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
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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 “the show of record in the world of health and wellness.” 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. “Ultimately this is a show about you, for you, starring you,” 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, “[It] isn't locked off at 30 Rock,” Borman says.

“We want to bring the whole country into the show and the show to the whole country,” Borman says. “We're working on big events to get to people who can't get to us.” And in the studio, she adds, the audience “will be asked to participate in ways they haven't been asked to participate in TV before.” 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, and—I am not exaggerating—every 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, “Ooh, it's like Charmin toilet paper.” 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 out—by talking to people—what 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 “truth tube” 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.

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