ESPN's LeBron circus good for TV ratings, bad for sports media
ESPN's Michael Wilbon and Jon Barry rose above the show's circus atmosphere
ESPN didn't fulfill its pledge of getting LeBron's answer in the first 10 minutes
Host Jim Gray was flogged on Twitter for his random set of 1-on-1 questions
Author and LeBronologist Buzz Bissinger described it as TV's equivalent of waterboarding. New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro called it an "awful night for Cleveland, worse night for sports, worst night for ESPN." Eric Stangel, the head writer and executive producer for The Late Show with David Letterman, delivered an equally scathing review on Twitter: "I'm keeping my 2 yr old up to watch the LeBron James Special. I want her to see the exact moment our society hit rock bottom."
The decision on "The Decision" finally came at 9:27 p.m., following the kind of milking best done on a farm. Watching the LeBron James reality show on Thursday night, I gained a new respect for TV's Amish in the City and Temptation Island. This was not a good night for sports television, even if the ratings turn out to be big.
ESPN executives had said repeatedly on Wednesday that James would announce his decision in the first 10 to 15 minutes of the show. Not so. The show opened with Stuart Scott, Michael Wilbon, Chris Broussard, and Jon Barry chatting around a table for 10 minutes about the magnitude of the moment, before Scott read something off a teleprompter that cited James' greatness. That was followed by a feature in which viewers were told how LeBron had dazzled and amazed us and that he was the most coveted prize in this year's free-agent class. The Bristol crew finally tossed it over to freelance interviewer Jim Gray in Greenwich, Conn. ... 22 minutes into the show.
Then, in a decision that defied logic, reason, drama and journalism, Gray asked 16 questions over six minutes before getting to the question that needed to be asked. He asked James if he was still a nail-biter, if he wanted to sleep on his decision, and he even repeated a question ("What did you expect from/what have you thought about this process?") before finally asking the following: "The answer to the question everyone wants to know: LeBron, what is your decision?" The inane and extended foreplay was excruciating and tortured, and the veteran journalist was destroyed on social media, some famous voices among the critics. Tweeted Keith Olbermann: "Jim Gray, my pal, I am about to retroactively take Pete Rose's side." Offered ESPY host Seth Meyers: "Foreplay from Jim Gray just as satisfying as I've always imagined it would be."
If Gray had a highlight, it was his asking James about going to Dwyane Wade's team and not being the headliner. "For me, it's not about sharing," James said. "It's about everybody having their own spotlight and doing what's best for the team." He later asked how James could explain this to Cleveland and what the major reason was for leaving the Cavaliers, and got James to give up the news that Erik Spoelstra will remain the Miami Heat coach (at least for now). As James answered Gray's questions, I'm sure I wasn't alone in thinking this: Any chance we could get a shot of the crowd's reaction in Miami or Cleveland?
The most compelling moment of the program came at 9:52 p.m., when producers hustled to get footage of James' No. 23 jersey burning on the ground in Cleveland. Wilbon -- he and Barry both performed above this circus on the night -- asked the player how he felt about the image. Said a clearly nervous James: "I can't get involved. .... This is a business. I had seven great years in Cleveland. I hope the fans understand, and maybe they won't."
Late on Thursday night, ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson, who had told reporters the announcement would come early in the show, responded to the late reveal. "Our plan was to go to the announcement within the first 15 minutes," said Williamson. "It turned out the LeBron interview began 22 minutes into the live show. The larger point I was trying to make is that the news would be presented within the first part of the program, to allow for analysis and perspective on the front and back end of the announcement. I think we accomplished that despite the fact that my prediction was a little off."
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