ESPN said James' program "The Decision" -- which announced he is leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, his longtime team, for the Miami Heat -- pulled a Nielsen preliminary 7.3 household rating, the best non-NFL programming-rated show this year.
Fifteen minutes into the broadcast -- between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m., when James made his announcement -- the ratings climbed to a 9.6 rating.
The news easily topped other single interview sports programming specials -- higher than the 0.4 household rating for a Tiger Woods interview on March 21, 2010 and an Alex Rodriguez interview Feb. 9, 2009, which took a 0.9 rating.
The top local viewing markets were the cities with basketball teams that James was considering: Cleveland (26.0 rating), Columbus (14.2), and Miami (12.8). Chicago ranked sixth with a 10.7 rating, and New York ranked seventh with a 10.4 rating.
ESPN says James' decision attracted more than 300,000 unique viewers on ESPN3.com, one of the largest audiences ever for a non-World Cup match. ESPN.com and ESPN Mobile Web had more than 3 million unique visitors from 9-10 p.m.
The biggest broadcast shows on Thursday night were ABC's "Wipeout" -- which pulled in a Nielsen 2.4 rating/9 share among 18-49 viewers and 7.9 million overall viewers -- and CBS' season premiere of "Big Brother," which took in the same 2.4/9 numbers among 18-49 viewers but scored higher with overall viewers, at 7.9 million.
Later in the evening, a rerun of CBS' "The Mentalist" between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. earned 8.6 million overall viewers and a 1.6/5 rating/ share in the 18-49 demographic.
While ABC's "Wipeout" bested CBS' "Big Brother" in head-to-head competition, CBS won the night overall with a 1.8/6 average rating among 18-49 viewers.
ABC took a 1.7/5 -- tying Fox for second place. ABC suffered later in the evening, with a new drama and a documentary taking a tumble: "Rookie Blue" was down 11% to a 1.6 rating; ABC News' "Boston Medical" dropped 15% to a 1.1 rating.