After 'Oprah,' It’s 'Phil' in the Void
Ten years in, Dr. Phil McGraw's show takes on new challenges on-screen and off
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/26/2011 12:01:00 AM
With the debut of the show’s 10th season, which featured an exclusive interview with the parents of Casey Anthony, Dr. Phil McGraw proved he still knows how to draw an audience. The three-part interview with George and Cindy Anthony—whose daughter was acquitted last summer of murdering her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee—won the show its best ratings in seven years, crushing all competition in its path.
That’s an auspicious start for the man who hopes to claim Oprah Winfrey’s title of TV’s top talker. Ten years ago, CBS Television Distribution’s Dr. Phil was Oprah’s first spin-off, to be followed by Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz and Nate Berkus. This season, the show is one of the likely candidates to succeed Oprah— in ratings, in many time slots and possibly in content. Working in Dr. Phil’s favor is that no one has to worry about directly competing with Oprah, so the show can ascend to higherrated 4 p.m. time slots.
Dr. Phil has shown a constant ability to rise above. Two years ago, stations started to grumble about falling ratings; rather than throw in the towel, McGraw, his executive producer, Carla Pennington, and their team brought even more to the show. In this past May’s sweeps, the show improved in households by 11% compared to May 2010.
Now, after years in Oprah’s shadow, Dr. Phil is hoping to emerge with a win in one of TV’s most hotly contested races. One week into the new season, it seemed well on its way.
“For 10 years, Dr. Phil has been a crown jewel of our company,” says John Nogawski, CTD president. “The show’s premiere week has already provided exactly what the daytime audience wants to watch, and his ratings are re" ecting it. The show is clearly at the top of its game!”
McGraw spoke with Paige Albiniak, B&C contributing editor, about his 10 years of talk and what’s ahead. An edited transcript follows.
You just opened season 10 with a highly rated exclusive interview with Casey Anthony’s parents. How did you end up getting that?
In the last year or two, we’ve done around 75 newsrelated or news-based shows. I was particularly interested in the Casey Anthony story because my career before Dr. Phil was as a litigation consultant. I dealt with trial strategy and jury selection and spent most of my life in trials and frequently in wrongful death cases. I had a lot of experience in that arena, and I watched it from a different point of view than most people.
Recently, I’ve become a grandfather for the second time, and I cannot wrap my mind around how anyone could do whatever it was that was done here. Casey was acquitted of first-degree murder, but admitted finding the baby deceased and burying her in the woods. Even for me, who is supposed to get this, it was inconceivable. A great way to try to understand it is to talk to people who have more information. The parents of Casey were the first place to start.
I think that one of the reasons they were comfortable talking to me was because they know this is a complex psychological situation where they are so con" icted between love for their daughter and love for their granddaughter, and those things seem to be in conflict. They were torn and damaged by all of that. Who better to talk to than a professional?
How do you follow that up? What are your plans to reinvent the show in its 10th year?
Every year after we finish our season, I give everyone a couple of weeks to decompress. Then we start meeting through the summer, trying to decide how we are going to reinvent ourselves for the new season, and what we can do to come up with better ways to tell our story, deliver our information, access the social issue landscape and see where we need to focus.
This year it was really a different process because this is the first season we’ll have without Oprah, and there’s a void there. There were some things that people would take to her that we will have both a need and an opportunity to do because we have a big audience and because we very much want to define ourselves as the place to have those sorts of intelligent conversations. We’ve always done books, movies, celebrities, but it’s never been a real focus of ours. We’ve done those topics if they organically arose, such as a movie or book that had a particular impact. This year, we will focus on that more than we have in the past.
Certainly things that interest me a lot are anything dealing with human functioning—individuals, families, relationships, people’s quest for success and peace in their lives. That can encompass a lot of things.
I’m a great fan of humor and satire, and I think a show like Modern Family is hugely in our wheelhouse. That show has all of these different elements of family trying to exist and get along together, and so many of us can relate to that.
Glee does a great job of focusing on bullying and the anti-gay element that kids are struggling with in school these days, so that’s a good opportunity for us.
A lot of things that people might look at on one level, I look at on a different level.
Ten years ago, we rarely saw celebrities on Dr. Phil. Do you feel more comfortable talking to celebrities today than when you started?
I hope I’m better at everything than when I started. Surely, I haven’t failed to learn in 10 years. I hope my sensitivities are better, and my ability to get to the heart of an issue has improved. I really think that if you talk about things that impact people’s lives—and that’s our formula for success—that you will reach people. We try to deliver common sense, usable information to people’s homes every day for free.
It’s give-and-take. What you get is up-close and personal focus by me and all my supporters and resources here. What we get is a teaching tool for all the people who are watching this who can’t be here. I hope I’ve gotten better at creating a takeaway for the viewer.
I don’t feel uncomfortable talking to anybody about anything. People are people.
We want to add that emphasis to what we do, but we don’t want to abandon what has been very successful for us over the last nine years. I’m one of the people who believes in the old saying—“dance with who brung ya”—and who brought us to this ball were the real people with real problems who were very sincere about finding a better way to live their lives. I think this season, our viewers will tune in and say that’s the same Dr. Phil we’ve always gotten. He tells the truth as he sees it, whether you want to hear it or not.
What does Oprah’s departure mean for the show?
You can never have someone who is such a clarion voice as Oprah. She has always been someone that spoke with a lot of gravity on the issues that she dealt with, and clearly that will be missed. There’s only been one Oprah, and there will only be one Oprah. Nobody will take her place. Some of us will just do different things to help fill the void.
Should we expect to see more of you on Oprah’s new network, OWN?
I’m certainly open to it. I’ve done a number of projects with them. Oprah’s getting ready to launch a great series starting in October with her life lessons, and I know I’ll be part of that. My show will continue to air on OWN in repeats. We’ve done a number of Ask Oprah’s All Stars, and we plan to do more of those in the future. I think it’s a great network, a great concept, and I feel very comfortable being on that air.
When you started, did you ever think you would still be doing this 10 years later?
Because I hadn’t done a show before other than being on Oprah, I never had a concept of longevity in terms of how long is a long time. In some respects, it seems like I started doing this show a few months ago. It doesn’t feel like we’ve been doing this for 10 years. Carla came on board a year before we launched the show. Executive producers typically don’t survive start-ups, but I got the best of the best and I knew it, so I hung on with a death grip.
What have you been proudest of over this past decade?
Being a career psychologist and the son of a career psychologist means that I’ve known what a stigma there is in American society about mental illness. I remember that my father would have patients who would borrow someone’s car so they could go to therapy without anyone knowing it was them. I think we’ve helped open the dialog about mental health and mental illness in America. We’ve helped make it OK to talk about emotions and mental and emotional functioning. I feel like we’ve made it OK to have an open conversation about such things as depression, suicide, marital disharmony and things of that nature. Before, people dealt with this stuff in shame.
When you have a TV show that devotes an hour a day to talking about issues, I think that’s a high and good use of television.
The country has been in recession for the past three years. Have you seen that affect topics that you talk about or people you talk to?
I have seen that in some significant and some subtle ways. If you talk to marriage and family lawyers who deal with divorce, the No.1 conflict area that they hear is money. Sex is a close second. Tighter money creates stress and trickles down into family. People start blaming each other, and they are uptight every day because they can’t buy things for the kids and pay the car payments. Bill collectors are calling, foreclosure is looming. You see an increase in domestic violence and increase in conflict, but you don’t see increase in divorce because they can’t afford it. I’ve had situations that I never would have seen nine or 10 years ago. People come to the show and say, “We’re getting a divorce but we have to keep living together. How do we do that?”
We’ve been dealing with situations of divorce under one roof, as well as adult kids coming back home to live with their parents. There’s a lot of strife and turmoil in those situations.
Do you think you’ll make it to 25 years like Oprah?
I wasn’t exactly eye candy when I started this, but high-definition television is definitely not my friend. We got a ways to go to get to 25, though.
E-mail comments to email@example.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA
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