The ubiquity of Dr. Phil McGraw is no accident.
Whether he’s playing himself on the CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” raising eyebrows for his home décor in a real estate spread or appearing on a recent Fox primetime special about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal ruckus, McGraw is seemingly everywhere — including on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as of Feb. 21.
“I was shocked he hadn’t gotten a star on the Walk of Fame sooner given his prominence in television. He pops up everywhere,” says Steve LoCascio, COO of CBS Television Distribution and CFO of ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group. “He’s in the lyrics of a Bon Jovi song. He’s been on countless episodes of TV shows playing himself.”
McGraw burst onto the national stage through appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show in the late 1990s, and by 2002 he had his own daytime show, “Dr. Phil,” the No. 1 daytime talk show in the Nielsen ratings, averaging more than 3 million viewers daily. In addition, McGraw is an executive producer on multiple other series in several dayparts, as well as primetime CBS drama “Bull,” which he co-created.
McGraw says from the beginning, his goal was not just to build a daytime talk show but an entertainment brand. Gaining notoriety was an integral part of that effort. “People see me engaged in very serious work, dealing with peoples’ lives and families and futures,” he says, “and while there’s a lot of humor on ‘Dr. Phil’ as well — we have fun and cut up a lot — I think it’s really important for people to see that I don’t take myself as seriously as everybody else does. I take the work I do seriously, but you need to laugh at yourself.”
That’s why he’ll put on a wig for James Corden on “The Late Late Show” or laugh along when David Letterman announced in 2002 that McGraw’s latest book was titled “More Advice I Pulled Out of My Ass.” Eighteen years later — an eternity in pop culture — McGraw still makes waves.
“He is one of the hardest working people I have ever met in my life,” says Carla Pennington, executive producer of “Dr. Phil” since its launch. “Even when he’s on a vacation, I don’t think he’s on vacation.”
Even before “Dr. Phil,” McGraw showed an entrepreneurial streak, founding Courtroom Sciences, a trial-science firm that inspired “Bull.” He had earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the University of North Texas and was a licensed psychologist in the state before his recurring spots on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“I often say I’m the first graduate from Oprah University, and that’s a pretty great place to learn how to do television,” McGraw says.
“He is one of the hardest working people I have ever met in my life. Even when he’s on vacation, I don’t think he’s on vacation.”
There was high confidence in the success of “Dr. Phil” because of the success of McGraw’s “Oprah” appearances, which LoCascio says often rated as the most-watched “Oprah” episode each week. Still, McGraw wasn’t prepared for Hollywood.
“I had always been CEO of multiple companies, and I approach it that way, and when I came out here, I found out that talent is usually just that, they just show up and do what it is they’re supposed to do,” McGraw says, “whereas I approach it from the standpoint of it’s a business: Everything from what we’re doing in terms of space, what the occupancy cost is, what are we spending on this, that and the other, because I wanted to put everything on the screen.”
McGraw remembers arriving 10 minutes before the first day of taping “Dr. Phil,” and there was no audience in place. Crew members were strolling over to get coffee. After that first show he called a meeting and put the show’s staff on notice. “I said, ‘Guys, I come from litigation, and if the federal court tells you to start at 8:30 then at 8:29:59 you better be standing at attention, that’s what I’m used to,’” McGraw recalls. “The second day at 9:59:59, the first downbeat of the open music started and everything was in place. Everyone thought, ‘God, are we in the military?’ but by the end of the first week they see it’s 1 o’clock and we’re done. As a result, we have the same several cameramen, the same director, the same sound guy that were there the very first day. We get in there, we get it done. We’re very efficient. We stay on task.”
McGrath says he applied that same discipline when building his entertainment empire. He quotes Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” saying, “begin with the end in mind.”
McGraw was insistent that his talk show be called “Dr. Phil” not “The Dr. Phil Show,” in part to hone in on the “Dr. Phil” brand and because, he says, he doesn’t really think of it as a show. “I approach it from the standpoint of wanting to really provide common sense, useable information that’s delivered to people in their homes every day for free,” McGraw says, noting from the beginning he wanted to emphasize the “silent epidemics” in America, “those things that don’t get talked about in polite society. We want to move mental health, mental illness, to the forefront of the narrative in America and make it OK to talk about. We want to take the stigma away from mental illness.”
After recently passing the 3,000-episode mark, McGraw says “Dr. Phil” is doing exactly what he wanted from the start, with segments devoted to domestic violence within families, drug addiction, sexual molestation and fractured families. “I think we have moved the needle at least a little bit” in terms of what’s acceptable conversation in America, McGraw says.
Under contract to host “Dr. Phil” through 2023 (“I haven’t thought beyond that, but I don’t ever see myself retiring,” McGraw says) through his Stage 29 Prods., McGraw has branched out as an executive producer of the syndicated series “The Doctors” and “DailyMail TV.” His next program, an untitled docu-series about the world of animal rescue in Austin, Texas, from filmmaker Richard Linklater, will stream via CBS All Access. (McGraw has an overall deal with CBS Studios and a first-look deal with CBS Television Distribution for syndication.)
“If you take a status quo approach, you stagnate. … So we’ve always looked at how we can expand.”
Dr. Phil McGraw
“If you take a status quo approach, you stagnate, you begin to decay,” McGraw says. “So we’ve always looked at how we can expand our footprint.”
That includes tele-medicine app Doctor on Demand, started with his son, Jay McGraw, who’s also a founder of Stage 29. But McGraw says he’s not in the business of launching TV shows — he’s more interested in getting shows renewed. “A new show costs a lot of time and money. Renewing it is where you get into success,” he explains. “We’re interested in doing things that have sustainability.”
To that end, he doesn’t expect to launch a new syndicated program in the fall of 2020, waiting to see how things shake out in the syndication market for 2021.
McGraw also expanded his brand into podcasting with two series, true crime show “Mystery and Murder: Analysis by Dr. Phil,” and interview series “Phil in the (Blanks).” In addition, a Dr. Phil YouTube channel launched in 2018. The author of nine best-selling books, McGraw says there may be another someday but not anytime soon. “I have a hard time turning them loose. I keep editing and editing and I write all my own books — no ghost writer — and that’s just so much work,” he says.
With more than a dozen series in development and at least three more seasons of “Dr. Phil,” McGraw will remain in the public eye, drawing attention not only for the content of his programs but also his folksy presentation and sayings.
“The other day I said, ‘I think you better lick that calf over again,’” recalls McGraw, who grew up in Texas and Oklahoma. “[My wife] Robin said, ‘I never heard you say that, what the hell are you talking about?’ I said, when the mother cow has a calf the first thing she does is lick it from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, and if something’s wrong she just walks off. In Texas, if someone says ‘lick that calf over again’ it means I think you missed something and better do it over. I never thought about it, it just came out. I’ve probably been hearing it since I was 5 years old. [Those phrases] are just buried in my brain somewhere.”