Oprah banking on Armstrong
Washington - Oprah Winfrey's exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong is a coup for the talk show diva as she strives to pull her upstart OWN network to the front of the crowded TV peloton.
Winfrey, 58, dominated US daytime television like no one else from 1986 through 2011 with her eponymous syndicated talk show that redefined the genre and firmly established her as a household name.
Since the demise of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," however, it's been an uphill battle for the pop culture icon and her OWN cable and satellite channel, which began with less than stellar ratings.
Her much-talked-about interview with Armstrong, which airs over two nights from Thursday on both OWN and her Oprah.com website, could be a turning point.
"This is a huge 'get' for Oprah" given how "OWN is not yet part of the (media) mainstream," best-selling celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley, author of "Oprah: A Biography," said.
"This is enormous for OWN in that it's probably going to be first time ever that many people have tuned into the channel," added Larry Gerbrandt of Media Valuation Partners, a Los Angeles entertainment industry consultancy.
Winfrey herself calls the disgraced cyclist's 2-1/2 hour confessional, recorded on Monday, "the biggest interview I've ever done in terms of its exposure" - a remarkable claim in light of who she's interviewed before.
Her past guests have run the gamut from politicians (President Barack Obama) to pop stars (the late Michael Jackson) and film idols (Tom Cruise, who famously jumped up and down on her studio sofa).
"Oprah's vision is to use television to drop little pieces of light into our consciousness," said OWN president Sheri Salata after the network won its first Emmy last year, for the Winfrey-hosted inspirational show "Super Soul on Sunday."
Winfrey, a rages-to-riches media mogul whose net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.7 billion, has personally likened the launch of OWN to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak.
Whereas the final episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" pulled in a staggering 16.4 million viewers, OWN - backed by cable powerhouse Discovery Channel - attracted fewer than 300 000 sets of prime-time eyeballs in its early days.
One reason was Winfrey herself. No longer appearing every weekday as she had for 25 seasons, the so-called "chatelaine of Chicago" mainly limited her time on the small screen to a three-day-a-week show, "Oprah's Next Chapter."
But personnel and programming changes at OWN have seen a turnaround in the past year.
By the end of 2012 viewership had creeped up to 326 000 on the back of Winfrey's exclusive interviews with the likes of Rihanna, Michael Jackson's teenage daughter Paris and Whitney Houston's daughter Bobbi Kristina.
Non-Oprah reality shows like "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's," centered on a Missouri soul food restaurant, and "Six Little McGhees," about parenting sextuplets in Ohio, also found a following.
Discovery Communications expects OWN to make money by mid-2013, trade journal Variety has reported, as it launches its first scripted series, a show by actor and writer Tyler Perry pitched at African-American female viewers.
Eric Deggans, TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in Florida, said the Armstrong interview could prompt other bold-face names to seek out some airtime with Winfrey despite OWN's smaller audience.
"The next celebrity who needs to talk about the turmoil in their life will know (he or she) can turn to Oprah, and they'll know they will have the kind of impact they want," he said.
The vastly bigger CBS network had pushed hard for Armstrong to go onto its flagship "60 Minutes" news program, which had previously investigated the doping allegations surrounding the seven-time Tour de France winner.
"We wanted the Lance Armstrong interview badly. He chose to go with Oprah," "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager conceded to a gathering of TV critics last weekend, according to the Hollywood Reporter trade journal.
In the end CBS had to make do with Oprah herself, who on Tuesday told "CBS This Morning" she emailed Armstrong "a couple of months ago" in hopes of scoring an interview.
He replied with an offer to do lunch, which never happened due to scheduling conflicts.
Ultimately, at his suggestion, the two met one-on-one at Winfrey's vacation home in Hawaii over the Christmas holidays, she said. The interview itself was taped in an Austin hotel suite.