Thursday, 2 August 2012

Mapping NBC Olympic Opening Ceremony coverage

There has been plenty of constenation about the coverage of the Olympics that US broadcaster NBC is subjecting US subscribers to. Given I now reside in the US I have seen first hand the abomination. It is truly the most excrutiating experience ever.  Delayed broadcasts, more ads than athletes, inane commentary and yes (though to be at least partly expected) an almost entire focus on US athletes.  I wouldn't mind the last of these because it is a US broadcaster after all but I'd have hoped for at least some coverage of other nations and sports that don't have a US medal hope.  Anyway, this is a blog about mapping so...

A couple of weeks ago I presented a range of simple thematic web maps I'd built for the 2012 Esri User Conference on medal hauls and competitor counts.  The purpose was really to demonstrate how to design and construct them using ArcGIS so if you're interested you can take a look here (and let me know what you think!).

I was also developing a map of the NBC opening ceremony coverage but Andrew Shears beat me to it (here) as part of a terrific critique of NBC's coverage.  The map he built shows the amount of air time given to each country during the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony.  NBC's heavy editing seemed to present a somewhat unbalanced viewing experience and I too was keen to map the air time data.  Every country was subjected to some comment about their political status, struggles, crises, war and religious 'difference'.  Some of the commentary was not just ignorant but bordered on bigotry with commentators poking fun at country names, customs and such like (often mispronounced).

I show my version of Andrew's map below, illustrating those countries that received more 'air time' in darker shades using the same classification scheme as he did.  Andrew called his map 'NBC's Geographic Imagination' and as it stands it serves the purpose of illustrating how the US perceives the rest of the world.

So no surprises eh? Team USA and the host nation (Great Britain) get huge air time followed by Australia, China and then the rest of the world.  But just a moment...while I entirely concur that many nations were short-changed (particularly those eschewed in favour of ad breaks or those immediately after Team USA that were largely overlooked), looking at the total air time doesn't really tell the whole story.  While it is true that NBC controlled their delayed coverage and made editorial decisions about the time each nation was on air ('edited for an American audience' we are told), surely the number of competitors plays a key part in this metric?  Simply put, a nation with hundreds of athletes takes far longer to enter the stadium than a smaller one with only a handful.  This, then, is a great example of how mapping totals on a choropleth doesn't always reveal the story (though it does reveal a story).  Before I present an alternative, I re-classified the total air time into quantiles...

It's the same as the first map but just re-classified in terms of the categories each nation falls into.  Now, take a look at the following map...

This is a map of the total air time for each nation, normalised by taking account of the number of competitors to give air time per athlete.   It's classified using quantiles so it is immediately comparable (in visual terms) to the previous map. And what a different picture!

The map can now be viewed as a level playing field (pun intended) and on this basis, one could argue that NBC were actually rather generous to many nations in comparison to coverage of Team USA and the other well represented teams. Certainly, many African nations did well.  As you might expect, the main competitors in terms of the all important medal table (China, Russia) didn't do so well and competitors in certain disciplines (Australia in swimming for instance) also received less coverage.  So while there was a clear bias in some elements of NBCs editing, the map of total air time doesn't really tell the whole story.

That said, viewing the ceremony did leave one with a sense of foreboding as our brains aren't that good at working out relative proportions on the fly.  In that sense at least, NBC didn't do very much to counter the various accusations of bias and poor editorial judgement.

Finally, is a map the best way to look at this relationship? Take a look at the following scattergraph (which excludes Team USA and Great Britain as their large teams and large air time are significant outliers). Number of athletes is on the y (vertical axis) and seconds of air time on the x (horizontal) axis.

So we have a reasonable spread and there is some sense of a positive correlation (albeit a weak one) that shows the proportion of air time broadly equates to the number of athletes where a nation has over 100 athletes.  But look below that 100 athlete line...there are dozens of nations receiving a lot of air time with relatively few athletes. So in this sense the scatter graph at least supports the notion that a map normalised by competitors at least tells a more realistic story.

Just another example of how maps can mislead the innocent.


  1. Wouldn't it make more sense to regress air time against number of athletes and plot the residuals?

  2. A really good response and further look. To be honest, I had thought of going further with it but had mostly lost interest after one map. Sad, but true.

  3. Amusing, I really had this on my mind yesterday and now I run into your site.
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