Will Armstrong interview enhance Oprah network's performance?

A man watching an interview between disgraced cycling star Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey on January 17, 2013 in Kensington, Maryland.

American cyclist Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs to help him win Tour de France after Tour de France, in spite of all his categorical denials over the years, and all the bitter attacks he unleashed on anyone who accused him of doping.

We now know this from his confessional interview Thursday night -- a second part airs Friday night -- with Oprah Winfrey. What’s intriguing from a media-business perspective, is that he chose to tell-all to Winfrey, on her fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), instead of to a sports or cable news channel, with higher ratings and many more viewers.

The disgraced cyclist’s landmark interview was promoted on OWN as “Oprah and Lance Armstrong: The Worldwide Exclusive.” Perhaps putting Oprah’s name first isn’t such a coincidence?

“It’s important to Oprah because it’s one of the first 'gets,' as they call it in the business, of a story of wide interest in sports and entertainment,” says media analyst Hal Vogel.

Vogel says the Oprah Winfrey Network is a partnership with Discovery Communications (Discovery channel, TLC, and Animal Planet) and OWN has limped along since it launched two years ago. It has grabbed just a tiny fraction -- 325,000 viewers on an average night -- of the 7 to ten million viewers who once made a daily date with the "Oprah Winfrey Show" on local stations across America.

Winfrey shut down her eponymous Chicago-based show in mid-2011, after OWN launched. And sinc then, her channel has been plagued with low ratings and executive turnover; it has not made money so far, though Discovery predicts it will turn a profit later this year.

OWN has swallowed up $300 million in investment, and now reaches 83 million homes. But viewers have had trouble finding it in their local cable lineups. Popular stars like Rosie O’Donnell have been sacked to save money. Aside from Winfrey’s own interviews, OWN delivers a smattering of reality shows, crime and mystery shows (borrowed from other Discovery channels), plus reruns of the "Oprah Winfrey Show," "Dr. Phil," and "The Nate Berkus Show." It does particularly well among African-American viewers.

Media analyst Jack Myers, author of the book Hooked Up: A New Generation’s Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World, says the Armstrong interview will burnish Winfrey’s brand. But he says her personal popularity can’t sustain a whole cable network. 

“Oprah has an incredibly loyal audience and that audience watches everything Oprah puts on the air," says Myers. "If that’s one hour a day, they’ll watch it.”

But Myers says viewers don’t want an entire day's worth of old Oprah episodes and reality-show reruns.

Hal Vogel says that by getting Armstrong’s broadcast confession for her new talk show, Winfrey reminds peopl that she is an important media figure and cultural icon. After all, she’s the one who brought us exclusive interviews with Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, and Tom Cruise, in the past.

“In terms of lasting effect, it’s a nice blip,” Vogel says of the Armstrong interview. “But she’s going to have to do many more of these types of interviews in order to attract a sustainable audience.”

Vogel says right now, OWN is performing like CNN, attracting large one-off audiences. Winfrey does have other irons in the fire. A new scripted series from TV star Tyler Perry reportedly debuts in May.

Now, for Lance Armstrong, his confession will have other financial impacts. In the confessional on Thursday, he said he felt like it was O.K. to do anything to survive. He was compelled to do anything to survive.

Armstrong: “It was win at all costs. When I was diagnosed (with cancer) I would do anything to survive. I took that attitude - win at all costs – to cycling. That’s bad.”

Under this logic, Armstrong was competing by any means necessary. He claims it was de rigeur to dope—"I viewed it as a level playing field.”

So, is Armstrong’s declaration that winning is everything, that the end justifies the means when the prize is the top prize in the world, any different from the winner-take-all competitive consensus at Wall Street investment banks and hedge funds in the toxic asset 2000s?

"We were all grown men, we all made our choices," Armstrong told Winfrey.

Cheaters gain strength in consensus and in numbers, in a rowdy cheer with no dissenters, in the belief that if they’re all doing it and no one admits to a prick of conscience, they all must be doing right. To some, the uncompromising pursuit of first place, via amoral means — in the Tour de France or Wall Street's annual 'Who's bonus check is bigger?' competition  — is the same.

The only difference is, none of the people who raided the till, broke the bank, walked off with their steroid-buffed billions in the financial crisis, has gone on Oprah to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Or, admitted to Oprah and the rest of America that they may have done anything wrong. 

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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