While shooting the 2,000th episode of his hit talkshow, airing April 8, Dr. Phil McGraw stood on the show’s stage on the Paramount lot and looked out at some 200 familiar faces.
Over the course of several months, McGraw, executive producer Carla Pennington and the show’s crew of producers all culled through the names of nearly 15,000 guests to pick the ones they felt that fans would most want to see again.
Among them are Josh, a young man who was removed from his mother’s custody at McGraw’s recommendation after she had allowed him to become morbidly obese as a toddler. He grew up instead with his father and is now happy and healthy. Another featured guest is Brandon, a recovering addict and the subject of one of television’s first interventions.
“Now he pays it forward,” says Pennington. “He helped save ‘Survivor China’ winner Todd Herzog, who was a full-blown alcoholic and showed up drunk on our stage. Todd returned to our stage clear-eyed and sober.”
Over its 12-year run, “Dr. Phil” has talked to all types: addicts and abusers, the broken-hearted, the mentally ill and the chronically angry. The show has spent more than $21 million on aftercare for many of its guests.
While “Dr. Phil” is now a fixture in the daytime TV landscape, McGraw and his producers have been clear about the show’s mission since day one.
“From the show’s conception, we’ve always asked, ‘What’s the takeaway?,’” says McGraw. “I don’t believe in doing voyeuristic television. We always think about what will come out of every show that millions of viewers can use in their lives every day.”
“Phil has become America’s psychologist,” says Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS Corp., who came by to wish McGraw well during the filming of his 2000th episode. “He’s a recognizable entity and an important part of our lineup, and not only from a revenue point of view.”
“The longevity of ‘Dr. Phil’ is truly amazing,” adds Joe DiSalvo, CBS Television Distribution’s president of broadcast sales, who notes that “Dr. Phil” is sold on TV stations across the country through the 2016-17 season. “I just think he knows how to reach his audience, and I think he knows what that audience expects of him.”
McGraw, who hasn’t officially practiced psychology in an office setting since 1990, is not a TV star by design. At age 48, he was happily married, raising a family and co-running his own company, Courtroom Sciences, a trial consultancy, in Irving, Texas. But McGraw’s life changed forever when he met a very high-profile client — Oprah Winfrey — who in 1998 was being sued by the cattle industry on charges of libel after airing an episode on mad cow disease.
“I could see that he had a gift for deciphering human dysfunction,” says Winfrey, who makes a video appearance during “Dr. Phil’s” 2000th episode. “I could see that he was a guy who, in the midst of my uncertainty and anxiety, could speak a sentence or two and I would immediately go calm. I thought all of that would be really good for our viewers. I thought if I liked it, a couple of million of other people will also like it.”
Winfrey was absolutely right, but not right off the bat.
“When we first had him on the show, we did not get a good reaction,” she says. “Viewers were upset with me for having him on. They thought he was too loud, too big and rude in a bodacious way. But I knew I could turn that around. I told him, ‘I don’t want you to dial that down, I want you to turn it up. Go out there and do with them exactly what you did with me. Put their heads up against the wall and tell it like it is.’ ”
McGraw’s segments on “Oprah” ended up being the highest-rated day of “Oprah’s” week, and he showed up weekly from April 1998 until September 2002. Toward the end of that run, Winfrey could see that McGraw was ready to fly on his own.
“Dr. Phil” premiered on Sept. 16, 2002, to a 4.4 Nielsen household rating. No syndicated debut has since come close to that number.
“What resounds with our clients is that here is someone who, on a daily basis, puts out very sage, insightful advice in a manner that really no one else on television today can really do,” says Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group, noting that, domestically, “Dr. Phil” is sold on TV stations across the country through the 2016-17 season. “He has garnered the respect of the viewers and has been able to retain that respect.”
“Dr. Phil” just won its seventh consecutive major sweeps, averaging a 3.5 Nielsen household rating from Jan. 30 to Feb. 26, up 3% from last year to lead all talkers.
While McGraw and his family — wife Robin and sons Jay, who exec-produces CTD’s “The Doctors,” and Jordan, who plays guitar in the popular band Stars in Stereo and wrote the show’s theme song — have become accustomed to their Hollywood life, McGraw makes a point of not taking anything for granted.
“Every once in a while when I am walking backstage, I take a moment to appreciate this opportunity,” says McGraw. “What we’re doing here isn’t the most important thing in the world — there are a lot of other things going on that are more important — but sometimes I just stop and reflect back and say, ‘Man, what a ride.’ For someone from a tumbleweed town who never intended to be on TV, this is pretty cool.”