Q&A: Dr. Phil’s Prescription for Syndication Success

Dec 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

It’s hard to believe that 2008 will mark 10 years since Dr. Phil McGraw made his first appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” He soon transformed Tuesday afternoons when he became a regular weekly guest on the show. Then when his own show debuted in 2002 it was an immediate hit, demonstrating to the syndication business the value of incubating a personality in an established show and then creating a spinoff.
The formula also worked for Rachael Ray. Now Dr. Phil and CBS Television Distribution hope lightning will strike yet again when they roll out “The Doctors” next fall.
Dr. Phil and his son Jay McGraw, who is co-executive producing the new show along with his dad, sat down Dec. 4 with TelevisionWeek Editorial Director Chuck Ross at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to discuss plans for “The Doctors” as part of TVWeek’s annual Syndication Roundtable. Here is the full transcript of that discussion.
TVWeek: Dr. Phil, you’ve been on the ground floor of what is being called incubation—you started with Oprah Winfrey and then spun off your own show. I wonder if you could remind us how you first met Oprah and how it led to appearances on her show—and how that led to the decision that maybe you’d like your own show.
Dr. Phil McGraw: I had worked for a long time as a litigation consultant. We had a trial science firm, actually called CSI—it was before the series. I probably should have sued them over that. But now they’re family, so I can’t. But we represented a lot of individuals and corporations in litigation. I had a particular interest in the First Amendment. And when Oprah was sued in the mad-cow case in Amarillo, we had just finished working with ABC, “20/20” and Diane Sawyer in the Food Lion case and through all of that we got contacted by Harpo to work on that case.
So I worked with Oprah for about two years leading up to that trial and then we all, the whole trial team, lived together in a bed-and-breakfast in Amarillo during the two months of the trial. And so we got to know each other very, very well and she asked me to come and be on the show and talk about different things, which I did. We were going to do it like one time and, as the old saying goes, the rest is history. I think I may have done more Oprah shows than anybody except Oprah.
During that time … a lot of people were coming, different production companies and networks, saying you need to have your own show. And each time I would share that with her, we’d talk about it. She said if you ever want to do your own show, just let me know, because we’ll be happy to do it. And I never did broach that subject. But one day she stopped me between shows and said, “Look, you need to do your own show. I mean look at the mail, look at the response, look at the requests. You’ve got more to say than a day a week. You need to do your own show.” And so the evolution began at that point. We got involved with Terry Wood and Paramount Pictures … and it started the whole layout of the “Dr. Phil” show. And we’re now in our sixth season.
I can tell you that there is no more important factor in the evolution of the “Dr. Phil” show than the time I spent on the “Oprah” show.
TVWeek: When did you decide to start using other doctors in your show?
Dr. Phil: The content on my show was really decided by the viewers. We have a Web site, of course. We stay in contact with our viewers and we sometimes get over 40 million page views a month on that Web site. Most of our guests come to us through the Web site, and so we respond to that content. Oftentimes there are family issues, psychological issues, but there are oftentimes medical issues as well because so many of the things that we deal with are not one-dimensional. There will be a medical, physiological component as well as a psychological, behavioral component, and so not being a medical doctor, I immediately reach out for the best experts in the medical community to come on the show. And that’s what we done across time. … If the content called for it, we reached out for doctors.
TVWeek: How did that evolve into an idea that maybe this would make a show of its own?
Dr. Phil: Well, Jay would have to answer that because this is completely and totally his brainchild, his formatting, and he basically came to me and said, look, I see a tremendous opportunity here and here’s what it is.
Jay McGraw: You know, I would love to take credit for coming up with some great idea, but really just look at the requests from the audience—the things that they respond to, the questions that they were asking, and there were so many medical topics that they wanted discussed. And discussed in the same way that my dad discusses the psychological issues. … Things that are common to them in their everyday lives, they responded to in an everyday way. It’s not “medical journal regurgitated,” where we have no idea what they’re talking about. They wanted some plain, clear answers to some medical topics and it sprung from that.
If you look at it, the show is very similar to our lives. Nobody goes to one doctor. You go to specialists, and the show is no different. To expect one guy or one lady to stand up there and answer every question that’s thrown at them is unreasonable. And so we said let’s go find the best person in each topic that kind of covers all the things that people deal with in their lives.
TVWeek: How involved are you going to have your dad with “The Doctors,” both on air and off air?
Jay: It gives me great pleasure to put my dad to work.
Dr. Phil: This is what it’s come to. I’ve worked all of my life to start working for my kid. Yeah, I love it.
Jay: I do what I can. He will be very involved both on camera and off camera. Probably more so off camera, but like he was saying about his time on the “Oprah” show, there is nothing that prepares you better for being on TV than being on TV and being able to sit down and talk with somebody who does this on a daily basis. And so we really want all of our doctors—and they have already started doing so—to sit and spend time with them and say you know this is what to expect and this is how I’ve seen this work and how I’ve succeeded in doing this. It’s been invaluable so far.
TVWeek: Dr. Phil, when you were first talking to Oprah down in Texas, was it in the back of your mind that you might like to do something in television?
Dr. Phil: Oh no, not at all. This is something that had never really occurred to me. I was very much intrigued with what I was doing at the time in the trial science work. We were very blessed to be the premier trial science firm in America. So I was totally entrenched in that and having a great time. And I really didn’t have much information about daytime television. I wasn’t a daytime television watcher. And frankly, before I met Oprah, I had never watched the “Oprah” show. I knew who she was, of course; I mean how can you be on the planet and not. But when I got to know her and sat down and talked to her, you find out in a fast hurry, this is a smart, quality, dedicated woman who’s doing meaningful content. And so when she asked me to be part of that, I was honored to do it.
If you’re gonna start somewhere and you get a chance to start at the absolute pinnacle, then, I said yes. And once I did it, I went home that day and felt like I really had made a difference. Particularly with the “Dr. Phil” show and with “The Doctors,” you have to understand, I believe that there is a tremendous void in the health care delivery system in America today. The number of people that ever get into therapy, for example, is just a terribly small number. The number of people that actually buy a self-help book and read it and implement it is a minuscule number as well. So where do you go if you have information about what you need, about parenting, about depression, about your marriage, about whatever. And so the “Dr. Phil” show has been based on the model of trying to deliver important common-sense, assessable information to people’s homes every day for free. And the same thing is true with what’s driving Jay with “The Doctors.”
You know, most people don’t have the money to go see a doctor every time they have a question, but they want information. The best protection is self-protection and I think “The Doctors” is going to be delivering information that can help people adopt a lifestyle. Early detection and early intervention are so critical. We’re going to deal with those sorts of things and so many others. Just look back through the last year—so many things have been in the media, whether it’s the super bug, the lead in the toys for children. All the different things that they’re going to have an opportunity to deal with are going to … fill a very important void.
TVWeek: There are a lot of people who do syndicated shows, but there are very few people who are successful as you are. What do you think are those elements that you’ve brought to the medium that have made you more successful in doing this than a lot of other people.
Dr. Phil: I have to say, I’ve got one of those situations which I love, where somebody does all the work and then I get to stand up and take all the credit. I love that. But we have a huge staff on the “Dr. Phil” show of amazing professionals. So many of the components that have made me successful where others have failed or been less successful, No. 1, I had Oprah as a launch pad. And she told me the other day, “You know, you’ve gone so far so fast. I didn’t do that.” And I said, “No you didn’t have Oprah. Because you weren’t you yet.” So I mean I had that tremendous launch pad. And then we took on a production partner, and Terry Wood is an amazing passionate visionary about how to find that place in television, and she has been very involved in the architecture of the “Dr. Phil” show from the very beginning. But then having said that, we listened very carefully, as Jay has alluded to. This show is driven by the viewers, and we reinvent ourselves every single year to stay fresh, to stay relevant to meet those viewers where they are. And that’s been our byline with “The Doctors” from the beginning—meeting people where they are.
Jay: Absolutely. I mean the things that we are talking about are core-level needs, somebody’s health and well-being. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. So we have something that’s very, very compelling for them to listen to. I think that one of the things my dad is being a little too modest in saying is that he’s very good at delivering some very serious information in a way that is entertaining. It’s just like the books that we’ve both written. You can have the best information in the world in that book, but if it’s not entertaining enough that somebody is willing to read it, it doesn’t matter what it says. And I think that that’s one of the things that my dad is really, really good at. And it has really been able to help “The Doctors” learn how to do it, because there are a lot of doctors out there with really great information, but they are great at delivering it in an exam room, great at delivering it to their peers. And one of the things that we both look for and we have now helped these guys develop is the ability to communicate it to an audience of television viewers in a way that they love to listen to it.
Dr. Phil: A reporter asked me one time, I think 80% of all questions are statements in disguise. So when somebody asks you a question, sometimes you have to look at what the statement is. And they ask the question, isn’t a lot of what you do entertainment?
And that was actually an accusation by a snarky reporter. And I said, “My God, I hope so.” Because if you don’t make it compelling, if you don’t get people bought into the story, they’re not going to hear the end of it. And if they don’t hear the end of it, there’s no takeaway.
With “The Doctors” … understand, we’ve been working on this for a long time. This isn’t something that’s just like, hey, here’s a good idea, let’s throw something up and see if it sticks. He’s been through a casting process of, what, over a thousand doctors? And listen, sometimes that’s a hard interview because they’re so smart and you’ve got to try to find out if they have that delivery mode. … Jay’s been working on how to make this show entertaining and compelling, and appointment television where people want to tune in.
This isn’t Discovery and it’s not about the procedure, it’s about the stories—and the procedure as well. There’s a place for that and it’s terrific, but this is different from that. It’s not The Learning Channel, [where] what you get is all about the process, which—I’m addicted to these things, I watch it all the time. But this is more than that in terms of the focus on the story. It’s got to have that entertainment element, and that doesn’t mean entertainment like that. It means a compelling story that people can relate to.
TVWeek: Could you talk a little bit about the importance of the Web and what you plan to do online with “The Doctors”?
Jay: I think that … similar to the “Dr. Phil” subject matter, this medical subject matter really lends itself to a Web site. I mean, people love to be able to go in without anybody around, without having to ask any particular person, and look up the information that they want and then also be able to ask the questions that they want answered. And so we anticipate having a very interactive Web site where we will have polls and questions and things that really generate a response from our audience that we can then talk about on the show the next day or the following week.
TVWeek: I think that’s smart. I think we’re in the era when everybody is looking for 360 connections with your user, your viewer, 24-7, and you have that with “Dr. Phil.” I’d imagine it’s the same thing with “The Doctors.” Talk a little bit about the personalities of the doctors that you have chosen. Is there any concern that, for example, Dr. Stork, that there is going to be too much pretty boy bachelor and not enough doctor? What you said is I think very germane; you have to balance the entertainment with the information.
Jay: I don’t think so and I’ll tell you why. Once you sit down with Dr. Stork and you spend some time with him and you hear him talk about the things that he’s passionate about, that he’s knowledgeable about, and the things that he wants to communicate to the people that will listen to him, he is a doctor at heart. No ifs, ands or buts. He is a doctor that happened to do “The Bachelor.” He’s not a bachelor that then went to medical school. I mean, his No. 1 passion and his No. 1 interest is in medicine. And I think that undoubtedly comes across when you sit and talk to him. And you know this is such a personal experience that our guests and that our viewers will have with these doctors, I have no doubt that they will see him as the doctor he is trained to be.
Dr. Phil: Although, the first time he was on my show and he was going to do an examination, we had a lot of volunteers. That’s not a bad thing. The guy’s bedside manner is terrific, but this guy is smart. He is really serious, particularly about the preventative aspects of medicine. You’re not go to listen to him very long before you look past the fact that he happens to be easy on the ladies’ eyes, but he is an excellent practitioner.
Jay: In all fairness, you could say the same things about my dad.
TVWeek: I think you do a really good job on the “Dr. Phil” show of making it in some sense salacious, sometimes. I mean, I don’t think you’d run away from that word. But you know, making it entertainment, and yet, people have serious problems and you’re dealing with those serious problems.
Dr. Phil: I found that you meet people where they are. I never confront just to be confronting. I don’t ever support just to be supporting. You do what works in the moment. And one of the things that I found is that if you can get people to kind of laugh at themselves, to kind of break the tension with some humor, they are a lot less defensive. If you can get somebody to laugh at themselves and, “OK, Doc you got me, alright you got me, you got me,” so let’s just deal with that. It’s kind of like you’ve jumped light-years ahead if you can bring down those walls of defensiveness. And so I do try to inject humor into the situation at times when you just need a break in the tension so everybody can take a deep breath—both the viewer and the person that you’re working with.
And look, you’ve got to have some humor in this life or it’ll absolutely drive you nuts. And they make fun of me all the time and we just have a good time. But there are times that you have to deal with things in a very serious way, particularly for me when there are children involved who don’t have a voice and you’re talking to the parents, who have all the power behind closed doors.
And those are times when I’m probably the absolute most serious. I think the same thing is true about “The Doctors” and medicine. I think we’re going to have a good time, but there are going to be some hard-driving messages in this show as well. And I think Lisa Masterson, for example, who is a cutting-edge professional as an OB/GYN, has a great sense of humor, but boy she’ll jerk a knot in your tail about doing what you need to do to take care of yourself along the way. Don’t you think?
Jay: Absolutely. I mean you have to have fun. You have to be entertaining, you have to throw some humor into the situations that you can put humor into. It’s what makes people continue to listen to the information that you’re giving. And I think that a lot of the things that we’re doing lend themselves to being lighthearted, fun, entertaining television. And I think one of the things that we’re really striving to accomplish is a personal relationship between our viewers and their doctors. And anything that can lend itself to creating that relationship is getting us closer to that goal. Humor is one of them. Knowing Travis [Dr. Stork] in a different light, that’s one of them. There are all of these things that we will use to make sure people feel comfortable asking the questions that formerly they were uncomfortable asking.
Dr. Phil: These aren’t academic or theory doctors. Every one of the doctors are practicing docs. Dr. Stork, for example, is an emergency room doctor in Colorado. And they will continue to do that—continue to have their finger on the pulse of those that they’re dealing with.
TVWeek: One of the things that works about your show is obviously the format. If I were to get a tape of your first show and the show yesterday, would the format be a lot different? I mean has it evolved a lot or not? Is something you hit upon right away?
Dr. Phil: I think there are some core elements of the show that are just kind of who I am. So I think they’ve remained constant across time. But as I say, we don’t want to become predictable. We don’t want to be taken for granted. And we don’t want to get lazy either. Just because there’s that old saying, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke,” on the other hand, you don’t want to sit back and take things for granted. So across time we have evolved in a lot of different ways. For example, we introduced the Dr. Phil Family. So instead of working with people in a short burst all the time, we took some families and followed them throughout the entire year and into the next year.
TVWeek: You’ve got the new Phil House …
Dr. Phil: We introduced the Dr. Phil House, which instead of a family being there in crisis in Rhode Island, we would bring that family here and they might stay here for two days or three days or a month, so we have the ability to be there in the moment if the meltdown starts, if something happens, so we can be involved in a timely way, which I think was hugely successful. This year we’ve introduced Dr. Phil Now, which is a format where we can go live, we can deal with the current events, the social issues, where people want to know what’s going on, how does this affect me? What do I say to my children about these sorts of things?
TVWeek: And for those of you who are not familiar, you’re certainly not shy, the way you did the O.J. book. You don’t shy away from any controversy …
Dr. Phil: No we haven’t. And I think that as long as you treat people with dignity and respect and you deal with the issues in a responsible way, I think people want to know what’s going on. We dealt with tough issues like Jena 6, for example, with the nooses and all of those things going on in that racially torn community. And we had both sides of the issue on, and I think you have to do that. If people want to know, if people care about it and want to see behind the headlines, then we’re going to deal with that. So we continue to try to be innovative and going forward, and I think “The Doctors” is a very fluid format.
TVWeek: That’s what I wanted to ask Jay about. You have five people on the show. So what do we have to look forward to as far as your format on a daily basis?
Jay: I think our format will be somewhat more fluid than it is with my dad because, like you say, there’s more than one regular person on there. And you won’t see every doctor talking to every guest, because a lot of times they won’t have anything to contribute to the conversation. And so they’ll come and go. But we anticipate every doctor being on every show and, at the top of the show, discussing the things that are going on in our world medically, and then moving into some story-based medical topics.
TVWeek: The more personal you can get—and interact with people in a very direct way—that’s what I think we all like to watch.
Jay: Absolutely.
Dr. Phil: It has to be relatable. I think they get this show. I think they’ve understood it from the beginning. I mean we just took it to market not terribly long ago and it’s already cleared in almost 90% of the country. It’s like 87.5% of the country. So people get it. When they hear it, they get it.
TVWeek: What would you say are one or two of the more controversial elements of the “Dr. Phil” show? And then I wonder what you think people might find controversial about “The Doctors.” And I don’t mean that in a negative way because I think that’s one thing that actually draws for you.
Dr. Phil: Oh, controversy doesn’t bother me at all. I mean I try to weigh very carefully what I’m doing. We start out every show, every show concept, the first question I have for the producers is, What’s the takeaway from this show? Is there something that the viewer is going to leave with? Because we don’t want to just do voyeuristic television. Is there a message? Is there information? Is there a takeaway?
And so we’ll deal with things that are on the edge if there is a takeaway. We deal with things that sometimes, at the top of the show, we have to say, guys this isn’t for the children. So you either need to turn this off or have your kids play a game in the next room or whatever, because we deal with real stuff and that can be controversial.
People always ask, Why would people come on the show and talk about these kinds of things publicly? I tell you, I think about a third of the people [think], we’ve got problems like everybody else, we’re not ashamed of that. We’ll talk about it. It’s no different than if we had a broken leg. So we’ve got a broken marriage. We’ll talk about that. I think that’s a good portion of the people that come on. I think a good portion want to hear my particular approach, point of view or brand because they think that has some unique application to them. And then probably a portion of the people are just exhibitionistic. You know, they’ll do anything, they don’t care. And that’s OK too. They can be good teaching tools along the way. But we do deal with cutting-edge controversial.
TVWeek: What about “The Doctors”? Certainly there are a lot of times when you’re dealing with a procedure that might be controversial.
Jay: The same as with the “Dr. Phil” show, we won’t shy away from controversy. But at the same time, we won’t create controversy. … There are enough controversial things that are worth talking about to not have to create controversy. Things will be driven by the stories that we’re dealing with. But we certainly won’t shy away from it just because it’s controversial. A lot of times those are the things that are controversial because people don’t know what to think one way or the other. They’re uninformed and so those are the things that we would love to deal with.
Dr. Phil: And some of the topics may not sound sexy on paper, but if you’re a mother, if you’re a viewer and you’ve got small children and there’s all of this controversy about vaccination, does this contribute to autism or heavy metals introduced that can create health problems, then all of a sudden what doesn’t sound like a very sexy topic, if you’re a mother with children—and our demographic is made up of mothers with children—they want to know about that sort of thing. They want to know about anti-aging, they want to know about weight loss. They want to know about sexual appetite. They want to know about all of those things. We have started to put together topic lists and things that we want to deal with. It’s not a matter of trying to look for something, it’s like how we’re gonna pare this down and make the choices.
TVWeek: I want to take a question that was just given me from the audience: Besides the doctors that you’re going to have on your show, are you going to bring in specific experts for other kinds of medical problems and issues?
Jay: Absolutely. The five people that we have up there I feel represent most of the medical topics. They have the most broad range of any five doctors that you can put up there, but at the same time there are things that will be unique and very specific that are interesting and they’re relevant, and that people want to know about, and there will be a doctor in America who is the No. 1 person to talk to, and that’s the person that we’ll talk to about that topic. So absolutely, we’ll bring on more specialists.
TVWeek: The “Dr. Phil” show is always evolving. Is there anything further this season that you’re going to be introducing on the show that might be a little fresh and different that we haven’t seen so far?
Dr. Phil: Oh, there’s a lot of fresh and different. We have had a tremendously exciting year so far. And right now there are so many things changing in our society. It’s happening in television. How people are getting their information is a really different situation. You know, when you and I were growing up, there wasn’t an Internet. When I did my dissertation in graduate school, I went to a keypunch operator on a computer that was the size of this room. Look what’s happened now. I mean a laptop has more power than they used for the first moon launch. So technology is really changing fast right now and the Internet has become both a blessing and a curse in America. We’ve dealt already with some things on our show about predators … So we are continuing to work on how people are getting information in America, how our children and families are being impacted by that technology, and we’re doing some stuff both in the bright spotlight and undercover about how those things are affecting families.
TVWeek: What’s the one thing that keeps you up at night about your show?
Dr. Phil: Preparing for the next day. Actually, I get notebooks about that thick, literally, 200, 250 pages for every show that we have. And I know I have a kind of from-the-hip delivery style, but there’s a tremendous amount of preparation that goes into our show. We have a staff of about 300 people and the research that goes into every topic and every guest is really extensive. We have an advisory board, for example, I think we have 15 people on it now that are just the best minds in the field from around the country. We have the head of the family division at the Harvard Medical School, the head of child psychiatry here at UCLA. I mean, all of these people from around the country that we vet our topics with, we get information from them, everything goes in, so we can deliver cutting-edge information when we do it the next day. So the preparation really involves a lot of depth.
And the same thing is true with “The Doctors” because right now we have an attitude that this team that’s going to do “The Doctors” will shadow our team for a series of months as they move along through this. So everybody understands the standards that we have because we’re very careful about who we book and who we don’t book. They have to meet standards. For example, if we have somebody that is currently in therapy and they write to the show, we don’t book them on the show until we’ve talked to their therapist, explained what’s going to happen and have their permission in writing that they think this is a constructive and right thing for that person to do. And we have other standard criteria that they have to meet before they’re allowed to be on. And we’ll be very selective on “The Doctors” as well.
TVWeek: Jay, what keeps you up at night?
Jay: You know, this show is an amazing opportunity. And it’s a huge responsibility as well because we’re not just talking about pure entertainment. It’s stuff that impacts people’s lives that they can take and use to better themselves, and so I think that what keeps me up at this point is thinking of all the things that we can and that we should talk about on the show. I don’t want to leave an opportunity out there that could have made this show the best show that it can be. Because you know we 100 percent believe that it is filling a void in television right now. And I want to make sure we fill all of that void.


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