Health concerns find a forum in reality show

Sit down at any dinner table in America and you know someone will start talking about health issues, even if it makes you squirm to hear about grandma’s latest ailment.

So coming up with a show centering on health concerns and fads, delivered by credible doctors, appears to be a no-brainer. Yet when “The Doctors” debuted last September, it broke new ground with a format similar to “The View” coupled with medical advice from four doctors: obstetrician and gynecologist Lisa Masterson, plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon, pediatrician Jim Sears and emergency room physician and former star of “The Bachelor,” Travis Stork.

“It’s novel, with real doctors talking about real issues for an entire show,” Masterson says. “Medicine speaks to everyone and knows no boundaries in regards to race, gender or culture. We provide quality information in a nonjudgmental format that’s relatable to viewers.”

Exec producer Carla Pennington, who also produces “Dr. Phil,” says she’s surprised a show like this hasn’t been done before.

“There certainly was a need and niche for it,” Pennington says. “People thirsty for medical news and information told in an entertaining, fast-paced show has made it a success.”

Exec producer Jay McGraw developed the show as a spinoff of his father’s “Dr. Phil” syndicated program. After reading viewer emails asking “Dr. Phil” questions that were beyond the scope of that show, McGraw saw an opportunity.

“When I went to pick the doctors, I was looking at expertise and credentials, then I needed to find doctors I found comfortable to be around and who knew how to have a good time,” McGraw says. “Travis is a good illustration of what we wanted. Sure, he’s good looking and charismatic, but he’s also a good doctor. At the end of the day, all four of our doctors are knowledgeable people that you want to spend time with.”

That combination allowed “The Doctors” to quickly become one of the few success stories in daytime television. During the most recent ratings week, “The Doctors” showed a 5% growth from the previous week in households and an uptick of 13% in young women 18 to 34.

“It’s a very female-driven show. Obviously when you launch a show, you want to cast a wide net, then you start to notice trends,” Pennington says. “Our most popular segment is Ask Our Doctors.”

Called the “no-shame zone,” the Ask Our Doctors portion allows viewers to pose questions they may be too embarrassed to ask their own physicians, from belly-button makeovers to pearly penis pimples.

“As a kid, I was terrified of going to the doctor, and I remember my first year of med school I felt so ignorant and naive. It’s hard to ask questions when you feel like that,” Stork says. “I’ve had young girls tell me in the ER that they never had sex, but they are pregnant. This show doesn’t take the place of a doctor, but it does give you information in a nonthreatening environment.”

Stork says “The Doctors” dispenses information in an intriguing, compelling way that is also hopeful and entertaining.

“Viewers come away feeling empowered,” Stork says.

According to Hollywood, Health & Society — a program at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center — more than half of regular primetime viewers say they learned something about a disease or how to prevent it from a TV show, and about a third say they took some action after hearing about a health issue or disease on a TV show.

“As the economy goes through this downturn and more and more people are living with threatened incomes, they tend to watch more television. People are going to the Web and TV to get information, so to get actual physicians to discuss these topics is a natural,” says Sandra de Castro Buffington, director of the Annenberg program. “They address exotic and even taboo subjects. People might not have access to experts on these topics if not for this show.”

The show tackles everything from skin tags to senior sex. The titillating topics get the most traction, but the fast-paced hour also includes plenty of meat-and-potatoes medical reporting.

“This is a very visual show,” Pennington says. “It’s fun to look at, and each of the doctors has a fanbase. We have a perfect combination of entertainment and information.”

TOP FIVE EPISODES

As chosen by the exec producers of “The Doctors”

Sept. 19: For the first time, the show introduces a fifth specialist to serve on the panel. Dr. Gregory Fontana, one of the leading pediatric heart surgeons in the country, joins in to discuss heart defects in children.

Oct. 30: With 3-D technology and high-tech cameras, the heart, lungs and complete digestive and skeletal systems are revealed in a way that has never been seen before on TV.

Nov. 10: To demonstrate the devastating effects the drug Salvia has on the brain, Dr. Michael Yang inhales the substance while hooked up to diagnostic equipment that measures his brain-wave reactions.

Nov. 21: The reasons behind everyday bodily functions such as hiccups, yawning, brain freeze and ear popping.

Nov. 26: A look at a 48-year-old patient who underwent a complete makeover, including nose, chin, breasts, face, teeth and tummy tuck.

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