Lance plays part in Oprah's confessional

COMMENT

Lance Armstrong entered the church of Oprah, genuflected, begged for forgiveness and laid bare an extraordinary career built on a lie. The world watched. Twitter buzzed. Lance conceded. And, to an extent, Oprah forgave.

Oprah Winfrey's exclusive interview with disgraced cycling star Lance Armstrong was pure performance, from its theatrical start to its cliffhanging finish.

That isn't to say he isn't genuinely throwing himself before the world hoping for absolution. He is. Nor that Oprah didn't take it seriously. She can ill afford not to.

But from its choreographed start to its thrilling climax - tune in tomorrow, same Oprah time, same Oprah channel - "When Oprah Met Lance: Part One" was a carefully orchestrated piece of television theatre.

It was designed to give Oprah's struggling channel a gilt-edge and rehabilitate the reputation of America's most disgraced sportsman in recent memory.

Neither task, in the long term, is probably achievable.

Oprah's OWN channel, which has come to depend on ratings-spiking "event" interviews such as this to remain a force on US broadcasting, is unlikely to break its basic cable shackles and become a blue-chip player in the style of HBO or even CNN.

And Armstrong's brand is forever tainted not just by doping, but by a decade of fierce denial.

To that end, he isn't hoping for a pardon, but rather a reduction in his sentence. He wants to compete in elite triathlons and this gesture of public contrition could strengthen his position with the all-powerful US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

In Armstrong's corner is Mark Fabiani, the former White House special counsel who advised Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In terms of spin doctor wattage, Fabiani is on the top tier.

But the Fabiani strategy is risky. The sainted, all-forgiving Oprah Winfrey isn't the same woman who could cure frumpy housewives with a one-hour makeover and a wave of her magic wand. That Oprah retired in 2011.

The "new" Oprah came into this interview under enormous pressure.

There has been some speculation that Winfrey was specifically chosen because she was a gentle touch. Other potential media outlets, such as the US 60 Minutes, would perhaps have put Armstrong through a much tougher interrogation.

With respect to Oprah, she did a good job. She opened hard - demanding yes or no answers to four questions about whether or not Armstrong doped during his sporting career. He answered yes to all four. "Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes."

As television moments go, it was both riveting - perhaps the only truly riveting moment in the whole interview - and damning. And it was in the opening exchange: rare for an interviewer who has built an empire out of keeping her audience lingering.

In that moment, Winfrey confirmed that this was indeed an interview where everything was on the table.

It also confirmed that the interview, stretched from one 90-minute instalment to two earlier this week when it dawned on Winfrey's people just how much TV firepower they had, would not mercilessly milk the promise of a confession, or - God forbid - ask the question with the promise of an answer in the second part.

Each of the participants played their part to the letter.

Lance, contrite, regretful but still strangely narcissistic. Visibly uncomfortable looking at his own past denials and owning up to the bullying of those around him who, at various stages, had the courage to speak the truth.

Oprah, meanwhile, was mother confessor, with a touch of Diane Sawyer's toughness.

This was an interview that couldn't afford too soft a touch, so instead of Oprah holding out a box of tissues, we got Oprah the tigress cub. Firm, direct but never actually menacing. Cute, with a thinly veiled hint of claws.

Oprah, to some extent, can't stop being Oprah, so there was a lot of wasted time trying to bring emotion into the exchange, or trying to provoke Armstrong into searching his soul, or articulating his feelings, something he seemed unwilling, or unable, to do.

Like all Hollywood epics, "When Oprah Met Lance: Part One" even comes with a sequel. Tomorrow. More Oprah. More Lance. More questions and answers, and Armstrong's prayer for a commercial future, dressed up as a search for absolution, in the court of public opinion.

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