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Can even Oprah save Lance Armstrong?

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
January 14, 2013 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lance Armstrong is going to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey
  • Howard Kurtz says Oprah is trying to overcome struggles on cable TV
  • He says it's predictable that Armstrong would admit wrongs to Oprah
  • Kurtz: It's doubtful that even absolution by Oprah could help

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- The advance buildup has all been about Lance Armstrong as he prepares to enter the church of Oprah and seek absolution for his sins. But this much-anticipated television moment is as much a test for Oprah Winfrey as for the disgraced former cycling champion.

For while Armstrong is no longer the hero of old, Oprah isn't the same old Oprah, either.

The interview, to be conducted Monday, won't take place on Oprah's old blockbuster show, but on her little-watched cable channel. It's part of a 90-minute special airing Thursday that could help Winfrey reclaim a bit of the limelight that faded when she gave up her throne as America's talk show queen to build her cable brand.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

It's hardly surprising that Armstrong would choose the Oprah route for dropping his decade of denials about doping. (I instantly knew that what was he would do. You don't go on Oprah after being stripped of your championships and repeat the same old excuses. USA Today reports that Armstrong will admit to using banned substances after his camp had floated the idea in a leak to The New York Times.)

Watch: Does Oprah have the cultural clout to revive Lance Armstrong's career?

After all, she has been the go-to gal for famous folks in trouble. Whitney Houston talked about drug use with Oprah. Track star Marion Jones talked with Oprah about going to prison for lying about using banned substances. Even author James Frey, who touted on Oprah an addiction memoir that turned out to have significant fabrications, went back on the show to submit to her castigation.

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When Oprah was syndicated on ABC stations, her program was appointment viewing. How many people even know where the Oprah Winfrey Network is on their cable system? Winfrey has acknowledged that she's had a rough go in the cable world, which has included management turmoil, layoffs and the canceling of Rosie O'Donnell's show.

"I certainly did not expect the velocity of schadenfreude -- meaning people sort of lying in wait for you to fail, or make a mistake," she has said.

Watch: Was Joe and Mika's fight on MSNBC riveting or revolting?

What made Oprah a powerful cultural force, beyond her ratings and big-name interviews and ability to sell books, was her prowess at image rehab. If Oprah forgave you, could America be far behind? So the stakes in the Armstrong encounter are considerable for her as well.

But Armstrong is no ordinary celebrity who did something naughty that can be erased with a few well-timed tears. The man became an icon after battling back from cancer to reclaim his place as the world's best bike racer. But then came the allegations from former teammates and others that Armstrong cheated, that he used performance-enhancing substances banned by racing authorities.

Watch: Was New York Times right in depicting Obama White House as a boys' club?

Lance Armstrong coming clean?
USA Today: Armstrong will confess
Armstrong's expected admission

Armstrong denied these charges again and again. He lied to my colleague Buzz Bissinger, who produced a Newsweek cover story titled "I Still Believe in Lance Armstrong." And he lied to me in two interviews. He was fervent and passionate, not just in saying he had never used banned substances but in accusing U.S. anti-doping officials of conducting a "personal vendetta" against him.

That was then; this week is Oprah.

Armstrong's motivation is obvious. His career is in ruins. The Livestrong cancer charity he founded is struggling. He faces possible litigation. He wants to compete again and needs somehow to put this phase of his career behind him.

But that is not so easy for athletes who cheat, as we were reminded by last week's vote to exclude Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens from baseball's Hall of Fame, based almost exclusively on alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Watch: Why are media swooning over Time cover star Chris Christie?

They never apologized; perhaps Armstrong intends to do so. But if millions of people aren't watching him on Oprah -- if most of the country just sees a 20-second clip later -- does it have the same effect?

Oprah might forgive Armstrong, clearing the way for others to do the same. Or she might scold him, fostering a sense that he was publicly shamed for his conduct.

Either way, Oprah Winfrey will, for the first time in a long while, occupy center stage once again. For Lance Armstrong, though, the spotlight might prove less flattering. 

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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