I had the pleasure of reading Olympic Media: Inside the Biggest Show on Television by Andrew Billings two months before the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Being a sports enthusiast and Olympics junkie, the only fix for my Beijing addiction prior to this book was the occasional Olympic Torch tidbit on the evening news or a visit to the official website of the IOC. Thankfully, Olympic Media came along in time to sufficiently whet my appetite for the largest sports spectacle in the world.
What Billings has accomplished in his examination of NBCs telecast of the Olympics is remarkable. He offers in-depth observations and analyses of the telecast by focusing on organizational processes, production influences, and viewer perceptions of this cultural (and often political) megaevent. In terms of cultural significance, the only other sporting event that rivals the importance of the Olympics is World Cup soccer. It is rare to find a study that explores the media effects process from inception (i.e., NBCs eight-year pre-production planning) to reception (i.e., viewer reactions to and perceptions of the Games). In just under 200 pages, Billings conducts interviews with the gatekeepers and storytellers at NBC Sports, performs content analyses of primetime coverage from the last 10 years of Olympic telecasts with a focus on themes of nationality, gender, and ethnicity, and analyzes the cultivating and agenda-setting effects of the Olympics telecast using survey data collected from viewers.
Chapter 1 opens with a historical review of the Olympic telecast. From the Berlin Summer Games in 1936 to the Torino Winter Games in 2006, he provides a review of key moments in Olympic telecast history. He concludes the chapter with sufficient rationale for this study (viewership, political influence, prestige, viewer attitudes) and his methods of analysis, and concludes with a preview of the remaining chapters.
Chapters 2 and 3 are quite possibly the most interesting chapters in the book because they contain interviews conducted with NBCs producers and reporters juxtaposed with relevant facets of the television production and narration process. Specifically, in chapter 2, Billings offers analyses and excerpts of his interviews with three producers and one director, most notably Dick Ebersol, executive producer of the Olympic telecast. Many questions concerning the evolution of the Olympic broascast are answered by Ebersol in this chapter, including decisions that directly impact viewership (e.g., Ebersol's decision to eliminate boxing from primetime). In chapter 3, Billings presents analyses and excerpts of interviews with seven NCA sportscasters including Bob Costas, primetime anchor, and Jim Lampley, the weekend/late-night anchor. For example, answers from Costas and Lampley to questions concerning "profiles and promotion" of prominent athletes that withdraw from competition or fail to win medals were illuminating and entertaining. Once again, Billings effectively synthesizes questions concerning the storytelling process with relevant, meaningful answers from a variety of sportscasters, many of which are former, multi-medal-winning Olympians.
Read more on this review in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Communication Studies, published by Marquette.