Cover Story: Q&A With Dr. Mehmet Oz
Oprah's favorite health expert Dr. Mehmet Oz opens up about how his new show will operate, and what he and Winfrey tell each other when the cameras aren't rolling
By Melissa Grego -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/3/2009 2:00:00 AM
Series' execs and showrunner see Dr. Oz's chemistry with audience as solid-gold path to syndie success
During her first interview to become executive producer of Dr. Oz, Mindy Borman could barely sit down. “She basically walked in and said, 'I have to tell you, this is my show,'” Harpo Productions Executive VP of Development and Marketing Harriet Seitler tells B&C. “She kept standing up and getting red in the face. She was so passionate. Without having met Dr. Oz, she nailed it—what his energy was, what his appeal was to the female viewer and what he could become. You could feel she senses it in her bones.”
Seitler, Borman and Sony Pictures TV Executive VP of Reality and Syndicated Programming Holly Jacobs form the top-level trio behind Dr. Oz, talking every day about all aspects regarding the show. All three of these “wizards of Oz” cite great chemistry as the key to the success of the production. Just as there were instant sparks between Dr. Oz and Oprah Winfrey on The Oprah Winfrey Show, they say, they expect to see them between Dr. Oz and his audience. And the trio gushes about working together and sharing a united vision for the show.
Considering the auspices of the show, including the fact that Dr. Oz was introduced to audiences over the years on the stalwart Oprah, Seitler and Jacobs had their pick of showrunners. Borman's idea for Oz set her apart from the other top candidates.
“Mindy didn't take a traditional approach,” Jacobs says. “She really did a 360 of who this person was. She played on his strengths and the best elements of news, daytime talk and primetime reality. With the mixture of those things, she found a way to give the show an eventful nature.”
TV veterans likewise were clamoring to get a spot on Borman's staff. She culled her team from a broad swath of hit TV shows and launches, she says, and they come from “everywhere from Oprah to morning shows to documentary to some of the biggest talk shows in the business.”
The trio talks about the show as being sort of a super-classroom. As Borman puts it: “If it were an actual class, it would be the one for which people would stand in line around the block.”
"One of the first things you notice about Mehmet is his energy is kinetic," Seitler says. "He's physical, he moves around and we really want to build on that strength. Where he has great chemistry with Oprah-we want to replace that chemistry with what's between him and the audience. The show will capitalize on his physicality, intensity, hands-on ability to pull people out of the audience and make them a part of the show. And pull people out of the television, if you will."
While the daytime landscape has been littered with failures in recent years and local TV stations continue to struggle through some of the worst-ever financial crises, the trio says now is actually as good a time for this show as ever. They all emphasize the fact that this show will surprise viewers and stations alike with how different it is, and that if anything can break through, it's a fresh approach.
"In part what we are trying to do is be as innovative as we can to maximize what the television show can be on stations; hopefully it will be equally as innovative with advertisers," Seitler says. "So far we've seen tremendous enthusiasm from advertisers and affiliates. In terms of the advertising market I know Sony is engaged in very positive conversations, as much as we could hope for in difficult circumstances."
As for how Dr. Oz will differ from CBS TV Distribution's The Doctors, the top-rated new syndicated show of last season, Seitler at first points out the most obvious difference, which is that The Doctors features a panel of doctors rather than a singular personality. As far as how the shows might be distinguished beyond that: "I hope viewers would say The Doctors is a good show with a lot information, good sharing of information through the doctors speaking with each other," she says, "but my hope and dream is viewers will say Dr. Oz is speaking to me."
Just like Harpo and Sony had their pick of producers for Dr. Oz, Harpo also had their pick of production and distribution partners on this project. Seitler says Harpo met with many excellent suitors. Dr. Oz is the company's first collaboration with Sony. Ultimately they went with Sony at least in part because "on an essential level we felt a really strong bond and sense of shared integrity in their work ethic, creatively and in terms of a standard of excellence," she says.
"When we sat down with them, we could see right away that [Sony Pictures TV President] Steve Mosko led an incredibly strong group people. He's an enormously talented and gifted leader. His team trusts him and they trust each other. When you feel that level of trust and confidence among them you feel it too. And it pays off in the product."
There is of course one other wizard of Oz: Oprah. She has been "absolutely involved in every key juncture of the development phase," Jacobs says. She met with the key hires and "had a major point of view on lots and lots of things. The look of the show. The feel of the show. What the show's about," Jacobs adds.
While the trio of Borman, Seitler and Jacobs tries to be "very very very thoughtful and strategic" about the time they spend with the very busy Oprah, the mogul's impact is undeniable, Jacobs says.
Dr. Oz is quite literally Jacobs' dream project, she says. "For anyone who has grown up in this business and particularly in daytime syndication, which I have as a producer and executive, it is a dream to be able to work with the best organization in this business. With someone who is rightfully considered a role model for every woman in the business. For that matter, on a personal level it is rewarding and fantastic and I feel privileged every single day." —Melissa Grego
Heart surgeon, author and soon-to-be talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, best known as the health expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show, is deep in preparation to headline one of the coming TV season's most anticipated new syndicated series, The Dr. Oz Show, which premieres on Sept. 14.
He's scaling back from the 250 heart surgeries he typically does in a year and will discontinue thriving research efforts to shoot his health-and-wellness show. He will tape three out of four weeks per month, and dedicate the fourth to his practice.
The show is co-produced by Winfrey's Harpo Productions and Sony Pictures Television, and will be distributed by SPT. It is cleared on stations covering 99.3% of the country, including many of the Fox Television Stations. Oz is already a TV presence, having appeared on Winfrey's show nearly 60 times in recent years.
The goal, says Executive Producer Mindy Borman, is for Dr. Oz to become âthe show of record in the world of health and wellness.â It will rely heavily on the warmth and high-energy presence of its star, along with his strengths as a teacher. The show will approach the audience as the doctor's co-hosts in a sort of hyped-up classroom environment. âUltimately this is a show about you, for you, starring you,â Borman says, which is fitting for Oz, the best-selling author of YOU: The Owner's Manual and other similarly named books.
To achieve this additional level of intimacy, Oz and the series' producers say they will spend time traveling to local markets and film segments in the field. While the show will originate in a studio in New York's Rockefeller Center, â[It] isn't locked off at 30 Rock,â Borman says.
âWe want to bring the whole country into the show and the show to the whole country,â Borman says. âWe're working on big events to get to people who can't get to us.â And in the studio, she adds, the audience âwill be asked to participate in ways they haven't been asked to participate in TV before.â As co-hosts of the show, audience members will not only ask questions, but likely will also help answer them and at times share the stage with Oz.
For a man at the center of such ambition and preparation, Oz exudes humility and accessibility, and emphasizes the value of connecting with the in-studio and at-home audiences on an emotional level. In his first extensive interview about the new show, Oz talks with B&C's Executive Editor Melissa Grego about transitioning to the new gig, the format's details, and what he and Oprah talk about when the cameras aren't rolling. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
What advice has Oprah given you about leading your own show?
We spend a lot of time talking about integrity. I promised her I would make her proud. That was the one parting promise I made as I left the studio. The TV business is unpredictable, but I said we would be able to look back and be proud, know that we did good.
We also agreed that it has to be a fun show. You can make a tedious project out of this, and no one will want to see it. Likewise, if you make it thrilling and seedy and it doesn't convey the trustworthy messages we've been offering to America these last few years, they will turn away.
What she gave me was trust. By sprinkling me with it, she gave me a huge opportunity.
Will Oprah make guest appearances?
I would love to have her on. For us, it's always been what's best for the audience. Talk about being ruthless about that! Having been on the inside [of The Oprah Winfrey Show] and seeing things done the right way, I've seen uncomfortable decisions made. But it's always about that priority of whether it's good for the viewer. It's why Ms. Winfrey works so well.
It's a game of constantly repelling very innocent favors that people ask you. Like, can you just talk about this a little bit, or can I be on the show? Often the filter of that audience just won't let me do that. It's why the experience of working with Harpo [Productions] has been so special. I saw how to do it right.
If there comes a time when she can make the show better, she will come on, but I don't want to drag her out to New York to endorse me; I want it to mean something that she comes on and makes the viewing experience better.
It's the same for her show. I would love to go out there and help in any way possible. But if going is just to make people know I have my own show, that doesn't support her.
What can you tell us about the format of your show?
It's a multi-topic hour. We'll break it up so it's not the same theme throughout the hour of five or six segments.
It's absolutely essential that the audience participates in the program in a way they haven't before. They are the co-hosts.
In the practice shows, we discovered that there is a lot of talent in America. It's not surprising with shows like American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and reality, period. But what we found when we did the practice shows over and over was these most unexpected surprise stars came on the shows. Give people a chance to surprise you, and they will.
Nothing is off-limits, nothing is out of bounds. It is a big conversation, loud, high-octane TV, which you need to carry these messages forward.
Will you stick to strictly health and medical topics, or do you plan to expand into other areas like celebrity interviews with a health/medical twist to them?
Whether we'll expand beyond traditional health barriers, yes. Would I love to talk to celebrities? Yes, but that is not what this show is about.
This show is about real people with real problems. So we'll have people like you-the-viewer, who can't get their trainer or their personal chef to come over or who haven't discussed this 12 times already. Even me, I'm a heart doctor trained by some of the best out there. But I don't have heart disease, so if you have to cope with heart disease, you want to hear from someone who can help from the point of view of having been there.
The audience being the co-host, that was a big decision for us. Especially as a new host, the question is, Who do you rely on, who are your crutches out of the gate to push you, to get support from? In every segment, the audience was given a chance [in run-throughs] to play a role, a chance to shine, andâI am not exaggeratingâevery single time they stepped up to the plate.
So you will pick someone from the audience in each episode to come up and sit with you?
Not every segment. But, say, on a segment on body organs, if they're next to me and we have them twist and turn and describe how they feel with the model in their hands, it will add to it. If it's me saying it, well, I've held it a thousand times. But you'll notice when you hear someone say, âOoh, it's like Charmin toilet paper.â The first time you experience something, it is authentic. Anytime after that, it's rehearsed.
American Idol, that's why it works, because it's real. [It's] their performance that day. It's why men watch sports, because it's real. That's what we're trying to offer people, a real experience.
So when it makes sense, we'll have audience members participate. In some parts of the show, newsy stuff like why toys from China are contaminated, you don't need to have them there.
How about the set and studio? What will they look like, and do you expect to be in the field much or primarily in the studio?
We will have segments outside the studio, to find outâby talking to peopleâwhat is going on in their lives. Most importantly, I'll be right there with the audience. I actually walk through the audience, and parts of the audience seating is built right into a part of the viewing set. I meander through them, and have almost a big Wizard of Oz set. With a yellow-brick road going through. But don't worry, it's not yellow brick.
We'll have screens, including a âtruth tubeâ to offer up hard-core information about specific lab tests, things viewers want to learn. There's a large screen for animation like what people have enjoyed on Oprah. I want to be part of the animation so I can point to, rewind, focus right on that part right there. It's the ultimate classroom but designed to be theater, too; to enjoy, be entertained.
How will the digital component of the show look?
The DoctorOz.com site is coming along nicely. That's where we will continue the conversation. In health care and when it comes to healing information, viewers are not always going to trust what they see on TV completely; sometimes they want to see it published or printed somewhere. We need to have the Web as an important part of the conversation. So OK, he said this and I go online and find this is what he was talking about, and these are the doses.
Are there particular topics or ideas about health and wellness you hope to emphasize or advance with the outlet you have in this show?
We're going to spend a lot of time debunking myths around dieting and aging. Those are two very important topics. If we don't get people to be healthier, we'll never be able to provide health care; we'll never be able to afford it. The reason it costs so much is we're so sick. Better health is essential if we're going to improve health care in America.
I'll also look at why people are not having sex in America. Rates have dropped, which has a survival impact. I'll talk about family, and parenting, pregnancy and the relationships we should have with each other. I'm a father with four kids and a still-intact marriage. I want to spend a lot of time talking about family.
How do you expect your life to change by taking on a daily talk show in addition to everything else you do?
Without question, I've made significant changes to the way I'm practicing medicine for this. Although I've always been a busy heart surgeon, I've also traditionally been one of the busiest researchers in the country. I've completely cut that out. I'm doing a lot less surgery, but now I'm also not out there inventing brand-new ways of doing heart surgery. Those creative resources are going into the show.
So you'll continue to do some surgery, but no research?
Surgery is the grounding thing I could never give up; I wouldn't be the person I am, and I don't want to stop being the person I am. It's not just cutting people, but talking to people. That's what you're doing when you're doing television-and I'm still fairly novice at it. I've done almost 60 shows with Oprah and some other TV. But talking through the lenses, you're talking to real people about real problems. For us as healers, the impact we make, the gratitude that we receive, fuels our engines. The ability to practice medicine helps maintain authentic, real, raw relationships.
How will you work it out logistically?
The biggest give is I'm in New York, not in Chicago. They have a beautiful studio in Chicago and it would have saved money to do the show there, but my clinical practice is in New York, and it's actually easier to move a TV show than a clinical practice. So Ms. Winfrey agreed ultimately to move the show to allow me to continue to practice medicine.
What else are you doing personally to prepare for the transition and get your head around it? It's a big change.
First of all, I'm in the best physical shape I've been in since I played football in college. I did this on purpose; I needed to get fit for people to follow along and look at me as a role model in how I look and what I say. And to prepare for the amount of physical stress this job offers-people don't speak to that aspect of it as often. So at least the temple of the soul, which is the body, is protected in this process.
Mentally I have good coaches. The first being my wife, Lisa. She is the reason I am in TV. I was going to be a hard-nosed clinical researcher; I was going to go to Duke. But my wife is an actress. She refused to go to Durham because there is not the television industry there. So I went to Columbia in New York. Then I was complaining that patients don't understand why their health is poor, that they need people to teach lifestyle changes before they wind up seeing me. She said, let's do a show together, and that was Second Opinion for Discovery. And that's how I met Oprah. She was our first guest.
How did you get her?
All good things happen with [Oprah confidant] Gayle King. I knew Gayle King socially. I said, we're looking to make a television show that teaches people to learn about their bodies and good health, and cannot offer you anything back. We're doing a one-time documentary for Discovery. She made it happen. It speaks a ton about the organization.
When the show aired, Oprah's producers saw it and asked if I'd come on their show. We had a good time, made up the show as I went along, saw it organically happen and went home and never thought about it again. Later we found out it did well; they wanted to see more, and it started this whole cascade.
So Lisa is one mentor. I spent a lot of time talking with her. And obviously what I have to do is have someone take Ms. Winfrey's place because I don't have her anymore. The person taking her place is the audience. We'll deal with real people with real problems, so I'm practicing and becoming a better listener. It's a talk show but also a listening show. To listen you have to practice, which is especially true for men, I think.
What are you doing to practice listening?
I'm continually stunned by what gets noticed by the producers. The female executive producers we have are superb; they pick up on very subtle clues that I don't get. I'm strong in some areas, but have to work on areas Ms. Winfrey is so brilliant at. We did workshops in Chicago and watched tapes.
Have you been doing run-throughs of the show?
Yes, we did some in May in Chicago on the set. Ms. Winfrey was kind enough to let us use her studio, and the producing staff carved out some guests and topics. We got a couple of shows with a full audience, Oprah's cameras, with high production quality so we could really see what it would look like. It was a good experience for me; it went well. They felt comfortable to me. It was important for all of us.
It was constructive pain; I got good feedback from people. I very much emphasized that I didn't want cherry-coated feedback. In medicine if you do that, people don't know the truth and people die. I wanted upfront, honest feedback. Sometimes that hurts your feelings, but it helps you do a good job.
Have you checked out The Doctors, another syndicated talk show about health and featuring doctors?
They've done a very good job. It's a good format. Four experienced, disparate doctors. They have good chemistry; they're attractive people.
How do you see your show in contrast?
If I had to say one thing, it's the issue of enjoyment. The show we are creating is a very-high-octane, entertainment-driven program. I want you laughing on the show, I want you ooh-ing on the show, I want you to create connections that oscillate you, resonate with you so you share the experience and information with others.
That's important [for the show to do well], but I'm also convinced people will not be motivated to change unless they have an emotional connection. If they don't have a positive experience and don't want to come back or aren't having fun with me, it won't matter what information we try to put out there. So we're specifically choreographing shows to make that happen.
Will we see Lisa on the show?
I don't know. She's been very supportive. We haven't talked about it. It's like Oprah if it makes sense, helps the experience. It will be something the audience dictates, not us. If you force something on them they don't expect or want, it hurts their experience. These are all marriages-a show host and the audience. The have to trust me or they'll go away.
I see you're on Twitter. I just started following you! What do you make of it? Will you continue doing your own posts?
I hope so. We have a team coming together around a lot of these themes. What I'm hoping to do is have that experience reflected on Facebook and Twitter even if I'm not typing the words. But really, it doesn't take a lot of time to tweet. It is a matter of making sure that I don't tweet inappropriately, though. It's like if you're at a cocktail party and you're talking to [people], you will tell them something interesting to you and them. But you have visual cues. The danger with Twitter is you don't have those cues. And it may be tempting to say things that are only interesting to you.
I often run it by people, what I'm thinking of saying: I already sent two messages today. So you've made two shots in the game, maybe you don't send [the third] one out. I try to make it fun, put quizzes on there or if I see things I really like a lot. I saw an article last week, and I tweeted that because I wanted to share bliss when I read it.
How do you feel about television in general? How much/what do you watch?
A lot of my television is watching while I'm working out on the treadmill or elliptical. I almost never watch television without doing something else. I almost always catch Oprah, I try to watch Dr. Phil and try to see what sports are on.
Is there anything else you think TV stations that will be airing your show or viewers you hope will tune in should know about the show?
We're coming to a town near you. We're traveling a lot. We have big ideas planned to take the show into your neighborhood for people to recognize; all health care is personal. At the end of the day, nothing changes because I say it or Washington says it. The only way is if you do it in your home. We'll be giving you advice that's easy to follow in your own home. We'll make doing the right thing easy to do.
I love Dr. Oz.....he recommended probiotics on Oprah and on his Real Life site.....I took it, got well and got sick again. Has he really looked into long term use of Probiotics? I trust his suggestions but questions this one.
Gerry Sarkisian - 8/4/2009 1:39:12 PM EDT
I'm sorry, but all I ever see about this guy are 'Resveratrol' spam(?) ads on the internet that I link with the 'ugly belly' ads and other such dubious things. So when I started hearing his ads on a local station and heard more somewhat doubtable things, I now recoil and either change the channel or grumble and ignore him.
I believe he talks a lot.
10 kc - 8/1/2009 4:42:34 PM EDT
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