ESPN Defends LeBron James Special
Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president of production, said the channel acted properly in providing an hour of time Thursday night for James, the most sought after of this season's group of NBA free agents, to make his announcement.
"We believe this is a unique program," said Williamson. "It contains newsworthy content that I think any other television or media company would love to have the opportunity to offer. We have control over how we cover the announcement."
"We spent a lot of time sort of vetting it out, trying to come to a position where we're comfortable. We're comfortable with the execution of what we're hopefully going to get to present [Thursday] night."
In what is clearly an unusual arrangement in media circles, ESPN will surrender almost all of the advertising during the show, called "The Decision", airing during the 9 p.m. ET hour Thursday to James' marketing company, LRMR Marketing.
LRMR will in turn send profits for all the ad inventory it sells to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, one of James' pet charities. In addition, James requested that reporter Jim Gray, who has worked for, among other outlets, NBC, CBS and ESPN, interview him during the special.
ESPN acceded to the request, but maintains editorial control over the show, save for what James says in making his announcement, which, Williamson said, will come in the first 10-15 minutes of the show.
"LeBron's in control of his own destiny and he's always been in control of that, where he's going to play and what he's going to do next,' said Williamson. "Aside from that, that's what he's controlling."
"We feel on balance and journalistically, we're in pretty good shape in terms of what we need to do, what we need to ask and our ability to ask the questions."
In a quickly arranged conference call with sports media writers Wednesday, Williamson said Maverick Carter, a longtime James adviser, contacted ESPN officials Friday with their request.
After vetting the request, Williamson said ESPN officials agreed to the show, but did not tell anyone in its news operation about the idea, holding to the notion that the business and journalistic sides of the company are to remain separate.
Indeed, Williamson said, ESPN NBA reporter Chris Broussard broke the news about the show late Tuesday without any advance word from the business or production sides. Williamson said Broussard's report hit the airwaves at least 12 hours before he would have wanted it to get out.
"The one thing we try to do ... is we try to separate church and state," said Williamson, who said he is not involved in ESPN's daily newsgathering operation. "And we try to keep that as much as we can, front and center. We let the news operation, the people chasing the news, do what they do, and yet we're still running a business and we have business arrangements and we try to manage that as best as we can."
Williamson stressed that James will not be paid for the program and that there will be no production fees paid to James and his company.
"We do not believe that we are paying for interviews," said Williamson. "We don't do that. In a perfect world, would we just secure the announcement one-on-one without everything else, like we did with Bosh and Wade [Wednesday]? Is that a little cleaner and a little easier? Yeah, it is.
"But given the scope of it and the intricacies of it and the cause and the way LeBron sort of positioned this to us as wanting to really do something with his announcement, to give back and to make some additional good out of it, we're comfortable with the way it plays out."
Williamson would not say where James and Gray would be, and would not confirm a Newsday report that the player and the reporter would be located in a studio in Greenwich, Conn.
Williamson said ESPN will not stop any of its reporters from reporting where James will sign in advance of the show in the interest of ratings.
"This is a unique case and we do hold the brand and journalism and our commitment to what we're trying to do as separate as we can, knowing that it's an unbelievably complex world," said Williamson.
"We're not going to cook the books. We pay people to be newsgatherers. That's their job. Church and state go both ways. It can't be when it's convenient. It has to be all the time and it has to go both ways. There's got to be a separation from the business side to journalism, and the people in journalism, the newsgatherers, can't expect to get added benefit because of the business operation."
The executive would not rule out that ESPN would act similarly if events warranted.
"This is a little different. It's not your stand-alone 'Here's a press conference, Let's cover it,' " said Williamson. "Or it's not, 'There's a big get. We're chasing a big interview and we've secured the interview,' as much as all of you (reporters) have gone through that in terms of chasing news and getting big gets.
"This one's a little bit different and we understand that. We try to ask ourselves and we try to be thoughtful about it and about the process.
"Anytime there's anything new, there's a gray area. We're brokering new ground all the time in different decisions that you make."