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Lance Armstrong joins the ranks of famous TV confessors

Jan. 17, 2013 at 9:05 AM ET

When Lance Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey airs Thursday, he'll become a member of a very specific club: disgraced public figures who've addressed their wrongdoings by way of television. Whether the truth-telling is a matter of national concern or mostly a step in repairing an image (and often, a subsequent livelihood) the medium continues to be the most reliable way of getting a message out to the masses.

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Cyclist Lance Armstrong is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 14.

When you look at some of the more notable mea culpas of the past several decades, they can be split mostly into two camps. First, there's the method we'll call the confessional. Whether doing it before a room full of reporters or scores of people watching at home, the apology basically consists of one uninterrupted speech delivered directly into the camera. Advantages here include being able to steer the message in whatever way is most productive. "It's quick, for a relatively painless and simple situation," Howard Bragman, longtime crisis publicist and vice chairman of Reputation.com tells TODAY.com. Disadvantages? Look again at that part about reporters and people watching at home. 

This was David Letterman's approach, when he came clean about an affair he had with a staffer. "I've had sex with women who work on this show," he said before a live audience in 2009.

Tiger Woods in 2012 did a more traditional press conference version of the confessional when he said he was "deeply sorry" for the numerous affairs he had and for his unbecoming behavior, and promised to "start living a life of integrity."

One of the most famous apologies that follows this trope goes back more than a decade, when in 2008 Bill Clinton addressed the American public and confessed that he "did have a relationship with Monica Lewinsky." 

It was a metered response in a prepared speech delivered in an environment that left little to dissect. A single close-up shot doesn't leave much for the body language experts to interpret; the only things to be picked apart were the words themselves. It's an approach that's much safer than the second approach, the no-less-opted-for interview confession. That approach is for "when you're really trying to drum up some emotional support," according to Bragman. While the reward for a successful mea culpa under these circumstances might be great, so are the risks. The line of questioning rests squarely in the hands of the interviewer and there's far more room for error.

Mel Gibson opted for this approach with Diane Sawyer, where he addressed an anti-Semitic rant during a traffic stop that landed him in headlines. He explained that he didn't know the arresting officer was Jewish, and "a few drinks later I was in the back of a police car, wailing."

Who can forget Hugh Grant's "Tonight Show" interview in 1995 after he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute? Jay Leno opened with "What the hell were you thinking?"

Of course, there have been others. Alec Baldwin apologized on "The View" for that infamous voice mail to his young daughter; Kanye West on "The Tonight Show" for interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards; the list goes on.

Odds are good that Armstrong's interview will be compared to another one conducted by Winfrey -- that of disgraced "A Million Little Pieces" author James Frey. After Winfrey sang the book's praises, it came to light that Frey fabricated vast portions of it. Winfrey confronted him about it in 2006, saying Frey "conned us all," but the two really hashed Frey's (and Winfrey's) missteps in 2011 during a lengthy interview that aired on OWN. "I created the situation," Frey said.

Regardless of the method of delivery, every on-air apology and confession has been dissected after the fact, and to varying degrees been labelled successful or not. Has every apology withstood the test of time? They have, insofar as we still talk about them. And one common denominator among them all stands out: in every case outlined above, the careers of the blighted have all marched on.

And after we're done questioning Armstrong the way each apologist before him has been questioned -- was he sincere? thorough? too calculating? REALLY sorry? --  that's what we'll be left to wonder. Can Armstrong make a comeback? If history is a predictor, then it looks like he can.

"But forgiveness is not an on/off switch," Bragman points out. "He (Armstrong) will need to take measure of time. Then, and only then can he start to rebuild something."

Which televised confession do you remember the best? Tell us on our Facebook page.

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Image: CYCLING-USA-ARMSTRONG-FILES
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The cyclist’s historic run of Tour de France championships made headlines, as did his fall from grace after being stripped of the titles in 2012.

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