of coverage used to decide mixed cases), then the analysis of shots, fields of view, of points of view and so on was pursued.  Individual scores were kept and were then averaged.  Intercoder reliability was checked by comparing coders with an expert rater.  Intercoder reliability scores were acceptable.

Results found that time spent focusing on male athletes was nearly twice that spent on female ones, although there were no differences in terms of primetime.  Scores of shots were averaged to allow for this real difference.  Men’s events had higher levels of shots of all kinds, with significant differences for long shots and extreme close-ups.  There were also more shot changes for men than for women.  Tallies of camera angles were averaged.  The number of high level shots were higher for men and there was a significant difference with women.  Low or high angle shots seemed more similar.  Again, men’s coverage showed more changes in shot ‘between 10 and 11 times per minute [for men] and only six and seven times per minute for women’ (184).  Of the new technological devices, only rail-cam appeared, and again twice as often in men’s coverage.  The same is found for slow motion ‘almost four slow motion uses per minute [for men] nearly double the women’s average’ (184).

These production techniques produce emotional impact, especially excitement.  The effects of different uses makes women’s sport look less exciting, and less of everything—‘coverage of male athletes used more of everything’ (184).  [audience responses are not measured here, and the authors rely on another study of audience responses, in a focus group, are not particularly related to gender].  Perhaps news values simply reflects the greater success of the men’s team?  This might well explain the greater quantity of air time devoted to men, although some women’s events were also given a lot of time, including the long jump where Marian Jones was competing (she was controversial at the time).  News values do not fully explain the actual differences in visual production techniques.  Nor does the claim that the circumstances of coverage were different, since both took place at the same Olympics event.  It is also ‘unlikely’ that different production crews produced the differences, since the events were often close together.  It is more likely that producer values provided the difference [so why not interview some producers?]. The mechanism here seems to be ‘(unconscious) adoption of …  prevalent ideology’ (185).  This ideology affects even gender neutral events: elite men are still considered to be the benchmark.

Producers may rationalise these differences also by looking at ratings.  Viewer ratings do seem to affect the amount of coverage.  However, ‘a less exciting presentation generates low viewer demand; that, in turn, rationalises decisions by gatekeepers not to increase quantity or quality’ (185).

Further research is needed, including some to interrogate viewers.  Additional sports media coverage might also be analysed in this way to see if there are any general patterns in production.  Producers themselves should also be researched, including how their gender might be related to their decisions.

Zettl, H.  (1999) Sight, sound, motion: Applied media aesthetics, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

Zettl H.  (2003) Television production handbook (eighth edition), Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

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