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Producer Fine-Tunes Talk Shows

Carla Pennington, executive producer of “The Doctors” and “Dr. Phil,” has a ratings triumph and concern on her plate. On the one hand, CBS Television Distribution’s “The Doctors” is steadily marching upward in its ratings since its premiere in September. While NBC Universal’s “Deal or No Deal” is leading the first-run daily freshman pack in terms of ratings, “Doctors” has shown more improvement than “Deal.”

On the other hand, “Phil” is showing troubling declines, off 28% from last year in household ratings, leading some syndication insiders to question where the declines are coming from. TelevisionWeek reporter Andrew Krukowski sat down with Ms. Pennington to talk about “The Doctors’” success and “Dr. Phil’s” stumble, along with fan favorites and some embarrassing medical questions.

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TelevisionWeek: Have you been surprised by the start of “The Doctors”?

Carla Pennington: I wasn’t surprised over the success of “The Doctors”—I knew going in that it wasn’t going to do gangbuster numbers like a “Dr. Phil” launch six years ago, well, it was seven years ago now. I knew it was going to take a little bit of time to grow the number.

If you look at the climate that we were in when we launched, there was a huge distraction in the country. The Olympics were going on, then we had the election, the fear over the economy, and so people were distracted. We didn’t get the normal promotion a launch show would get. So I knew it was going to take some time to grow the number.

TVWeek: Now in terms of the growing that you’re talking about, the show started at a 1.3 household rating and then it’s grown 46%.

Ms. Pennington: Isn’t that great? (laughs)

TVWeek: [CBS Television Distribution president] John Nogawski spoke at our Syndication Roundtable and said that you guys took a look at the 15-minute breakdowns in order to kind of see where the problem areas are in the show.

Ms. Pennington: Correct.

TVWeek: What kind of tweaks have you made to “The Doctors” between the launch and now?

Ms. Pennington: I study the overnights like crazy. So I will look at a topic that resonated. I will look at the click of the quarter-hours. So when did they tune out? OK, they got a little bored during that particular topic or story. What was great about the show is it really was only minor tweaks. It was minor content tweaks.

We happened to notice that the “Ask Our Doctors” segment did very, very well. Multiple topics did well. We started to have a longer first segment. So a first segment would go maybe 16, 17 minutes and then we would go to break. That helps as well.

But I noticed that the more demonstration, the more visual we were, the better off the show was. More graphics, more props, more demonstration. You’re going to talk about a heart—let’s see the heart. You’re going to talk about someone’s ailing lung, let’s see it. Let’s see how medicine works inside the body.

So I think that that’s really helped and we attract a broader audience now because we cover so many more topics. But it was really not a struggle. It was actually very easy tweaks. I think our doctors have a good rapport. They have become more and more comfortable on the set, you know, because we took doctors who are normally in a practice and put them in front of a television camera. And so they had to get used to that, and I think they’ve done a really good job connecting with the viewers as well.

TVWeek: You say you’re looking at a broader base of topics. Was there a topic that was off-limits during the launch that is now considered fair game?

Ms. Pennington: Nothing was thrown out; we just added to it. We did more per hour is really what it is. So there’s something for everyone.

TVWeek: More topics?

Ms. Pennington: More topics per hour, exactly. You’d have something for a worried mom, something for a woman who is aging, something for a wife whose husband has a prostate problem, whatever. I’m making these things up, but something for everyone, basically. And I will tell you that one of the highest-rated shows that we’ve done is “Ask Our Doctors” most embarrassing questions, because it’s very apparent that people tune in hoping that something they’re worried about will be answered on the show, and it really has resonated with the viewers.

TVWeek: Is that a consistent segment?

Ms. Pennington: We will do it on a regular basis. We will probably do “Ask Our Doctors” even more. It’s like you ask for it, we’re going to bring it to you. People want their questions answered in a lively fashion and that’s what we’re gonna do. So you’ll probably see more of that.

TVWeek: More embarrassing questions?

Ms. Pennington: There’s always an embarrassing question. I have a few myself. I mean more “Ask Our Doctors.” Not always embarrassing questions, but more of that format, which seems to really work.

TVWeek: Is there a doctor who has become a fan favorite?

Ms. Pennington: That’s a good question. Not really. They have sort of equal time. The young moms love [Dr. Jim] Sears. We call him Mikey, because he’s the one who will try things out on the set where the other doctors don’t. We wrapped him up one day in like a mummy suit and had him jumping on a trampoline to see if some weight-loss thing worked. So we call him Mikey. Viewers like him because they think he’s more accessible. They like [Dr. Drew] Ordon. He’s the seasoned surgeon. … Obviously Travis [Stork] is easy on the eyes, so we get those kind of fan letters, but it’s pretty equal.

TVWeek: Has there been any discussions about swapping out talent somewhere down the line, a la “The View”?

Ms. Pennington: Sure, sure. I think what we’ve done already somewhat and we will continue to do is we have a rotating fifth chair. So we’ll have a visiting doctor on, there’s five chairs, there’s plenty of room at the table for an additional doctor. So we will do that. We’ve had our favorites already back again and again. We’ve got a dermatologist we use quite a bit. We’ve got Dr. Dorfman—he’s a dentist basically—but we will have these sort-of regulars that come on the show a lot. And we actually did something very interesting that you’ll see come January. We kicked all the guys off the set and [Dr.] Lisa [Masterson] invited women doctors on. And it was hysterical. So yeah, we’re going to invite other doctors in. Nobody will ever [be removed] unless they leave the show, but we’ll allow others to be on the show as well to add their expertise.

TVWeek: Can you talk a little bit about marketing tie-ins? “The Doctors” has a very large association with CVS Pharmacy.

Ms. Pennington: Correct.

TVWeek: Can you talk about how that’s been going for you?

Ms. Pennington: I think it’s been going very, very well. We’ve got one with Welch’s as well. It’s sort of a natural for the show. We try to be very informative with medical information. It’s quite easy, a no-brainer to produce, because our doctors are so good at relaying the information. CVS seems very happy. It’s a win-win situation. I think the show itself is very advertiser-friendly, so we’re lucky in that department.

TVWeek: Is there any talk of increasing the amount of advertising in the show?

Ms. Pennington: No, not really.

TVWeek: Now you kind of have the market cornered currently within the medical talk genre, but next season “Dr. Oz” is launching.

Ms. Pennington: Right.

TVWeek: Is there concern, or is there enough room in the town for both of you?

Ms. Pennington: That’s a good expression because yes, there’s definitely enough room for both. I think there’s absolutely no concern, it’s more of a welcoming. You know, when you look at the judge shows, I don’t even know how many there are now, it has never affected “Judge Judy.” I think that there’s definitely room for two medical shows or more. I think that the country is hungry for this information. So we welcome it. I love a challenge.

TVWeek: Anything else that you want to add about “The Doctors”?

Ms. Pennington: No, I’m very proud of how the show is produced. I think it’s entertaining and yet informative, and I think that there’s much more we can do with it. So for me as a producer, I love to grow the show. I love to come up with new ideas. There’s so much you can do with these four medical doctors. So I’m very pleased so far with how the show is going. When I go home, I go out in the real world, people really talk about the show. They say how much they enjoy it, how much they watch it, how much they learn from it, and that makes me feel good.

TVWeek: “Dr. Phil” is in its seventh season?

Ms. Pennington: Yes.

TVWeek: What were the big changes that you saw this season in comparison to last, to keep it fresh?

Ms. Pennington: That’s a challenge for any show that’s been on the air a while, to keep it fresh. This season we really wanted to get back to basics. When you look at where we are right now, I’m going to say this again, but it’s so important to know where the viewers are right now in this country. And we really need to remain relevant. And I think the goal for Phil—he’s very passionate about it—he sees the fear in people, now that you’re going to see more divorce, more suicide, more child abuse, sadly, from the stress that people are going through. So our goal this season is really to remain as relevant and important as possible and try to help people. That’s really important to him this year.

TVWeek: Now compared with last year, it seems like “Dr. Phil” has hit a little bit of a bump in terms of year-to-year ratings. He’s down 28%. What do you think is the reason for the decline? I understand the majority of the shows are down.

Ms. Pennington: Sure. Because I was going to say that, definitely, Andrew. It’s not really a problem with the “Dr. Phil” show, it’s really a problem with the industry. If you look at daytime, I think it’s like 10 or 11 shows are down year-to-year. Do I look at the ratings? Absolutely. Do I want us to do well? Absolutely, that’s my job. But I can’t run in fear of a number on a day-to-day basis. I mean, we’re doing quality shows, the content is growing. I think some of our guests are even more interesting, better. We’re doing topics that are more relatable. Of course we pay attention to it, but I keep my eye on the ball, the content that I bring to the viewers.

When you look at it, yeah, I’m going to admit, of course we’re down. We’re down year-to-year. Do I like it? No. I’m a fighter, I’m a winner, I’m competitive, but I look at it really as again the nature of this business right now. And you can’t complain, we’ve been No. 2, the No. 2 talk show for 323 weeks in a row, so I’m not going to boo-hoo-hoo that one. But I am going to keep concentrated on what the stations want, what the viewers want, and just bring in the quality product.

TVWeek: Has there been any discussions of tweaks from the start of the season to now? Is there any kind of finagling for “Phil”?

Ms. Pennington: No, I think it’s “stay the course.” I think it really is with Phil, it’s wanting to—I’m going to bring it back to that again, just relevant content in an entertaining way. I mean we’re not here to teach. We’re here to inform and entertain people, but we’re not going to start bringing out the clowns and having him dance the rumba at the top of the show, he’s not going to fly in from the ceiling. Nothing big, no major tweaks, because that’s not what’s necessary. I think what’s necessary is to continue what we’re doing and just have people realize he’s there for you.

TVWeek: OK. Is there anything else you want to add about “Dr. Phil”?

Ms. Pennington: Well, it’s going to be an interesting ’09 because, you know, there’s not really going to be a February sweep. We’re going to be sort of looking at March and then 29 days later doing the mini-sweep, so it’s kind of nose to the grindstone and …

TVWeek: Any big sweep plans?

Ms. Pennington: I cannot reveal. No, we’ve got some things planned. Yeah. We always do. But we try to have good content every day. But yeah, we’ve got some things going for sure.

Comments (1)

Peggy W. Larson, DVM, MS, JD:

One of the doctors on your "The Doctors" TV show advised soon to be pregnant women to get rid of their cats because of a possible infection with Toxoplasmosis. Most veterinarians will tell you that pregnant women can and do co-exist with cats. They merely wear gloves when cleaning the litter box or have another family member do it.

Unfortunately this erroneous advice could result in many healthy cats losing their homes unnecessarily. Pet overpopulation is a national disaster and this doctor does not need to add to the problem.

Please retract this erroneous and ignorant statement. Have a veterinarian appear on your show and discuss the issue.

Peggy W. Larson, DVM, MS, JD
Williston, VT

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