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ESPN: LeBron special won't violate policy

By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - ESPN should reap big ratings for Thursday night's special "The Decision," when NBA superstar LeBron James will announce where he'll land in a free-agency deal worth tens of millions of dollars.

And the network is taking extra care to ensure that its unusual structure -- James' marketing company is selling the ads and asked that a freelance reporter have a key role -- won't stray into any journalistic gray areas.

"Decision" will get primetime real estate on ESPN, an hour or so at 9 p.m. ET, with James announcing where he will sign to freelancer Jim Gray within the first 10 or 15 minutes. Gray was handpicked by James to receive the announcement, reportedly in the New York suburb of Greenwich, Conn. ESPN agreed but said that other personalities, including its own Stuart Scott and Michael Wilbon, will also take part. Wilbon will interview James during the hour.

James' company, LRMR Marketing, will sell the ad time and donate the money to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Already signed on are Nike, Sprite, McDonald's, Vitaminwater, Bing and the University of Phoenix.

ESPN acknowledged the arrangement up front and fielded many questions about it during a conference call with reporters. The network has a policy of not paying for interviews and said "Decision" didn't violate the policy. There are no rights fees or production costs, and it's not a time buy.

But Norby Williamson, executive vp production at ESPN, acknowledged that the situation was different than what ESPN had done with other free-agent signings. He said that ESPN brass had tossed it around since being approached by LRMR late last week and said they were comfortable with their decision. There were no preconditions, and ESPN will have complete editorial control, other than what James will say. "We feel journalistically that we're in pretty good shape," he said.

He also said that if an ESPN reporter or anyone else breaks the free-agent news before the show, his network will report it immediately, regardless of what it might do to the show's ratings.

And ratings are likely to be huge. Brad Adgate, researcher for ad buyer Horizon Media, estimates that as many as 20 million viewers could tune in. That would be more than the average of last month's seven-game NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, he said. Adgate's estimate was backed up by other media execs.

Industry and ethics experts aren't worked up over the ethical issues.

"It's a decision by ESPN to accommodate a huge public interest in what this athlete decides to do," said Neal Pilson, a sports industry consultant and former president of CBS Sports. "It's amazing in the off-season when no one is playing basketball that there's a tremendous media focus on this."

Pilson doesn't see an issue with James unveiling his decision on ESPN, saying it's not unusual for a celebrity or political figure to make an announcement on "Larry King Live" or "The Tonight Show," for example.

"If James had gone to CNN, I am sure they would have hosted the announcement," Pilson said.

Joe Cutbirth, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia, said that as long as there's transparency without any preconditions, there are no ethical issues.

"It looks to me like ESPN is trying to do everything right," he said.

ESPN's Williamson said that in today's media climate, James' announcement would have ended up somewhere high profile, either on the Web or on another network. He said that ESPN was comfortable with its decision, especially given the fact that the revenue is going to charity.

ESPN also is likely to benefit from ratings, and ad revenue, before and after "The Decision." It plans three hours of "SportsCenter" specials surrounding the special, which will go into even further detail.

(please visit our entertainment blog via www.reuters.com or on http://blogs.reuters.com/fanfare/))

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