James decision draws big ratings for ESPN
NEW YORK -- A day later, ESPN's special on LeBron James' decision to join the Miami Heat played out like a deal with the devil: it drew staggering ratings and a critical savaging for toying with anxious fans.
The supervising producer of ESPN's "The Decision" said Friday that the show, and Jim Gray's initial interview with James, took too long to answer the primary question that people wanted to hear. But Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production, said he was pleased with how the show's full 75 minutes played out.
"Sometimes it goes perfect; sometimes it doesn't," Williamson said.
Preliminary Nielsen Co. ratings from the nation's 56 biggest cities show that more than seven of every 100 homes with television sets was tuned in to Thursday night's special. In Cleveland, one in every four homes tuned in to watch James say he was leaving the hometown Cavaliers. Nielsen's estimate of how many people watched nationwide, expected on Friday, was delayed until Monday.
Williamson had said before the broadcast that he expected James to disclose his new team within the first 10 or 15 minutes. Instead, it came nearly a half hour into the telecast.
Freelance sportscaster Jim Gray, who said he came up with the idea for the hour-long special and arranged it with James' management and ESPN, conducted the initial interview with the basketball star. It took more than five minutes before Gray asked James what his decision was.
One of those questions -- "you still a nailbiter?" -- quickly seemed headed for television infamy.
"Was this in the script?" wondered Richard Sandomir of The New York Times. "If so, shame on ESPN. If Gray winged it, shame on him."
There was "no excuse, none" for dragging the telecast out before James' future workplace was revealed, wrote Michael McCarthy in USA Today.
"As TV -- and a reflection on James -- it was a disaster," wrote Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times.
Williamson said he had discussed questions with Gray before the interview, although "at some point, the interviewer is in charge of the interview." A message to Gray sent through his agent on Friday was not immediately returned.
Gray once worked for ESPN, but he doesn't anymore, and his participation on Thursday came at the insistence of James' management team. According to a CNBC report, James' team paid Gray for his participation in the interview.
ESPN wasn't privy to Gray's arrangement with James, said ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz.
"He came as part of the package," he said. "We accepted Jim knowing we would have extensive time for our people to interview LeBron, which was the bulk of the show. We paid his travel expenses as production costs."
ESPN essentially gave away an hour of its airtime for the scoop. It let James' team sell ads for the hour, and the revenue was donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Krulewitz said.
Although Gray could have opened the interview by asking James to reveal his decision, Williamson said he supported the idea of setting the stage with other questions. Besides the fingernail biting, Gray asked James whether he had enjoyed the process, when he made the decision and how many people he had told before revealing it on TV.
"It gives the viewers an insight into his thought process instead of just coming out and saying, 'OK, where are you going?' and backtracking," Williamson said. "I thought it was better viewing, interesting material. Did it go on longer than we had hoped it would go on? Yeah, I think it went on."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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