Oprah smooth in CBS Armstrong hype, but does TV confession still work?

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A photo illustration shows a woman as she watches the CBS morning show featuring Oprah Winfrey talking about her interview with the cyclist Lance Armstrong. "I didn't get all the questions asked, but I think the most important questions and the answers that people around the world have been waiting to hear were answered," she said on CBS "This Morning." "I can only say I was satisfied by the answers." Armstrong, who has consistently denied drug-taking, on Monday recorded a two-and-a-half hour interview with Winfrey. The interview airs Thursday on OWN.

I like Oprah Winfrey, and I was happy to see her Tuesday morning on CBS with her old pal, Gayle King, hitting on all cylinders as they hyped the gate for her interview with Lance Armstrong.

She promised King, Charlie Rose and everyone else on the last-place morning show set, "You will be satisfied," by the interview that airs Thursday night on the OWN cable channel.


"You will come away understanding that he brought it," she said, though she did hedge on the  specific extent of his confession versus her expectations.

Fine. That's show biz and the art of hype.


And as cynical as I am after a million years of writing about people's use of the medium to hype rather than enlighten, I will give Oprah the benefit of the doubt and believe he "brought it."

In terms of transparency, I should acknowledge being partial to Oprah, because when her legendary show was ending, I did an interview with her and she totally "brought it." She talked publicly for the first time about being "humiliated and sexually harassed" at a young reporter at a Baltimore TV station. I know that Oprah knows what bringing it means. I trust her when she says Armstrong delivered.

But as I watched her and Rose and King, I couldn't help thinking about how much the culture has changed since the days of the TV Confessional when someone could sin badly and sit down with Ted Koppel in the 1980s, or Oprah more recently, and confess their sins and expect to be forgiven.

For those of you who think popular culture and American history started with the Internet, look up Jimmy Swaggart or Gary Hart. Those were big cultural moments.

On the other hand, think back more recently to the interview in which Sarah Ferguson "apologized" in Oprah's TV confessional after being caught in a tabloid sting selling access to her husband for 500,000 pounds?

How much did that rehabilitate her image -- here or in Britain? Did it make any difference ultimately to anyone?

By the time that interview took place in 2010, the culture had already shifted in a tectonic way. The media had fragmented on one front, making it harder for Tv to serve as pop culture's big revival tent for the ritual of confession, forgiveness and rebirth.

And on a psychic level, from 9/11 to the financial meltdown of 2008, we had become a jittery, jangled, angry culture that trusted nothing, it seemed, except family. That suspicion and anger finds its most common expression in the snark and nastiness on so much social media these days.


I don't think it is any accident that the one big tent on TV is NFL football, which speaks so eloquently to the times with its angry brutality.

So, of course, I will watch Thursday night. And I expect Oprah will do some of her best ratings ever, though, with social media being what it is, many people who would have been little Nielsen numbers will now not watch. Instead, they will check Twitter before going to bed for a link to a video showing the two minutes that people thought mattered. The verdict will more likely be delivered in the discussion on Twitter or Facebook than what's actually seen on the TV screen.

I believe media and America have moved on since the days of TV Confession and Redemption.

But with Oprah hitting on all cylinders, and Armstrong being one of the culture's biggest liars who lie, this should be a strong test of that hypothesis.