Carla Pennington never knows when a compelling idea for a show segment might strike. It could come from the salon, where she’s listening to the lively chatter, from family members’ conversations or from her producers who’ve approached her with a pitch.
The longtime exec producer of “Dr. Phil,” whom McGraw plucked for the position following her successful run as second-in-command behind exec producer Linda Bell Blue at NBC’s “Entertainment Tonight,” always has her ears pricked up for the latest, greatest trends, whether it’s in social media, the field of psychotherapy or on the domestic front.
“You always want to find people that really tell the story in a unique way and with a lot of personality,” she explains of the casting process for the show. “I’ll listen to literally anyone. My older niece will mention something and I’ll go, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know that existed.’ And then I’ll start researching and I go, ‘Oh my God, that’s everywhere.’”
Her finger firmly pressed on the hot button of pop culture, in particular those issues affecting women, Pennington is an indispensable asset at “Dr. Phil,” a show with a predominantly female fanbase. (Its 2014 season to date audience is 74% female and 26% male.)
“(Phil) has got a very analytical brain, and so he’ll think of these very male things that women don’t really care about, which is where I come in,” says Pennington, a single mom of teenage twins. “I’m always saying things like ‘Let’s do a show on women who are more successful than their man and they’re always propping them up.’ And he’ll go, ‘Well that’s boring’ and I’ll go, ‘Not to the women who watch the show.’”
When it comes to booking guests, Pennington is at the helm of the in-depth vetting process (that often occurs over a two-day period), working with a team that includes an advisory board of experts from UCLA and Harvard.
“It’s much different than other talkshows because (McGraw) holds himself to a higher standard,” she says. “Sometimes (a potential guest) will have a problem but it can be solved quickly. We like things that can unfold.”
Overseeing all aspects of McGraw’s ever-expanding production slate — she is also the exec producer of the Daytime Emmy Award-winning “The Doctors” and the conflict-resolution show “The Test,” which bowed September — Pennington has helped propel McGraw’s talker fiefdom to lofty heights. With her as his partner, McGraw has been honored with numerous accolades including a Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Media Award and 25 Emmy nominations.
“Hiring Carla Pennington was by far and away the smartest move I could have made when launching 12 years ago,” says McGraw. “Carla is an amazing, passionate and talented leader. She is a behind-the-scenes superstar unrivaled in Hollywood or the history of daytime television.”
As for her professional pairing with McGraw, Pennington says: “We agree to disagree a lot of the time, but he really does listen to me in terms of what people want to see and how to tell a story. I always tell him, ‘Don’t fix them too fast.’ You’ll be talking to yourself by segment three. I have to remind him that a lot.”