Like many sports fans, I tuned in to see LeBron James announce where he was taking his basketball talents. And like many fans, I was disgusted with what I witnessed. Although it took James only 12 seconds to announce his decision, we spent 30 minutes waiting around for ESPN to hype the announcement.
I couldn’t help but see the irony in the title of the show, “The Decision.” Indecision was more like it.
Taking its cue from reality television, ESPN offered breathless promises almost every minute that the big decision was only "a few minutes away!" Instead, as time dragged on, I was forced to watch old clips of his game and rehashed commentary on where he might land before the big moment was finally revealed. Advertisers and sponsors were happy with this Chinese water torture, but no one else was.
The fallout from this press conference/reality show hybrid was fast and furious. In a span of 24 hours the media world razzed James and ESPN for letting such a worthless 60 minutes of television occur.
-- Leonard Shapiro, Washington Post: “The most troubling aspect of the whole ill-conceived mess was ESPN's willingness to hand over an hour of primetime television to an egomaniacal athlete the network should be covering as a news story.”
-- David Barron, Houston Chronicle: “LeBron James hijacked ESPN, selling the network on an hourlong glorified infomercial preceded by three hours of breathless hype and numbing repetition.”
-- David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun: “ESPN led the way Thursday night in some of the most debased sports coverage I can remember seeing. The hype was shameless, the lack of perspective colossal.”
The criticism didn’t end there. Soon everyone got in on the act. From amateur videos on YouTube to ESPN themselves (a hilarious skit at the ESPYs with Steve Carell announcing he was taking his appetite to Outback Steakhouse), parodies were out in full force.
Despite the criticism and parodies, the program was a huge hit. Nielsen reported that ESPN's coverage of “The Decision” was the third most-watched cable television program this year, with nearly 10 million viewers. Not that viewers got much value for their time.
Looking back, the program is symptomatic of two problem areas in television today: greed and ego. “The Decision” was a celebration of each.
Media and sports have had a symbiotic relationship since organized sports first captured the public’s attention. Sometimes the results are breathtaking, as when some 60,000 fans attended Lou Gehrig's dramatic send-off ceremony at Yankee Stadium in 1939 – and his "luckiest man on the face of the earth" farewell speech.
Today they’re not quite as stirring. Either they have a "boy who cried wolf" feel to them – witness Brett Favre’s frequent press conferences on whether he’s coming back to play football or not -- or they're so tightly scripted that the newsworthiness is squeezed out of them. The athlete’s scripted apology for bad behavior fits, as does Tiger Woods' sex-scandal press conference.
If there was a catalyst for LeBron's “Decision” fiasco, it might be how Tiger Woods handled his sex scandal. By inviting only loved ones, forcing the media to watch in a separate room and forbidding questions, Woods completely controlled the environment and got his message out.
With more than 200 media outlets attending the conference and many others airing the event live, including the Golf Channel, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Business and ESPN, Woods' camp must have viewed the event as a success. Maybe it was there that ESPN learned the value of packaging and controlling a juicy slice of reality television.
With events like “The Decision,” I fear we’re heading further down the path of gross commercialization. Imagine if Tiger's next press conference is a reality special on primetime television with Nike sponsoring it. Everyone waiting with baited breath for 45 minutes before Tiger cries on camera, admitting his wrongdoing. Or, to take matters to the extreme, imagine Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech as reality television, withholding key facts until halfway through the program (“Yes, my fellow Americans, we intend to bomb Iran”) and having commercial breaks at key points of the speech.
Would audiences watch this sort of blatant manipulation? Unfortunately, I think they would -- the ratings would be great. But reputable news organization that fell into this trap could kiss their journalistic ethics goodbye and save money by sharing office space with TMZ or the National Enquirer.
I understand that ratings are the drug of choice in the media world. The Nielsen numbers are a siren song and the justification for innumerable sins. I also understand that when the best player in the NBA moves to a new team, that’s big news. I get that. But does it warrant a reality series? I don’t think so.
ESPN and James produced an uncomfortable sporting “event” that hurt the reputations of both. Hopefully, such “decisions” won't become the norm. News-and-information organizations such as ESPN owe their audience that much.