LeBron Wins Thursday, but Can't Beat Prior TV Events

Ghana vs. U.S., Obama Address on Oil Spill, Actual Basketball Game All Got More Viewers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- LeBron James may have sparked a minor controversy by essentially taking over ESPN for an hour to announce the next team he'd play for, sullying his reputation among many fans in the process, but his "Decision" special still couldn't draw audiences on par with prior TV events.

ESPN said that LeBron James' announcement, 'The Decision,' was the highest-rated program of the night on either cable or broadcast TV.
ESPN said that LeBron James' announcement, 'The Decision,' was the highest-rated program of the night on either cable or broadcast TV. Credit: ESPN
The popular basketball star, who announced Thursday night in a much-anticipated ESPN broadcast that he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers in favor of playing for the Miami Heat, likely snared an audience of around 12.5 million people, according to calculations from Brad Adgate, senior VP-research, Horizon Media, using preliminary Nielsen figures. Release of Nielsen's final measure of Thursday's prime-time cable programming was delayed Friday afternoon.

That's a big audience for a quiet cable interview at a Boys & Girls Club. At those levels, however, the ESPN broadcast fell far short of prior "newsmaker" moments on TV. The verdict at the now-infamous O.J. Simpson trial captured the attention of 53.9 million people across 10 different networks, according to Nielsen. And Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals snared 28.2 million when it was broadcast on ABC.

That's not to give short shrift to Thursday night's event. In a press announcement Friday, ESPN said its telecast of Mr. James' announcement, called "The Decision," was the highest-rated program of the night on either cable or broadcast TV. Viewership peaked between 9:15 p.m. Eastern and 9:30 p.m. Eastern, the Disney-owned sports-cable outlet said. And it aired on just one channel, unlike news events such as the O.J. verdict and President Obama's recent Oval Office address on the Gulf oil spill.

Mr. James' show captured the nation's attention. Coverage of the event received prominent space in several important newspapers Friday morning, and ESPN's decision to allow a freelance reporter who does not work for the channel to be hand-picked by Mr. James and his representatives to interview him for the news raised eyebrows.

But "The Decision" was no Super Bowl or series finale of "M*A*S*H," the two most-watched TV broadcasts in history. For that matter, the show wasn't even an "American Idol."

Below, some (relatively) recent big, newsy programs, and their viewership levels:

OJ Simpson Verdict of the O.J. Simpson trial
53.9 million (across 10 networks)
Obama address President Obama's Oval Office address about the Gulf oil disaster
32 million
2010 NBA Finals Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals
28.2 million
American Idol American Idol 2009-2010 season finale
24.2 million
World Cup U.S. loss to Ghana in recent World Cup
19.4 million
Lost finale "Lost" series finale
13.5 million
Source: Nielsen
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