A Talk Show Producer Who Walks the Walk - Broadcasting & Cable

A Talk Show Producer Who Walks the Walk

'Dr. Phil' EP Pennington brings creativity, dogged determination to her job
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Carla Pennington’s road to becoming a producer was nearly as steadfast as she is: She studied broadcast journalism in college and got a job as a production assistant at ABC affiliate KGO SanFrancisco before she even graduated. She was producing a local afternoon show on CBS affiliate KPIX San Francisco by the time she was 24, and she has never looked back.

Beyond her early years, Pennington is one of those rare people who have worked for the same employer—Paramount, now CBS—for nearly her entire career. After those two producing gigs, she moved down to Los Angeles to become bureau chief for the nationally syndicated PM Magazine. That’s where she met Linda Bell Blue, a supervising producer on the show.

Bell Blue was so impressed that when Hard Copy came calling in 1989, she told Paramount that she wouldn’t take the job unless they took Pennington, too. On Bell Blue’s word, Paramount named Pennington senior producer. Bell

Blue and Pennington share the blonde good looks of an anchor, along with the knowledge of what they each saw their professional destinies to be. “I always wanted to be the one calling the shots,” says Pennington, whose only on-air spot happened by accident when Bell Blue forced her to stand in for an anchor who had missed her plane. “I was petrified,” Pennington recalls.

The pair spent five years at Hard Copy before moving together to a new opportunity in 1994: Entertainment Tonight. Again, Bell Blue issued her edict—“I won’t come without Carla”—and again, Pennington made the switch.

“I remember we walked in the door for that interview, and it was the day that Hugh Grant had been caught with Divine Brown, and that story wasn’t even on their lineup. Linda and I just looked at each other,” says Pennington. “We finish each other’s sentences, and we make each other laugh.”

“Carla Pennington was built to live in a pressure- cooker, built to produce television,” says Bell Blue, who remains executive producer of ET and The Insider. “She has the true inner strength and creative mind to keep everyone and everything moving forward day after day, season after season. She goes to sleep thinking about her shows and wakes up thinking about them. And, at the end of day, she runs on her treadmill at level 9 and all she eats is egg whites. Now that’s superhuman. That’s my friend Carla.”

Over the next seven years, the tandem turned ET into the newsy program it is today. And as coexecutive producer of ET Weekend, Pennington simultaneously evolved that program into one that focused more on celebrity profiles than straight news stories.

The dynamic duo was finally broken up by a man: Dr. Phil McGraw.

In 2002, another powerful woman arrived at Paramount—Terry Wood, who came to the studio after working at CBS News and Harpo Entertainment Group. Wood was quick to spot Pennington’s potential and experience and asked her if she would be interested in “throwing her hat in the ring to produce” the syndicator’s next big project: Dr. Phil, which was being spun out of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“I hadn’t even updated my resume in 13 years, but off I went to Chicago,” Pennington says. “My first interview in 13 years was with Oprah Winfrey, Phil McGraw and three Paramount executives. But I got the job.”

Raising her hand to run Dr. Phil was a big move for Pennington. After coming from a pure news background, she was taking on talk and its much different rhythm. But she immediately understood what McGraw was about.

“I always thought he was amazing on Tuesdays with Oprah,” she says. “I thought he had a lot of chutzpah and that he could really tell it like it is. I was very impressed with that, probably because I’m like that, too. He knows what he wants, he knows how he wants it, and I can deliver that for him. If you don’t have a talent you believe in, you shouldn’t be doing that show.”

“Carla was my first hire when I started The Dr. PhilShow and she’s been a rock solid leader from day one,” says McGraw. “She leads the group with passion and integrity. She’s incredibly creative, knows our viewing audience and there is no one on the planet that is going to out-work her. I can’t imagine taking this journey of now 10 seasons without Carla Pennington.”

Over the years, Pennington has produced programs on everything from “Dr. Phil’s Weight-Loss Challenge” to “Dr. Phil’s Real Housewives.” The ratings have ebbed and flowed, but Dr. Phil is currently on an upswing. And the show has been the second-highest rated syndicated daytime talker since its 2002 debut. “The more topics we produce that Phil has a passion for, the more it shows in his enthusiasm,” says Pennington.

Pennington’s next big challenge is taking Dr. Phil from second place to first. With Oprah ending after this season, that opportunity looms. “Our hope is to be on track to take over the No. 1 position—that would be beyond thrilling for me and my staff,” says Pennington.

In 2008, Pennington also became the executive producer of The Doctors, created and executive produced by Phil’s son, Jay. “Carla has not only been a mentor to me, but she’s also a good friend,” says Jay McGraw. “When we launched The Doctors, she was there with great advice, recommendations and the voice of experience guiding us along the way. When Carla’s on your team, you can’t help but be successful.”

Overseeing two shows might be too much for most, but it’s the way Pennington likes it. “I love what I do,” she says. “I am honestly one of the luckiest women in television.”

E-mail comments to palbiniak@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

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