Once upon a time, Oprah Winfrey was a daytime staple, a confessor extraordinaire who got a former cattle rancher to come clean about controversial practices (sending beef prices to a 10-year low), Ellen DeGeneres to discuss her decision to come out of the closet, and Tom Cruise to proclaim his love for Katie Holmes by jumping on her couch.
Years later, a coda to these gone-but-not-forgotten blockbuster interviews may have come, with her sit-down with Lance Armstrong in which he talks about long-standing doping allegations. Can Oprah make her new-found relevancy last?
Since setting the sun on her aging talk show and embarking on her next venture—her own network, appropriately called OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network)—Oprah has had few big, water-cooler-conversation confessions. Much has been written about the struggles of her network to replicate the 6 million viewers of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The network has posted a ratings record of just over half that number for a single show since going on the air.
"When OWN started [expectations were] that it was going to immediately burst with the colossal success of an Oprah production," says Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. "But an awful lot of cable channels took a long time to get going."
OWN's struggles have a lot to do with a miscalculation about what the channel should be, betting on the success of Oprah-sanctioned programming rather than headlining the TV queen herself. "Everybody agreed the biggest problem with OWN is there wasn't enough 'O' in it," says Thompson. "She built this cultural empire on the presence of Oprah Winfrey."
Since OWN premiered Jan. 1, 2011, she has indeed begun incorporating elements of her old formula. Oprah's Next Chapter reincarnated the confessional forum that made her famous, and has scored a notable ratings for her interviews with late pop star Whitney Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina, and with current chart-topper Rihanna, who discussed her relationship with Chris Brown after he assaulted her..
This past holiday season, she also brought back "Oprah's Favorite Things," a marketing boon for the gifts that she "loves." However, the list only got Oprah beyond the Oprah-verse and into mainstream news, when, in an empress-has-no-clothes goof, her endorsement for Microsoft's Surface tablet was tweeted from an iPad.
A blog posted by PR firm Crenshaw Communications suggested that "the fact that the Tweet-gate overshadowed the usual hubbub around the vaunted holiday list may be one more sign we have truly entered the post-Oprah era."
But with a flash of an Associated Press news alert, the revelation that she had scored Armstrong's confession got her name back in the headlines and her face back on the morning news shows.
"One big thing can really make a cable network," Thompson says, citing what the Challenger disaster did for CNN or what Queer Eye for the Straight Guy did for reality TV behemoth Bravo. The Bobbi Kristina interview, the Rihanna interview, and even the David Letterman interview may have helped OWN pick up some steam.
"[Armstrong] trumps them all," he says.
The powers that be at OWN are hoping for a big draw from the Armstrong special, hoping that those who don't subscribe to the network are calling their cable company in order to watch it, or hoping that current cable subscribers are taking note of the channel number.
OWN has split the special into two parts, airing over two nights, and Oprah is doing her promotional diligence, coyly teasing CBS This Morning (talking to her best friend, anchor Gayle King) that Armstrong "did not come clean in the manner I expected."
Some critics have rolled their eyes about Armstrong coming clean on Oprah's couch—and not say, in front of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency—but that may be the point. Once upon a time, famous sinners and saints alike could go to Oprah, or Larry King, or Barbara Walters and tell their tales.
"[The Armstrong interview] will help continue to demonstrate that Oprah Winfrey is one of the biggest places to go," says Thompson. Armstrong is not confessing to Ellen DeGeneres or Katie Couric, after all.
"If nothing else, Oprah is still a force to be reckoned with."
Updated at 5:15 p.m. on 1/17/2013