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On the Media: ESPN sells its LeSoul

Jim Gray plays chief enabler as LeBron James' self-absorption and the network's branding create a spectacle.

July 10, 2010|James Rainey

Now that King James has set the table, gentle celebrity subjects, what's the holdup?

Newsmakers, can't you plainly see from ESPN's LeBronapalooza that media entities are ready to deal away control of their programming? You have a brand. They have the channels. Let the feast begin!

Lindsay Lohan, you don't have to go to that lockup in Lynwood all by your lonesome. Bring TMZ or E! along. Maybe stodgy L.A. County usually won't allow cameras inside its jails. But LeBron James scooped up the ad revenue from Thursday night's ESPN special for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Wouldn't our cash-strapped county love a little piece of the action just for letting Lindsay suffer a bit of her penance in public?

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, don't even think about stopping that irksome oil spill in the Gulf without considering your options. Before finishing the relief wells, how about selling the exclusive TV rights? Leaving that "news" as fair game to any fool with a microphone or a notebook would be so 20th century. Get yourself a network exclusive. Let the winner plug the hole. I'm seeing Geraldo, 5,000 feet beneath the sea, in a one-man sub.

And Anna Chapman (or whatever your real name is), don't take that plane ride home to Volgograd without inking a deal. A network like ABC would never, never pay you for an interview. Though it certainly might pay a hefty "licensing fee" for some of those kittenish, let's-hide-the-microfilm photos.

None of these deals will look all that crass, as long as you find the right cover, I mean, benefactor. Those downtrodden Gulf Coast shrimpers could sure use a boost. There's got to be a Russian orphanage that needs a cash infusion.

We owe it to the self-appointed "Worldwide Leader in Sports" and the self-proclaimed "king" of professional basketball for broadening our horizons. With self-absorption and personal branding reaching new heights, who knows where it all will end? No doubt with less and less distinction between the people making the news and the people covering it.

Longtime sports commentator Jim Gray started the log rolling. He initiated talks with James' representatives. They took the idea of a one-hour "special" to ESPN. The all-sports network agreed to pass advertising proceeds from "The Decision" to the charity of the superstar's choice.

Pesky journalists — especially from Cleveland, where James played for seven years — would be shut out. Favored advertisers would be locked in. And, lo and behold, one, VitaminWater, features a pitchman named … LeBron James. (A graphic on air Thursday even suggested the product would be known for the occasion as "Decision Water.")

That made everything about the announcement so uniform, so seamless, so loathsomely self-serving. The exclusive interview went, of course to Gray, who played the role of not only fixer but information valet. The milquetoasty interlocutor helped prolong the faux suspense for nearly half of the hour program — asking about the "process," and other crucial details, such as whether James still bites his nails.

Since ESPN and others had been reporting for roughly 24 hours that the superstar appeared headed to Miami, his confirmation landed with a thud. Gray didn't ask why, when the result seemed preordained, James strung along so many other teams. He didn't want to know why the chosen one hadn't done more to ease the disappointment for fans and teammates in Cleveland. He didn't even ask James something more obvious: Why he looked so sad as he seized the opportunity of a lifetime.

Much tougher to get to the heart of the matter, of course, when you have chucked the role of interviewer to become chief enabler.

ESPN tried to cling to a modicum of respectability with a follow-up interview by its Michael Wilbon, who at least wanted to know what James found wanting in Cleveland and how he would deal with anger in the cities he turned down.

But any veil of impartiality lay in tatters from the rest of the presentation during the previous hour, day, week — the endless speculation bracketed by ESPN's music video exultations of James.

Not that ESPN ever has made much effort to separate itself from its subjects. It's no accident that the network's on-air promos feature a standard conceit — superstars who want to hang around with their ESPN pals, as much as the sportscasters want to hang around with the jocks.

Remember the one a few years back: James plops down in a work cubicle with a mortal-sized chair, then asks ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt if he might be in the wrong seat. No, says Van Pelt, he's in his own chair. It just happens to be a massive throne.

The message was clear: We're all a bunch of towel-snapping pals, making each other look bigger and better. ESPN is our locker room.

ESPN had the audacity to play both sides of a spectacle it created, both trying to gin up suspense about "The Decision," even as its own reporter, Chris Broussard, had sources saying James would end up in Miami.

A few hours before the debacle ended, the network dedicated yet another talk show to LeBron's free agency decision, even as an on-screen headline asked: "Has spectacle permanently damaged his reputation?"

LeBron's reputation damaged? Maybe. ESPN's? No doubt.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey

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