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Incredibly Shrinking Women's Sports Coverage on TV, ESPN

Jun 22, 2010 – 1:05 PM
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Milton Kent

Milton Kent %BloggerTitle%

Serena WilliamsIt's late June, and for the next couple of weeks, images of women playing tennis at Wimbledon will dot the TV sports show landscape.

Then, as if by magic, those highlights disappear for about six weeks until the U.S. Open in August and September. Then they'll go into hibernation until March when the NCAA women's Final Four comes around.

If you're a fan of women's sports, you know this story all too well, but now, there's a university-backed study to confirm the idea that you're not getting all the news and highlights you believe you're entitled to.

The study, titled "Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989-2009," was conducted by a pair of professors, one affiliated with Purdue and the other with Southern California in conjunction with that school's Center for Feminist Research.

It's the latest in a series of five investigations conducted over a 20-year period examining how much time is devoted to women's sports highlights from a local and national perspective.

The study, now in its fifth edition, analyzed three two-week segments of coverage during March, July and November of last year at the three major network affiliates in Los Angeles as well as ESPN's SportsCenter.

The researchers found that the proportion of air time devoted to women's sports had dropped in 2009 to the lowest level than at any time during the survey period for both the network affiliates and SportsCenter.

Indeed, the SportsCenter percentage of 1.4 percent was actually less than that of the three local stations, despite the fact that SportsCenter runs longer than the time allotted for sports on the affiliated stations.

The study was exhaustive, going so far as to examine the amount of time devoted to the tickers that run across the bottom of the screens. While all of the outlets gave more time to women's sports on the tickers than they did in the main broadcasts, the amounts were less than in 2004, the last time the surveys were conducted.

The survey also took notice of how women are portrayed, and found, by and large, that female athletes and story subjects appeared to be handled with more respect than in previous reports.

The survey glosses over a rather significant fact of life in television news, particularly at the local level, namely that there is less time and personnel for sports coverage at the affiliate level.

Long gone are the days when a local sportscaster would get four-to-five minutes on a 30-minute newscast to do highlights. Many network affiliated stations have cut time for sports down to 2 minutes and 30 seconds, in a best-case scenario, with precious little time for anything other than a quick recitation of what happened the night before.

And that assumes that the stations even have a sportscaster. The ABC affiliate in Baltimore, for example, has been operating for some time without a traditional sports anchor, electing instead to have the news anchors read a sports synopsis that just hits the high notes.

In an industry that has become increasingly operated by the bottom line, news directors and producers will be loathe to devote time to events they perceive are sparsely watched and attended, and whose fans are unlikely to protest if they don't get to see things they like.

That said, it shouldn't take a fancy university sponsored study to remind local sportscasters and ESPN producers and executives that they have a responsibility to cover everything that happens -- not just the stuff that draws the largest audience or whose fans gripe the most.

Keepin' It Free

Speaking of network affiliates, Comcast reached a deal with NBC stations ahead of a Monday deadline imposed by the Federal Communications Commission to keep marquee sporting events on over-the-air television.

The deal ensures that if Comcast's proposed $30 billion deal to take over NBC-Universal goes through, that shows like Sunday Night Football, the U.S. Open golf tournament, Wimbledon, the Stanley Cup Finals, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness or larger pieces of Olympic telecasts won't be funneled over to a channel like Versus, which is owned by Comcast.

Local affiliates, which pay a fee to the networks to air their programming, had feared that Versus could be shaped into an ESPN contender, using high-end programming siphoned from NBC.

The Ratings Game

Find your short-term financial investment counselor (read bookie) and make an informed contribution (read bet) that NBC and the United States Golf Association will be scheduling more U.S. Opens for the Pacific or Mountain time zones.

That's because this weekend's gathering at Pebble Beach, which spilled into prime-time on Saturday and Sunday in the East and Central time zones, did boffo numbers for the Peacock network.

To wit, Sunday's final round, which ran from 3 to 9:15 p.m. (ET), grabbed a 6.9 household rating and 15 share of the audience, according to Nielsen. That was up 35 percent from the 5.1/12 from last year, and the telecast was the most watched event of the night.

Bryant GumbelAnother 'Real' Winner

The latest "Real Sports" with Bryant Gumbel premieres Tuesday (10 p.m. ET) with the requisite dazzling quartet of stories, highlighted by an update of Gumbel's 2005 look into racism at the highest levels of international soccer.

In the piece, the anchor talks with three members of the United States' World Cup team -- DaMarcus Beasley, Maurice Edu and Oguchi Onyewu -- about their occasionally harrowing experiences with racism as they played for some of the elite European teams.

In a piece that mirrors Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated profile last month, Bernard Goldberg interviews Gareth Thomas, a member of the Welsh national rugby team who is believed to be the only openly gay man currently playing in a major professional sport anywhere in the world.

Mary Carillo's piece on the city of Brownsville, Tex., which has produced a series of young Hispanic chess champions, is uplifting, while Frank Deford's profile of Oakland A's pitcher Dallas Braden, who threw a perfect game on Mother's Day, is a solid one that takes the viewer to Braden's hometown of Stockton, Ca, and gives a terrific insight into his background.

All in all, it's another great hour delivered by the most consistently rewarding program in sports television.
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