U.S. Women Dominate Week 1 Medals … and Week 1 NBC Primetime Coverage

(July 30, 2021) – Women athletes received the majority of the coverage in Week 1 of the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, say Andrew C. Billings (University of Alabama), James R. Angelini (University of Delaware), and Paul J. MacArthur (Utica College), authors of the book Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth. Through the first seven nights of NBC’s primetime broadcast coverage, women’s sports were shown 56 percent of the time, clock-time results indicate.

Such a pattern is consistent with the previous two Summer Olympic broadcasts in London and Rio, where women also received the majority of NBC’s primetime focus. American women Olympian dominance on the medals table is the most likely cause of the increased focus, the researchers indicate. “NBC tends to prioritize American athletes doing well,” Billings says, “and two-thirds of the U.S. medals won in Tokyo’s first week have been earned by women.”

Again following previous patterns, NBC’s Week 1 coverage has focused heavily on two sports: gymnastics and swimming, with the latter enjoying the rare opportunity to be shown live in primetime. Previous NBC Summer Olympic broadcasts have focused almost exclusively on five sports: gymnastics, swimming, track and field, diving, and beach volleyball. Week 1, however, featured some rare breakthroughs of other sports into the primetime telecasts. Angelini explains: “While we have seen less beach volleyball and diving as compared to the most recent Summer Games, NBC has prominently featured a few other sporting disciplines. Triathlon was a good example of this, with the men’s races featured, as was skateboarding, an event newly added for the 2020 Tokyo Games.”

Adds MacArthur: “While Team USA success does not always translate to significant primetime coverage, as can be witnessed by the airtime given to shooting, taekwondo, surfing, and equestrian, the NBC primetime broadcast tends to focus on sports where Americans are likely to medal. Team USA women are providing those medal stories for NBC in a variety of sports.” 

A complete table providing the exact amount of time NBC dedicated to each Summer Olympic sport for the first seven days of the Tokyo Games, with breakouts by athlete sex, is located here.

The authors are posting regular updates about NBC’s coverage of men and women athletes throughout the 2021 Tokyo Summer Games on FiveRingTV.com. Additional updates will be posted on the @FiveRingTV Twitter feed.

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Olympic Television: Broadcasting the Biggest Show on Earth contains a detailed 20-year examination of how male and female athletes have been covered within primetime Olympic broadcasts. The book also has analyses of how race/ethnicity and nationality impact Olympic coverage, interviews with NBC personnel about the content and production of Olympic broadcasts, and an overview of Olympic television history. Published by Routledge, it is available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats at Amazon.com, the Routledge website, and other outlets.

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* The percentage of primetime devoted to men’s, women’s and mixed sex sports was calculated by a single researcher, utilizing a stopwatch and DVD time codes, measuring (to the millisecond) the total amount of time devoted to each event. Any time spent at the actual athletic site, on a profile about an athlete, promos about a specific athlete or sport, and host commentary about a specific sport or athlete was recorded. The NBC broadcast network East Coast feed was used for the calculations. Olympic coverage on affiliated cable networks and live streaming was not included. Network overruns beyond 11:00pm up to the break for local news are included within the calculations.