In advance, everything about “Bruce Jenner – The Interview” screamed smarm, from ABC’s steady promotional drumbeat to the sweeps-timed airdate to the inordinately large two-hour primetime window, the sort of time ABC News hasn’t devoted to Iraq or ISIS. Yet Jenner’s honesty (and certainly preparation) along with additional elements the program incorporated made extremely good use of the forum, shedding considerable light on an issue about which much of the public is no doubt still ill-informed. ABC has clearly tilted toward soft news across its platforms, but this was a genuine human-interest story presented in a sensitive and serious manner.
“I’ve always been very confused with my gender identity,” Jenner said in the early going, adding that he (and that’s the pronoun Jenner currently chooses to use) had “lived a lie his whole life about who he is.” At that point, given the lack of suspense to begin with, one had to wonder what he and Diane Sawyer could possibly have to talk about until 11 p.m.
Still, Sawyer’s soothing, softball style proved particularly well suited to eliciting the thoughtful, patient, explanatory responses that Jenner delivered. That included — in the most memorable sound bite — his dead-on observation that in the context of the reality show of which he was a part, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” “The one real, true story in the family was the one I was hiding and nobody knew about.”
Sawyer took Jenner back to his youthful surroundings, then walked through his gold-medal performance in the 1976 Olympic decathlon, which earned him the title “world’s greatest athlete,” and a lucrative career as a product pitchman. Even for those well versed in those chapters of his life, seeing the footage and hearing Jenner discuss struggling with his transgender identity at the time brought a sobering spin to those familiar images of flag waving and Wheaties boxes.
Sawyer also wove in interviews with experts, providing useful context; history about transgender pioneers, including Christine Jorgensen and tennis player Renee Richards; and referenced (and illustrated) violence against transgender individuals, as well as the high suicide rates within the community. Indeed, the footage of Jenner being hounded by paparazzi – one derisively whistling at him – brought an additional note of empathy to the special.
In short, ABC took an interview that easily could have been diced into a week’s worth of segments on “Good Morning America” and turned it into a broader discussion and examination about the current state what it means to be transgender in 2015, juxtaposed against loneliness that surrounded it when Jenner was younger.
Granted, the content began to lag in the second hour, as Sawyer brought Jenner’s children into the conversation, an aspect of the story which – as the ads within the telecast for “GMA” made clear – the network will continue to milk into next week. Business, after all, is business.
In the bigger picture, ABC News has undergone its own transition in recent years, not only fluffing up “GMA’s” giddiness but extending those morning-show values to the rest of its news, including the David Muir-anchored “World News” and “Nightline.” For a night, however, the network delivered an appropriately elevated and multifaceted broadcast, which was all the more welcome – and surprising – given the sense of queasiness created by those initial promos featuring Jenner in shadowy silhouette.
Give ABC credit for that, but much of it also goes to Jenner. Because in terms of cutting through the hype and reality-TV baggage and displaying a core of humanity, this was another gold-medal-worthy performance.