Who would have guessed that a psychologist from Texas would turn out to be one of daytime’s most enduring stars? Oprah Winfrey did, and in the late 1990s, in the TV industry world, that was all that mattered.
It’s well-known TV lore now, but to recap: Winfrey met Dr. Phil McGraw while he was helping with her defense against a lawsuit, commonly referred to as the Amarillo Texas Beef trial, filed by a Texas cattleman over an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show in which Winfrey discussed mad cow disease. McGraw, at the time a jury consultant and cofounder of Courtroom Sciences Inc., helped Winfrey win her case, and their working relationship took off from there.
Winfrey felt her audience needed to hear McGraw’s brand of advice and invited him to appear on her show. McGraw’s first appearance aired in April 1998, and very quickly, McGraw’s weekly appearances rose to the top of the ratings . McGraw appeared as a guest on Oprah for five years, while still running Courtroom Sciences, and enjoying life with his close-knit family in Dallas.
Throughout this run, syndicators frequently came calling, he says, trying to woo him away from Winfrey.
“Every time I got one of those calls, I would forward it on to Oprah,” McGraw says. “Right away she said, ‘If you ever want to do your own show, just tell us and we’ll do it.’ Finally, during the fourth year, I was in Chicago doing two shows and Oprah called to me from her office and said, ‘Hey dummy, come in here a minute.’
“And then Winfrey said: ‘It’s time. People want more Dr. Phil. It’s time to do your own show.’”
Before McGraw agreed, he knew he had to take the decision back to his family—his wife Robin, and sons Jay and Jordan. The family had long had an agreement that all big decisions would be made together and this was probably the biggest decision they had ever faced.
It was a no-brainer.
“I was very excited because I love change,” says Robin, McGraw’s wife of 39 years, who walks hand-in-hand with McGraw off the set at the end of every episode of Dr. Phil. “I was ready to move to California and start a new life.”
“By the end of the sentence, Robin was packing boxes,” jokes McGraw.
The McGraws’ sons also were on board. Jay already was in college, so the decision impacted him less—although Jay, now executive producer of CBS Television Distribution’s The Doctors, would become very involved with what was to become the family television business.
“What has made him successful in everything he’s done is that he doesn’t look for someone’s lead to follow but rather is that lead,” says Jay. “Whether that was creating Courtroom Sciences, which was an industry that didn’t exist, or The Dr. Phil Show, which was a TV genre that didn’t exist, he did it in a way that no one else had or will do.”
Jordan had to make a move in the middle of high school, something that many teenagers would not want to do, but Jordan, now part of successful rock band Stars in Stereo, also was all for it.
In 2002, The Dr. Phil Show—produced by Winfrey’s Harpo Productions in partnership with Paramount Television and distributed by King World Productions—debuted. Since then, no other show has come close to the ratings scored by Dr. Phil in its premiere 13 years ago.
Over the course of the show’s run, Dr. Phil has tackled lots of topics, all around the broad issue of mental health. Subjects run the gamut from relationship issues, bullying, drug abuse and addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, suicide and all forms of mental illness. In recent years, Dr. Phil also has had success with ripped-from-the-headlines interviews, such as this year’s season opener with Michelle Wilkins, whose baby was cut from her womb by attacker Dynel Lane last March.
Making mental health a more accessible topic is one of the things McGraw is most proud of when talking about his show.
“I think we’ve contributed to a shift in the American narrative about mental illness and mental health,” says McGraw, 65. “When we started, there was no show on television, and there still isn’t, that was totally devoted to mental health and mental illness. People used to be ashamed if they were in therapy or diagnosed with mental illness. We’ve talked about these issues in an informed and respectful way.”
Since the show’s start, it’s been executive produced by Carla Pennington. Pennington and Robin make sure McGraw stays focused on issues and stories that are most interesting to women, who make up Dr. Phil’s core audience.
Pennington says that while McGraw has gotten more comfortable in front of the camera since the show’s start, he’s always been a natural. “You cannot lie to Dr. Phil,” she says. “He knows how to interview people. He knows how to ask the right questions. That skill set has never changed at all.
“I’ve worked in television for a long time and he’s definitely the easiest and one of the most talented hosts I’ve ever worked with. He has an incredible work ethic. He puts his heart, soul and passion behind every episode and every guest. His connection with viewers is unparalleled.”
Since Winfrey departed syndicated television in May 2011, Dr. Phil has been daytime’s top-rated talk show. McGraw doesn’t seem to be slowing the pace.
Says CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, “Phil is an important part of the CBS family and a major force in daytime television. His commanding talent on the screen and his vision behind the scenes have built a program franchise enjoyed by large audiences for many years. He’s a hall-of-famer in TV, publishing and business, and we’re proud to have him on our team.”