In going on Oprah Winfrey's OWN this Thursday and Friday — as part of an extended confessional taped in Austin Monday — Lance Armstrong has single-handedly given the Discovery-owned channel the biggest gift it could possibly have ever asked for — one of the great exclusives in sports history.
And of course, the logical question is: Why?
There are any number of possible reasons, and it's fair to speculate on all of them. Foremost this — Discovery Channel once sponsored Armstrong's racing team in the middle part of the last decade, at a point when he allegedly orchestrated the most sophisticated doping scheme ever to descend upon the sport. Is this interview — which is certain to be seen by hundreds of millions of people worldwide — both penance and payback for his betrayal of Discovery?
It's a reasonable question — and I've floated it by TDC; will get back to you when I get an answer [see below] — but I think the answer is probably “no.” It seems too obvious, too far-fetched, to imagine he's absolving himself of financial penalty by helping TDC's somewhat-troubled-but-improving sister channel. But it is a fair question to ask whether his team is also in negotiations with Discovery, much as he reportedly is with the U.S. Post Office, over liabilities stemming from their sponsorship of his cycling teams. It's possibly just a fascinating coincidence that OWN is mostly owned by Discovery.
Per David Leavy, chief communications officer for DCI, he says there is no connection between Discovery and the interview. But “in terms of why Oprah, I think it's twofold: one, she's still the best interviewer and the having her own network ... she could do multiple hours for multiple nights, control all the editorial and it is a proof of a concept that the Oprah Winfrey network is a big noisy platform that can attract this kind of conversation and I think were just beginning to see the full potential of what OWN can be now and in the future. "
Here's another good reason to do OWN and Oprah: This kind of interview with this kind of meta-personality is a kind of absolution, and purification rite that can do wonders for an image, and relatively little harm. For, by associating oneself with Oprah, one is associating oneself with the world's most famous TV personality. It's a win-not-totally-lose proposition.
I also notice that a drumbeat has begun saying an interview with Oprah is like a free pass. But that's not true. Oprah is an excellent interviewer, always has been. Hers is a style of interviewing that is not akin to say) Mike Wallace's, but a vastly more subtle, more transparent — and under the right circumstances — more productive approach. She comes extremely well-prepared, always has, and is rarely caught off guard. She approaches interviews like a journalist — but handles them like a world-beating celebrity, who just happens to be asking the right questions. She knows she is more famous than anyone she is interviewing — including Barack Obama during their first encounter — and handles this in a way that both disarms the subject and pulls something of substance out of them.
Most famous case in point was her Feb. 10, 1993, live interview with Michael Jackson. He hadn't spoken to the press — and for all intents and purposes, she was at that moment, “the press” — in well over a decade. His career had slowed, and rumors of lunacy had begun to supplant the story of an ineffable talent and child prodigy. That he had bought the Elephant Man's bones; that he had bought a cybernetic chamber that would preserve him for all eternity; that he had bleached his skin. Oprah asked about all of this, and asked it directly — this interview was not a free pass. She had no way of knowing about the most explosive charge of his life — reports of child molestation, which were to surface six months later.
What does Armstrong get from a no-holds-barred O treatment? He can convey the impression — indeed, even the illusion — that he has taken all the tough questions and has offered his complete contrition. He will get ample opportunity also to expand on his legend, to offer the counterspin to the doping charges — and the importance of it far beyond the field of sport — notably Livestrong, and its vast contributions to cancer research. He will attempt to take advantage of Oprah, and may well succeed.
But if he expected a soft landing yesterday, he likely did not get one. After Jackson in '93, this is the most important interview of her career — and she had no intention of blowing it.