Why Oprah needs Lance Armstrong

WIN-WIN?: Lance Armstrong talks to Oprah Winfrey during an exclusive interview to screen this week.
WIN-WIN?: Lance Armstrong talks to Oprah Winfrey during an exclusive interview to screen this week.

When disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong sits down with talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, the world will see a sinner seeking absolution from the only woman who, in media terms, has the power to save him.

But in truth, Oprah needs Lance as much as Lance needs Oprah.

His reputation is in tatters and he has a lifetime doping ban which prevents him from making a living from cycling. He's hoping to walk away from this with a small reprieve: permission to compete in elite triathlons.

Oprah has a TV network which, since its launch, has struggled to make its mark in the multichannel space. She needs world-stopping interviews such as this to deliver the sort of ratings spikes that will keep the channel on air.

And Oprah knows when she's onto a good thing. Her network OWN has now confirmed that the interview with Armstrong will be extended to a two-night engagement. It will now screen on Friday and Saturday, New Zealand time.

The interview was taped on Monday, and we are little more than a day from the broadcast of the first half. Newspapers and online media are saturated with stories, leaks and tips - glimpses of a conversation we have not yet actually seen.

Armstrong will confess, we are assured. To what, exactly, is not clear. Winfrey, speaking on the US network CBS, said Armstrong "did not come clean in the manner that [she] expected", but she did not elaborate.

At this point, though, one thing is abundantly clear: Armstrong's confession, when it happens, will be one of the most carefully stage-managed media "moments" in recent memory.

Armstrong has even hired Mark Fabiani, the former White House special counsel who advised Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But in many respects, the Fabiani strategy is built on a false premise: the Oprah Winfrey whose sainted touch could hurl a book to the top of the bestseller list and forgive the sins of a weeping star retired from TV in 2011.

The "new" Oprah is still a powerful brand, but her media might was bruised by the fact that her 24-hour-a-day network, the evolutionary step which followed her daily talk show, misfired on the launchpad.

The channel's aspirational vision didn't quite deliver the commercial returns expected. Now it has a schedule largely made up of factual shows and repeats of the (old) Oprah Winfrey Show.

OWN's flagship show, Oprah's Next Chapter, is an interview program which Winfrey hoped would be a platform for "riveting, enlightening in-depth conversations with newsmakers, celebrities, thought leaders and real-life families". But in truth, it has become a Hollywood confession couch.

New York Times media writer David Carr says confession and forgiveness are "fundamental parts of the American media narrative". And even since she rose to fame in the 1990s and de-throned the original talk show king Phil Donahue, Winfrey has specialised in tear-stained confessions.

"Oprah Winfrey is the proxy for throwing yourself on the American public's mercy," media and brand consultant Jane Caro told Fairfax.

"If you're going on Oprah you're fessing up to something. You're giving us mitigating circumstances."

Oprah's Next Chapter launched in 2012 with a two-part interview with American Idol judge and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler.

For the most part, it attracts an audience of around half a million viewers in the US, but big-ticket shows, such as interviews with Whitney Houston's family, the Kardashians, Rihanna and Usher, have pushed that figure to 1.5 million and higher.

Those spikes, in revenue terms, are vital to OWN's survival. They keep the channel on a number of pay TV platforms in the US which might otherwise ditch it because of its relatively tiny audience.

OWN is currently in 80 million US homes - that's a whiff under 30 per cent of America's pay TV market. If OWN can claw a few extra cents per household in carriage fees in exchange for bigger audiences, it can translate to tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue.

Winfrey told US network CBS this week the Armstrong interview is "the biggest interview I've ever done in terms of its exposure. This is big for my career."

Sydney Morning Herald