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Oprah Winfrey still owns the celebrity confession market

It could be a moment made in television heaven: Penitent sinner meets confessor-in-chief, to the sound of ratings hallelujah. That is, if all goes according to script when Lance Armstrong meets Oprah Winfrey next week for his first major television interview since the champion cyclist was accused of being a habitual dope cheat.

On Jan. 17, Ms. Winfrey will broadcast a 90-minute interview from Mr. Armstrong's Texas home. The disgraced seven-times Tour de France winner "will address the alleged doping scandal, years of accusations of cheating, and charges of lying about the use of performance-enhancing drugs throughout his storied cycling career," according to a press release from Ms. Winfrey's office.

But the payoff, the mea culpa shot, will certainly come when – and if – Mr. Armstrong confesses to past transgressions on Oprah's Next Chapter, a flagship show on the struggling Oprah Winfrey Network. A report in The New York Times this week suggested that the cyclist was considering an admission of wrongdoing. He has relentlessly denied using performance-enhancing drugs, despite evidence to the contrary.

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While he could have chosen a television network with a higher viewership, Mr. Armstrong's choice of the Church of Oprah is a canny one, because the popular television host has built a career on the idea that even the most scandal-plagued life can be reborn.

"One of Oprah's major products is redemption. She sold the experience of confession – of hearing somebody's darkest story, and offering to them the possibility of relief from its articulation," says Kathryn Lofton, a professor of religious and American studies at Yale University, and the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. In an e-mail interview, Prof. Lofton continued, "The guest has two jobs: first to say how bad things have been; second to explain their plan for self-improvement."

Many celebrities have chosen Ms. Winfrey as a way to open their hearts to the world, whether it was a sofa-jumping Tom Cruise on his love for Katie Holmes or Ellen DeGeneres talking about coming out of the closet. This week David Letterman unburdened himself about his adultery on Oprah's Next Chapter: "I want to be a better person," the talk-show host said.

Mr. Armstrong, who is also famous for his charitable cancer work, may have chosen Ms. Winfrey on the grounds that she is less likely to pepper him with tough questions than a journalist would. However, she has a talent for schoolmarmish disapproval. On her previous, top-rated talk show she eviscerated James Frey, the author of the memoir A Million Little Pieces (an Oprah's Book Club choice), when he was found to have invented some of the book's material. In a subsequent interview, she apologized to Mr. Frey for being so hard on him.

"It is the perfect place for celebrities to go and reveal something painful about themselves in a sympathetic setting," says Janice Peck, a media studies professor at the University of Colorado and author of The Age of Oprah. "I'm sure [Lance Armstrong's] handlers are hugely upset about the amount of money he's losing in endorsements. This could be a beneficial experience for both of them."

Ms. Winfrey is perfectly aware of her role as the shoulder the nation cries on. Last year, at the National Cable Television Association conference, she said: "I have a dream of O.J. Simpson confessing to me. And I'm going to make that happen, people." Her empire, however, is not what it was since she left her daily talk show in May, 2011: Her magazine, O, has seen circulation tumble and OWN, the network she co-owns with Discovery Communications, has been plagued by low viewership.

Still, she remains a hugely influential and sympathetic force, which observers feel is the main reason Mr. Armstrong has chosen her.

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"Her reach is longer than Wilt Chamberlain's," says Geoff Smith, a professor emeritus of kinesiology and health studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. According to Prof. Smith, the sports-loving public has an impressive capacity to forgive scandal-plagued athletes, from Barry Bonds to Tiger Woods, provided they approach their rehabilitation with some humility and savvy. "Armstrong's plenty smart, and that sets him apart from some other jocks who got caught. And he has an incredible track record of doing good works, which may help."

Thursday's prime-time meeting could be just the boost both celebrities need: Atonement for one, attention for the other, and a stirring experience for the millions who tune in.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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