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Dr. Phil Ties Web to TV

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Dr. Phil’s Web site is a frenzy of interactive dialog, confirming that the original idea to provide intimate conversations between the show host and his home audience was a good one.
“Our initial plan in developing the show was to have a commentary on the Web that matched the commentary on the air,” said Terry Wood, executive VP of programming for Paramount Domestic Television.
“The Web excites him. It allows people to talk back, which is something they can’t do when watching a TV show,” added Carla Pennington, the program’s executive producer, who sits in the control room with Ms. Wood and the show’s Drphil.com team during the tapings to ascertain what content should be carried over to the site. “Dr. Phil goes to the site a lot to know what people are thinking about.”
The show’s popularity is reflected in the number of hits it receives daily. While its strong and loyal audience resulted in the show’s earning a 5.6 rating and 14 share in 55 metered markets during the just completed February sweeps, the Web site has been averaging 14 million page visits a month. One day alone last month, there were 1.7 million visits to specific features on the site, according to Ms. Wood. The show raised eyebrows when it debuted Sept. 16 with a 5.2/14 in 53 metered markets. During the week of Feb. 17 it averaged a 5.9 household rating.
“When the show ends on the East Coast, we begin to see the messages arriving, and a lot of them start out, `I have never responded to a television show before,”’ Ms. Pennington said.
A primary reason the freshman show has done so well in the ratings and on the Internet is that the program is a spinoff from The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Dr. Phil, the psychologist and self-help maven, was a frequent guest for four years.
“He had a built-in fan base at Oprah.com, so we wanted to continue the dialog and bring those fans to our site,” Ms. Wood said. “The Web allows us to reach this viewer base that wants to have access to him 24 hours a day.”
The program has three parents: Harpo Productions, Ms. Winfrey’s company, which created the show; Paramount, which produces it; and King World, which handles distribution. Harriet Seitler, director of creative services at Harpo, who oversees its site, collaborated with Paramount and Dr. Phil in designing his Internet home. Carol Patrick is the show’s senior Web producer, whose staff includes two writers and one technical person. Said Ms. Pennington: “They take notes during the taping and during a post-show meeting meet with the producing team to discuss what information we feel is important to expand to the Web.”
Dr. Phil (Phillip McGraw) reads incoming e-mail, including those from people who disagree with his comments and beliefs, “Especially from experts who disagree with him,” interjected Ms. Wood. “His viewers,” Ms. Pennington said, “are very opinionated. That’s the way they interact with him. That’s how we keep our core audience, which listens and responds. We don’t ignore negatives.”
The colorful site includes Dr. Phil merchandise, books, tapes and transcripts for sale. Its icons include message boards, advice, e-mail, show ticket requests and features on that day’s installment, the previous day’s show and the all-important invitation to be a guest on the show. Content, including advice, changes every day. On a recent site, under the subject “Relationships/Sex” there was lots of advice like “Stop excusing inexcusable behavior” and “Stop fighting in front of the kids.” Related links invited entry to “Your troubled sex life” and “Getting past an affair.”
“A large number of guests are booked through the Web,” Ms. Pennington said. The process is complex and time-consuming and includes a detailed background check. A questionnaire geared to a specific show is e-mailed to the producer working on that themed stanza, who calls individuals deemed appropriate for the topic. A lengthy phone interview ensues in which the person is told there will be a lengthy background process.
Explains Ms. Pennington: “Dr. Phil looks at the transcripts of the phone conversations and can see things in the answers to questions that the producer wouldn’t catch. People have to be psychologically prepared to be on TV. He won’t approve anyone in [who is in] therapy or using psychothropic drugs. A field producer goes to the person’s home to capture a snapshot of their home life, to see if it’s the same story they’ve told in their e-mail or letter.”
Sometimes people back out, but most people “take the plunge,” as Ms. Pennington calls it, “and get their 10 to 15 minutes with Dr. Phil to focus on their problem.”
While the majority of show guests are women, the show has a crossover appeal with men that Ms. Wood said is something “that most daytime shows don’t have. Dr. Phil is a guy’s guy who women love. He knows how to relate to teens, moms and dads.”
Time slots may be playing a role in attracting men. The show is on at 3 p.m., 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Stations airing the show in prime time include KRON-TV, San Francisco, KONG-TV, Seattle, and WJXT-TV, Jacksonville, Fla. Is this evening exposure helping attract men to the Internet? “It’s hard to gauge,” Ms. Wood said, adding: “The show is creating a dialog and saying it’s OK for men to watch.” She also senses that men are apt to check out the show first on their computers, whereas women go right to the TV screen.