Lance Armstrong is slated to appear on TV Thursday night and confirm what many suspected, some reported and authorities ultimately charged: that his storied cycling career was fueled, at least in part, by performance enhancing drugs.
Even if we think we know the ending going in, the prospect of hearing the story straight from the purported doper's mouth exerts an undeniable pull. But a nearly equal part of the draw is the figure Armstrong chose to spill his tainted guts to: Oprah Winfrey.
More than a year-and-a-half after she gave up her daytime talk show throne, Winfrey remains TV's confession queen.
Armstrong, who disgraced himself, his sport – and, most significantly, the cancer charity he inspired – reportedly could face prison time. But he’s also in a nearly as important public relations battle to salvage the residue of his tarnished golden-boy image. He and his handlers, presumably, figured they'd get the smoothest ride from Winfrey.
The woman on a first-name basis with the world doesn't boast a hard-news background – unlike, say Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric, who have tried to fill the daytime talk show void Winfrey left. Her quarter-century run on "Oprah" offered an atmosphere of redemption – almost as if revealing your shortcomings to her represented an act of cleansing, complete with tears to wash away the woes and buoy the inevitable comeback.
But Armstrong shouldn’t underestimate Winfrey. Her largely non-confrontational 1993 visit to Neverland ranch presented Michael Jackson at the height (or depth) of his weirdness, showcasing the oddball King of Pop in a manner he likely didn’t anticipate. Winfrey can be tough, as we saw in her eliciting a drug use admission from Whitney Houston in 2009, and her 2006 verbal evisceration of James Frey, the memoirist revealed as a fabulist.
Winfrey's uncharacteristic anger at Frey spoke to the heart to her success: the woman who constantly exposes herself accepts no less from her guests. For all her New Age talk about "self-actualization," the underlying basis for all things Oprah is old-fashioned honesty. She knows when people are lying – and so does her audience. No matter how much verbal couch-jumping Armstrong does, we suspect he'll reveal himself in ways he never expected.
The Armstrong exclusive follows Winfrey's recent sit-down with her former feuding partner, David Letterman, who spoke unusually frankly (for him) about his failings as a husband. The Letterman chat and the two-part Armstrong appearance that begins Thursday, no doubt, will help Winfrey’s OWN channel in its ongoing two-year journey from the recesses of the cable dial.
The high-profile interviews serve as strong reminders that Winfrey remains a powerful media figure, even post "Oprah." Armstrong’s future might be in doubt, but the Tour de Oprah rolls on.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.