If syndicated television shows could follow a model to guarantee success, that model would be Dr. Phil. At its launch Sept. 16, the show garnered the biggest ratings of any new syndicated show since Oprah herself hit the airwaves in 1986.
That's why the NATPE convention this week in New Orleans is almost a coronation of the talk-show host. After several fallow years for syndication, his show's success gives hope to distributors and station execs alike that it's still possible to make some noise, and a lot of bucks, in the business.
And it has been a huge money-maker. Sources say King World, the distributor, will haul in around $52 million this year from the show—$1 million per week—to split with Paramount, which produces it, and Harpo Productions, which created it. Given the show's success, its license fees will easily be doubled in the next cycle, sources say. As of last week, King World said, Dr. Phil
has been renewed in more than 60% of the country through 2006.
Those increases apparently aren't going down so easy with some station execs. "As good as the show is, the license-fee increases are so exorbitant that they will cause people to start looking for cheaper alternatives throughout the rest of their schedule," observes Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek station group. Some of the increases, though, are the result of bidding wars in some markets, driving the price of the show up.
Bidding wars? That demonstrates the magnitude of Dr. Phil's accomplishment. It premiered Sept. 16 to the biggest ratings of any new syndicated show since The Oprah Winfrey Show
debuted in 1986, when daytime television was a much different, much less competitive business. And it is syndication's first break-out hit since Warner Bros.'The Rosie O'Donnell Show
averages around a 4.5 in the national Nielsen ratings and hit a 5 in November sweeps. Many of this year's new syndicated shows are averaging between a 1 and 2 in the national ratings. Some of them are being renewed, but, says Joel Berman, chairman of Paramount Worldwide Television Distribution, "no one wants ones and twos. ... The success of Dr. Phil
has been important for everyone in the business because it makes everyone believe again."
King World also reaps revenue from 3.5 minutes of ad time in every episode. Through October, a 30-second spot in the show was going for about $47,000, up from the $20,000 a spot King World asked for at the upfronts in May, according to Nielsen. Multiplied over the entire year, that brings in another $86 million, with ad rates only going up.
The show's popularity has brought it upgrades to 5 and 7 p.m. time periods in several markets, even bumping local news in some. Upgrades are part of the reward King World expects when a show gets the ratings Dr. Phil
does, and stations are offering King World goodies so they won't lose the show to other stations in the market.
Success like this didn't happen by accident.
The path to launching Dr. Phil
started when Dr. Phil McGraw prepared Oprah Winfrey for her trial in a lawsuit brought by the cattle industry in response to comments made on her show about mad-cow disease. That Winfrey and McGraw hit it off is well-known, and the relationship brought McGraw a regular Tuesday engagement on Winfrey's show. Although not an instant hit—viewers initially found him too mean—he soon became the show's highest-rated segment: Oprah
drew 24% higher ratings on Tuesdays than on other days.
"I don't think there's any doubt that he was being groomed and cultivated. You couldn't ask for a better workshop than what Dr. Phil was afforded," says John Nogawski , president of Paramount Domestic Television. "He had four years to really hone his skills, and then we had a year and nine months to develop the show, to get to know him, to get a staff in place and to start doing test shows. So the question for us really was how big could we make him before he went on the air."
Paramount steps in
While it surprised no one that McGraw was going to become the star of his own talk show, the unknown was who was going to produce the show. King World has distributed Oprah
since it began in 1986. But after taking a close look, Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions, decided it didn't have the resources to produce both shows.
"While we briefly considered producing this new show ourselves," says Harpo Productions President Tim Bennett, "we decided we needed to partner with a company that shared our attention to detail and our values."
That opened an opportunity for Paramount. In May 2001, during an executive-development retreat, a Paramount regional sales manger reminded everyone that McGraw planned to do his own talk show. Terry Wood, Paramount's executive vice president of programming and syndication, had formerly been a producer at Harpo. After a brief discussion, she stepped outside and called Bennett as he was returning from a trip to Las Vegas. Just a few days later, the Paramount executive team was meeting with Bennett and other Harpo executives in New York.
"We wouldn't accept the idea that Oprah was going to do this on her own," Wood says. "We wanted to be part of it, and we became very aggressive in trying to get the meeting to let us convince them."
Once in the door, Paramount worked hard to prove to McGraw and Harpo that it was the studio for them. Greg Meidel, who had just started as Paramount president of programming, and Wood spent a few intense days reading all of McGraw's books and watching all of his Oprah
Says Meidel, "This is not a talk show. This is a show that is going to change your life and make you a better person, and that's the way we approached it."
That's speaking Dr. Phil's language. The 6-foot-4 Texan believes that the reason to have a daily, syndicated television show is to reach as many people as possible with information and a message they truly need and wouldn't otherwise get.
After Oprah, "I think the impact on me was that I began to appreciate the power of the television platform," McGraw recalls. "I got first-hand experience that you can really influence the way people think, feel, live and behave through the television medium, and that was intriguing to me. I thought it was my highest and best use, and I think that's the platform's highest and best use."
Once the decision was made to work with Paramount, the whole team—McGraw, Harpo, Paramount and King World—was off and running.
Launching the show required a massive marketing and promotion campaign, orchestrated by Paramount's Mike Mischler. John Wentworth headed the publicity, which was more a matter of picking and choosing media outlets than trying to blanket a country that already was blanketed with Dr. Phil. Roger King managed the sales to TV stations, which were wildly successful, clearing the show on top stations in premiere time periods for two years. And all the while, Paramount was working closely with McGraw to build a set, hire a top-notch staff, choose topics, create a huge team of researchers and produce many test shows so that, come Sept. 16, the program would run like a finely tuned machine.
The Paramount team was thrilled with the outcome. "The show we delivered on Sept. 16 was as good as the show we delivered on the last day of November sweeps," Meidel says, and the ratings back him, with Dr. Phil
hitting a sky-high 5 in November.
To the casual viewer, Dr. Phil
seems a simple concept: Meet people, get brief summation of problem, assess problem, give opinion. Some mental-health professionals balked at the concept when the show premiered, calling it no substitute for real therapy. In truth, the process is a complicated one that starts weeks before a guest comes on the air and doesn't end when the guest departs.
The show has four or five teams of researchers coming up with topics and guests and thoroughly investigating both the subject—obsession-compulsive disorder, for example—and the guest. Researchers compile extensive case histories on each guest, which are delivered to McGraw in 100-page binders that he pores through before bringing a guest on the show. After the guests leave, the staff follow up on their progress and also help them find local counseling and other types of resources.
"We're not doing therapy here, and we don't think we're doing eight-minute cures," McGraw says. "The real work begins after they leave the show."
Although every Paramount executive is quick to give credit for the show's success to McGraw himself, he knows that he's only as good as his support, and he has a lot of it at high levels. King World CEO Roger King spent "hours" with him, McGraw says, to learn what he was about before personally going out to stations and making sales pitches.
"I was so impressed with Roger King," McGraw says. "He did his homework with me so he could look his people in the eye and say this guy's for real, his commitment's for real, and you want this to be part of your programming."
Says King, "Launching a television show is a very dangerous, very precarious business. You work hard for months and months and months, and it fails. The same thing goes for working really hard on a hit. It's very exhilarating when you hit one over the fence."
Maybe the one downside of success for McGraw is the routine mocking he now faces from David Letterman. But McGraw takes it in his long stride: "It's good-natured," he says, adding, in true TV-sales fashion, "Now if only he would give the show's channel and time."
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.