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
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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.

Your Michelle Knight interview is scheduled to air in multiple parts. Why?

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Because it takes that much to tell the story. You have no idea the complexity and layers of this story. It is a sobering, sobering story, and it’s a story of survival and courage and strength….It is a cautionary tale about exposure and how easily we can be taken. It is an inspirational tale in terms of the spirit to survive and live. And it is an intriguing tale about what happened behind closed doors in a neighborhood where people were as close to her as you are to me and had no idea what was going on. She wants to tell her story, and we’re proud to help her do it. It was very cathartic for her because she had never spoken about this. She blows up a lot of myths.

You're going to tape your 2,000th episode in this, your 12th season. So, let's talk about how things have evolved and where you're taking it. What stands out as your favorite topics?

I was on the phone with [CTD president of sales] Joe DeSalvo yesterday, talking about... ‘Wow, it's been 12 years. Do you remember the first interview we did to sell the show?' ... I said one of the things I want to do is talk about the silent epidemics in America....I want to talk about the things that you don't talk about in polite society. I want to talk about the things that erode our people, our lives. But they're not the disease du jour and that includes things like domestic violence, child abuse, child molestation, prescription drug addiction. These things that are silent but really undercut our lives. ...It's interesting that that's the first thing I said, the first question I was asked about the show. Twelve years later that's exactly what I love doing. I knew that moment what I wanted to do. ...

There's something about people I really believe. And I bet you'll agree to this when you hear it and never thought about it in this way. Don't you know the truth when you hear it?...I said this on the show for the first time just the other day. It became clear to me. There were so many people that I worked with [in private psychology practice] that never knew they were depressed until they weren't.

If you've never ridden in anything but a ‘58 Volkswagen, you never know the difference until you get in a new Cadillac. Then you go, ‘Wow. Okay. I've been riding around in a broken-down life.'

Do you see that as the mission of your show-to help people see the truth about the silent epidemics they don't realize they're a part of?

I think we've really raised the dialogue. I think we've really raised awareness about mental illness, about just human functioning in general. There's still a real stigma to mental illness. There's still a real stigma to depression, anxiety and certainly neurosis and psychosis. I think we've gone in the direction of making it okay to talk about that. It's part of life.

Let's talk about that outreach that you do: The follow-up care. A lot of people would say, ‘That episode's done. Thank you very much.' They don't feel responsible.

That's what everybody does.

Why do you feel compelled to make that investment?

Well, because I've never been under the misapprehension that I'm doing 15-minute cures up there. I've never believed that. I try to be an emotional compass. I try to point people in a direction and give them a big boost and start, a wake-up call. And then I feel like, you've done that. You've enlightened them. You've given them the truth. You see it. They understand it. The problem has been identified. Now help them with it. You can't do it here. But send them home and get them help with it.

How much of an investment have you made so far?

In terms of the services that we provide, in terms of hours of therapy, commitments to rehab programs or mental health facilities or financial counselors, or whatever it's taken, it's a little more than $21 million over the last 11 years.

But I think it's a responsible thing to do.

Dr. Phil is the NO. 1 syndicated talk show now, renewed through 2017. Back in 2009, you and your partners made some changes. I understand you renegotiated the licensing fee deals with the stations and you took back the license fee a bit. Right?

I don't think about it that way. The economy crashed about then. ... It crashed for the stations where all of a sudden their ad revenue is dropping 70%, 80%. So they went into loss mode and they came and said, ‘Can you help us here?'

And I said, ‘Absolutely. This is a partnership. We're in this together. So if you need relief based on what we're all seeing the realities are, we're in this for the long haul. So, of course.' And we did and they could not have been more appreciative. When it came time to renew the show, they said, ‘Absolutely. You bet. We're good to go.'

Look, when you're in syndication like I am and you own a show like I do it is a partnership. It's a joint venture. You can't say, ‘Well, you made a deal with me when the economy was here and now you've laid off 60% of your staff and you're going to have to keep paying me the same thing.' That's not right. I said, ‘No. Of course I will help.' And I did. It's all come out in the wash long-term and we have great relationships with them.

Are you glad you made the decisions you did with them at that time?

Of course. Very much so. And we'd do it again. Let me tell you. Not everybody did, and they have very long memories.

In terms of there being a dip in the ratings for a period of time, we spend every year in the summer reinventing ourselves and coming up with better ways to tell our stories and deliver our messages. Some things work better than others.

I think we got into a period of time where our promos didn't represent what the show was. We had that problem for a year and we fixed that and I think the promos got too sensational, too salacious. I didn't watch that close enough. When I did attend to it, we changed it and everything's right back where it's always been.

This is certainly not exactly the same situation as your show in 2009, but there's some speculation that Katie Couric might have to consider taking a pay cut in order to bring down the license fee for the show and make it work for their partners. What advice would you give or have you given to Katie?

Katie's a really good friend of mine. We met through the media with her interviewing me way back 15, 16 years ago. But we have become friends outside of all of that and I like Katie. She's terrific. She's hilarious. She's got a great sense of humor. She's got a great energy. She's a great mother. I think the world of her and I think if she wants to continue doing this she'll figure out a way.

If she wants to go back to kind of more pure journalism, who wouldn't want Katie Couric to do that? I think the options are hers and she's just going to have to decide if this is what she wants to do or she wants to do something else. If she decides this is what she wants to do, then she'll find a way to do it. And I'll support her either way she goes.

Tell me about this tennis court. Was the site here intended as a tennis court?

Yeah, they intended a tennis court. In fact, they had the fences and the lights up. But it was just dirt. And they finished all the stairways down to the tennis courts. So there was no way to get all the equipment down there. They landlocked themselves without thinking. And I put in a clay court.

You've got to have tractors and all that stuff. So, some engineer came up with that it was going to cost $80,000 to build a conveyor belt to get all the materials and stuff down there. I grew up poor. So, I got a couple of my guys. We went to Home Depot and bought a couple of 4 X 8 sheets of plywood, leaned them against the wall by the court and we proceeded to dump 250 tons of the building materials over the fence. And it fell down and hit the ground. It cost me $28 instead of $80,000. But I dumped 250 tons of building materials over that fence to build that court.

You started out as a media phenomenon as opposed to working through the local television world like Oprah did. You really were shot out of that Oprah cannon. What was that like? What's it been adjusting to that over the years?

It depends on how you look at it. Everybody likes to hear a rags-to-riches story. But I was very financially blessed and professionally blessed before I started doing the Oprah show. So my lifestyle didn't really change much other than being highly recognizable.

But I think the biggest thing is I feel like I spent five years in the Oprah University. I did more shows than anybody has ever done on Oprah besides Oprah. She works to a platinum standard. So television-wise I grew up in that environment and I represented her for a couple years before I did the show and really studied her organization for that reason. I knew her editorial policies. I knew her promo policies. I knew their distribution policies. I knew their booking policies. Everything.

You knew what it was like to exist in that world.

Yeah, because I had to defend it. She was under attack and everybody talks about the mad cow case but I've defended her in a number of cases. So, I really knew how much they worked to get it right. So you kind of grow up in that.

I came from the litigation world although the psychological side of it. But I lived in court; mostly Federal court. Some state. But it's very exacting. It's very precise. Then I defended her and saw how they did everything. And so when I started to do my own show, I came in with a set of experiences and expectations that were probably different to what you would typically bring to the table.

I remember when we were going to start we were going to tape our first show it was like at 10 o'clock, and I show up over there at 10 o'clock and half the people in the control room weren't there. The stage wasn't ready. They were still doing stuff. I said, ‘What the hell? We were starting at 10 o'clock.'

They said, ‘They're still bringing some tapes over.' I said, ‘No. No. No.' We got through that day and I said, ‘Look guys. We're going to run this like a business.' And a lot of people resisted that in the beginning. For the first couple of weeks. And then they said, ‘It's 12:30 and we're done? Are you shitting me?'

So, like a lot of our cameramen and technical people could now go work on Jimmy Kimmel or Jay Leno or the NBA game or this or that. So they're getting double dips in the day because they know this guy is going to show up. They're going to do this pretty close to real time. We're going to be out of here and we can count on it.

So all of a sudden everybody got real excited about it and behind it. For example, I've got seven cameras. It's 12 years later and I've got the same seven cameramen I had on day one. I have the same stage manager I had day one. I've got the same EP I had day one.

Do you think you get a bad rap?

In what area?

Given that you were pretty much immediately a celebrity. You're exact with your production. Perhaps because you're on TV not pulling punches. Do you feel that you are more scrutinized than others who might do or say the same thing? Or is that just part of being a famous and fortunate guy?

[The day of B&C's interview, a story on Grantland.com about McGraw's college football experiences described him as "Dr. Phil, the one of daytime TV and empowerment bullying and driving-instructor authority-baldness and Oprah and mustaches that were already endangered back when he shot them in peat swamps."]

No. I do. I always tell people, ‘If I'm involved in a project, there's good news and bad news. The good news is: It's going to get a lot of attention. The bad news is: It's going to get a lot of attention.'

Scandal sells, right? You used to talk about the news and say, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.' That's evolved some. But you never see a newscast that says, ‘I'm down at Third and Elm today where absolutely nothing happened.' That isn't what people are going to respond to. They're going to respond to, ‘Oh, we caught this city supervisor on city time going to a movie.' They've got to show some scandal in there. I think that's just kind of nature of media. Particularly now this Internet media where there's virtually no accountability.

So people sometimes take cheap shots and they take relevant cheap shots. Like for me the story that's gone on for 15 years is that I'm getting a divorce. Now I can show you 50 tabloid stories that say I'm getting a divorce, that say it's a house of horrors that [McGraw's wife] Robin lives in with an abusive husband.

How does that make you feel?

It irritates you. But I don't read them anymore. It gets to the point where they're kind of like the guy standing on the corner with the tattered sign that says, ‘The world will end today.' Well, the sign's always current because it's always today. But it's beaten and worn because he's been out there for 13 years holding the sign.

After a while, it got to where, they're getting to be embarrassed. We've been married 37 years. So then the story evolves to he's paid her off to stay with him and he bought her this house and she lives in one wing and he lives in the other to keep her quiet. Do you see any wings on this house? There aren't any wings on this house.

So what's the biggest misconception about you or your show?

Throughout the years, most people who criticize the Dr. Phil show have never seen it. They just see a promo or they read a tabloid or something. They've never actually sat down and watched the show. I've read accounts of people saying, ‘Well, I don't think the show's a good idea.' ‘Have you ever watched it?' ‘Uh, no. Not personally. But I kind of have a sense of what it is.'

‘Really? Are you aware that they have a credible, blue ribbon advisory board that vets the stories and they rely on evidence-based theories?' ‘No. I didn't know that.'

‘They have an aftercare program for all the guests?' ‘No. I didn't know that.'

‘Really? Are you aware that they compile a book of information on every guest instead of just shooting from the hip?' ‘No. I didn't know that.'

‘Are you aware that they do an intake interview with a cross-sectional history, a longitudinal history, a medical history, marital history, educational history?' ‘No. No. No. No. No.'

‘Are you aware that they never book a guest that's currently in therapy unless they contact that therapist, explain what the show is about and get their written permission to do so? They will not book a guest in therapy without their written permission.' ‘No. I didn't know that.'

‘Oh. Well, shut up.'

Look, I'm not for everybody. I know that. Some people like me and my style. Some people don't. That's what you've got a remote for.

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