Back when “Dr. Phil” launched in 2002, there was no Facebook, no Twitter.
“The problems [dealt with on ‘Dr. Phil’] were a little bit more simple back then. There weren’t a lot of catfishing stories or stories of people obsessed with being a Kardashian or internet famous,” says “Dr. Phil” executive producer Carla Pennington. “It was more ‘bullies on the playground,’ not cyberbullying.”
Steve LoCascio, COO of CBS Television Distribution and CFO of ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group, says “Dr. Phil” has grown newsier over time, dealing more often with current events.
Now, “there’s more of the ripped-from-the-headline exclusives,” LoCascio says. “He’s very proud of those kind of things where he steps in where justice is served by something he brought to light that previously was unknown.”
Interestingly, catfishing stories have become reliable ratings-drivers for the show nowadays: “It’s mainly women who are just looking so desperately for love they can’t see that they’re being scammed and people are just fascinated by that,” Pennington says. “[Viewers] want to yell at the television, ‘Don’t you see it’s not a real person?’ but [the person being catfished] just can’t see it.”
Additionally, the “Dr. Phil” producers see new problems in America showing up in the letters and concerns voiced by viewers, from the opioid crisis to parents being afraid they have no idea what their kids are getting into, in real life or online. This feedback has affected the show.
“Topics evolve based on what’s going on socially in this country,” Pennington says, noting the show has tried different formats and segments, including “The Dr. Phil House,” a location with hidden cameras that people move into so the show can observe them. “It’s really all about the storytelling and Phil reacting to what’s going on there. I’ve worked with a lot of talent in my career and there is absolutely no one better than Dr. Phil. He does his homework and he cares deeply about every single person who steps on that stage and it shows.”
Pennington says parents often don’t know what’s going on in their children’s lives because they don’t talk. The result: out-of-control teens, one of the show’s evergreen topics.
“People have relationships — marriages, parenting — and the show may have evolved but the connections people have to each other remain the same,” Pennington says. “We found with the rise of the internet and social media, there’s more connectivity and less connection. People don’t know how to talk to one another anymore.”
Producers brainstorm for new topics often in an effort to keep the show fresh and remain a top daytime ratings draw, Pennington says. “We’re really just keeping up with what is socially relevant and continuing to remain an entertaining teaching tool for viewers. Dr. Phil really does own this particular platform in terms of a psychologist helping people. Many have come and gone.”
Unlike conflict-resolution shows in daytime, LoCascio notes “Dr. Phil” doesn’t feature guests throwing chairs.
“Occasionally there’s some emotion, but he’s about more specific things he feels very passionate about, like parenting and relationships and intervening,” LoCascio says. “He doesn’t beat around the bush. He just tells it like it is.”
But before he does, McGraw gets a 250-page thick notebook for every taping, filled with the social and family history of that episode’s guests. He’ll consult with members of an advisory board steeped in knowledge of different disciplines. “Dr. Phil” often provides aftercare for many of the show’s guests.
Pennington says viewers see themselves reflected in the everyday people featured on the show. “We receive letters all the time where people say, ‘That’s exactly how I interact with my child,’ and, ‘Thank you, Dr. Phil, for opening my eyes, now we’re gonna get some help,’” Pennington says. “That’s the ultimate compliment to the show and all of us as producers.”