Mel's Diner: Advantage, McGraw

The top-rated talk-show host talks tennis, the ‘O’ factor, why he’s landing more newsmaker interviews and the one thing his latest ‘get’ inspired him to never, ever do again

mgrego@nbmedia.com | @melissagrego

THE DISH: Over lunch on a patio at his mountaintop estate in Beverly Hills, Calif., Dr. Phil McGraw says he made a decision since his latest “get” interview: He will never, ever complain again. About anything.

The get — kidnapping survivor Michelle Knight — will mark the first time any of the three women who survived a decade-long captivity in a house in Cleveland speaks about her experience. (The other two survivors announced recently they are writing a book.) The Dr. Phil episode is scheduled to premiere Nov. 5 and will air over two days.

With his rescued Korean Jindo dog, Maggie, perpetually by his side (she goes to the studio — and around the world — with him), McGraw explains how affecting the interview was. “I remember walking out of there and looking at Carla [Pennington], my executive producer who was out there with me, and said, ‘I will never complain about a goddamn thing in my life ever again,’” McGraw recalls. “I will never complain about my knee hurting. I will not complain if I don’t feel good tomorrow. God, what a bunch of whiners we must look like to someone who has been through and survived what she’s been through.”

It’s Friday afternoon, and indeed life is good for McGraw, whose Dr. Phil is in its 12th year — it will hit 2,000 episodes this season — and ranks as syndication’s top-rated talk show. Season-to-date, Dr. Phil’s ratings are steady with last year, averaging a 3.0 live-plus-sameday household rating and a 1.7 in daytime’s key demographic of women 25-54, as of the week ended Oct. 13, according to Nielsen.

Shortly after lunch, McGraw will play his daily 4:30 p.m. tennis game on the clay court he built at his home.

A longtime tennis enthusiast, McGraw plays regularly with people working in media such as Twentieth Television president Greg Meidel, Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon, former Viacom and Universal CEO Frank Biondi and Kirk Fox, who hosts CTD’s The Test, from his son Jay McGraw’s production company. The pros also come to play (read: Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick, John Isner and Tommy Haas). “All the top tennis players in the world, when they’re in L.A., particularly in the spring when they’re getting ready for France, they come here and work out,” McGraw says.

Before his doubles partners arrive, the tell-it-like-it-is talk show host insists he hates confrontation. He also discusses his relationship these days with Oprah Winfrey and why he thinks he has the advantage in landing the big newsmaker interviews. Edited highlights of the lunch interview follow.

What’s your [tennis] playing style?

I guess my idea of finesse is, get a bigger hammer. I like to hit the ball really hard.

So you’re pretty competitive?

Yeah, we have a pretty competitive group…. We’re playing doubles and your partner floats a short one at the net, you better dodge and hedge because you’re going to get hit. They will peg you. It’s like you get extra points. It’s a bounty.

Has your ‘get real’ approach toward your guests and the show evolved? Have you become emboldened over time, to be more forthright with what you see as the truth? Or were you just never shy?

Well, it’s a bit of a paradox to tell you the truth. Personally, I hate confrontation.

Dr. Phil just told me, ‘Personally, I hate confrontation.’ I don’t believe it.

It’s true.

That’s what you do every day on television: confront people.

Yeah, but I’m basically very shy….I grew up in a highly chaotic and combative home. Yelling. Screaming. Breaking. Crashing. So much so [that] in junior high…the vast majority of the time I came and went through [my bedroom] window. I came home from school, I go through the window into my room. I get up in the morning, leave for school, I go out the window because I didn’t want to go in there. I remember sitting in my room thinking, ‘Surely I was mixed up at the hospital. These cannot be my people.’ Just. Chaos. Yelled at. My dad was a horrible alcoholic. So you throw that in the mix. I just hated it. I hated confrontation….If we went to dinner, you were having trouble with your son or husband, and asked us at dinner, you and seven others, I would be the seventh one to offer an opinion. I don’t volunteer.

People I talk to write in and ask for help. I do not stop people on Melrose and jump their ass. That’s not what I do. When [someone is on the show], it’s because they wrote in and said, ‘We know you. We watch the show. We know who you are. We need somebody to sort this out for us. We need somebody to stop mincing words.’

I just think that if people need to go to all that trouble [of writing in and getting on the show], they deserve the truth as I see it. And I tell them, ‘Look. I’m going to tell you what I think. If you agree with it, embrace it. If you don’t, then you’re no worse off than when you got here.’ I don’t think I have every answer to every question in the world. But we do our homework, and we have an advisory board that will just knock your eyes out.

You are known for approaching interviews with skepticism. Not pulling punches. Yet you’ve been getting a lot of these bigget newsmakers lately on the show. Why do you think people are coming to you, knowing that you are going to make them tell the truth?

I think there’s two reasons. No. 1, they know I’m not an ambush interviewer….If I’m going to interview you, I’ll tell you everything I’m going to ask you before I ask you. I may disagree with you. But I’m going to treat you with dignity and respect.

Most importantly, think about this: Let’s say you’re in a crisis. You’re accused of something. Or you’re involved in some controversy or scandal or whatever and you want to get your story out. Then you need to talk to somebody that will ask you the hard questions. I will ask you the relevant questions, but will give you the opportunity to respond.

I think I have an advantage. Each person has their long suit or their advantage. But I’m the only person in the media that does these interviews that is also a career mental health professional. I think that’s an important credential. You’re talking to somebody that understands captivity. Brainwashing. Emotional scars. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder]. Trauma. Versus somebody that’s just reading questions that their producer wrote.

We’re also able to get more of those interviews than we could three years ago because at the time [The] Oprah [Winfrey Show] was on the air and [Oprah] had a bigger audience, and certainly had established the credibility in doing interviews that we’ve now established. So, we’re able to book some stories that probably we would have lost to Oprah before because she had a bigger audience and was on the air. Now, we have the biggest audience. We now have created where people go, ‘Oh, yeah, he is the right guy to talk to.’ So that’s allowed us to do more of that than we had done before.

What’s your relationship with Oprah like today?

She’s just a doll. She’s one of my best friends. There’s a lot of things that she and I can talk about that she can’t really talk about with anybody else because she’s been there. She’s done that.

She created Dr. Phil. There was no Dr. Phil before her. You cannot underestimate the ‘O’ factor. Do people watch me now because I was on Oprah then? Probably not. But I wouldn’t be here to watch if I hadn’t been on Oprah then.