Dr. Phil: Oprah Is 'The Gold Standard In TV'

After 25 years on network TV, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" has its final run this Wednesday. The show has featured tens of thousands of guests and touched countless viewers' lives here and abroad. One man who Winfrey helped make a star is Dr. Phillip McGraw — a psychologist, author and host of his talk show "Dr. Phil." He is Winfrey's close friend and has given advice on her show for five years. Host Michel Martin speaks with Dr. Phil about Oprah Winfrey's legacy and his relationship with her.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

After some 5,000 episodes, a cultural phenomenon comes to an end. Of course we're talking about "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which airs its last episode this Wednesday. Oprah's first national show aired on September 8, 1986 and featured a segment on how to marry the man or woman of your choice. But since then the show has gone on to win many awards, launch careers, sent books onto the bestseller list, and touched the lives of countless viewers here in the U.S. and in fact around the world.

Let's listen to a clip of Oprah reflecting on the relationship she's built with her audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

OPRAH WINFREY, host: Our viewers have enriched my life beyond all measure. And you all have graciously invited me into your living rooms, into your kitchens and into your lives. And for some of you - longtime Oprah viewers - you have literally grown up with me. We've grown together.

MARTIN: Over the course of the next couple of days, we are going to reflect on the phenomenon that is Oprah. To do that we're going to check in with some of the people whose lives and careers have been changed by working with her directly and who know her well. And we're going to begin today with another person who's been elevated to one-name status. We're talking about Dr. Phil. He has a full name, of course, it's Phillip McGraw. He's a psychologist, a best-selling author, host of the syndicated talk show "Dr. Phil," where he remains after nine years the second most popular talk show host in the country, behind Oprah, of course.

And Dr. Phil joins us now from his home office in Los Angeles. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. PHILLIP MCGRAW: Hey, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, I can't resist - we've only just met, but I want to ask you - what are your feelings on this momentous occasion?

MCGRAW: Well, this is a real change in people's lives. I've often said that when Oprah goes off the air, I think it's going to be like, think about you live in a neighborhood and you have a really great friend across the fence or around the corner, and every day, like, 3 or 4 o'clock they come over and y'all drink coffee and you talk about things that matter to the two of you and that's just a big part of your life. And then one day she says, I'm moving away. I'm sorry, but I'm moving a couple thousand miles away. I won't be here every day.

And there's like this emptiness, this huge void. And I think that's what's going to happen. Now, I mean clearly, Oprah has the network. And I think people will follow her there. But this is the end of an era and for many people it'll be the end of a relationship.

MARTIN: Well, what about for you, though? As I understand it, you are still very dear friends. The two of you are very good, good friends. But is it - your show is going to continue - is it a change for you? Is it a loss for you? Is there some sadness for you?

MCGRAW: Well, you know, I'm in a unique situation because we are very close friends and we continue to work together. And she's always been my mentor and helper on the Dr. Phil show, and of course that will continue. And then I'm very involved in the Oprah Winfrey Network, doing a number of projects. So I'm one of those lucky few that gets to continue to have her in my life on an ongoing basis. So I feel very fortunate about that.

MARTIN: Now, you met her when the - many people might remember this, but in case some people don't - back in 1996, the beef industry threw defamation claims at her after she had done a program warning about the possible sort of health risks associated with beef. And then you became, you know, friends in the course of that trial.

Why did you decide to work with - you had a very, you know, established career before then. You were doing your own thing. You were in private practice. You were - had a specific specialty. But what made you want to pursue this adventure with her?

MCGRAW: Well, that's a really good question. And you're right. I was on her defense team up in Amarillo, Texas. And I got to know her really well because I worked with her for a couple of years, actually, leading up that trial, and then during the trial we lived together, a small group of us lived together in a bed and breakfast out on the edge of town for almost two months, as I recall. And so she's my ex-roommate. We all lived out there together. And I really got to know her well and we became very dear friends, as we are today.

And I had no designs whatsoever on ever having a career in television. You're quite right. I had worked in the field of psychology and had a trial consulting firm and loved what I was doing. But then she called and said, look, you really told me how it was during that trial and that candor made a huge difference, not only in the outcome of the trial but the way I felt about it. I want you to come on and do the same with my viewers.

And I said well, I don't know, maybe. At first I said, nah. I was actually going out of the country and I said I think I'll pass. But then the producer said look, we'll wait till you get back and do it.

I thought okay, you know, why not? Give it a shot. And I will say this about Oprah, Michel, and I thought it was really - speaks volumes about her. I said at the time look, all I could do is what I think is right for the person I'm talking to. And maybe that'll make good television and maybe it won't, but I'm not going to say anything that I don't think is exactly right, regardless of what impact it might have on the program. And she said I wouldn't have it any other way. They've got to come first and, you know, we don't want to do anything just for television purposes, do what you think is right at the time and we'll see how it works out. And as the old saying goes, I guess the rest is history.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'll play a clip of Oprah Winfrey describing your contributions to the program. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WINFREY: He gave us more ah-ha moments than we could count.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCGRAW: You talked about flowers and cake and wedding and dress. You're preparing for the wedding but not for the marriage.

WINFREY: Mercy, that is a good statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

WINFREY: That is so good.

MCGRAW: People say time heals all wounds. Let me tell you, time heals nothing. You can do the wrong thing for 10 years and it doesn't equal the right thing for one day. The fact...

WINFREY: Woo, that's good, Phil.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: Can I just say this: How's that working for you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCGRAW: I'll tell you what.

MARTIN: I had to say it.

MCGRAW: Have you ever heard anybody be more enthusiastically supportive of what you have to say? Nobody could pull that off but Oprah.

MARTIN: You know, but to that point, one of the things that you are known for is making the mental health field accessible. One of the things I think people credit Oprah Winfrey for is making mental health issues and seeking mental health support, democratizing that, making it accessible, making it less scary. And I wonder if you feel there's still a need for that. Or what is the next frontier that needs to happen in this area to extend that work, even if Oprah is not going to be there to help? Well, she's, her own network, but you see my question.

MCGRAW: Well, I do and look, there's so much work to be done. I started "The Dr. Phil Show" nine years ago, we're just finishing our ninth season, and I actually looked at one of the interviews I did right before we went on the air for the first time, I looked at it just the other day, and I said in that interview that what we wanted to do was talk about the silent epidemics in America, the things that need attention but don't get it.

And it's interesting that in this ninth season, we really, really focused on the silent epidemics. We began a campaign called End the Silence on Domestic Violence and really worked on trying to bring into center stage, into the bright light, the fact that this is one of the most underreported crimes in our society today.

We have a major campaign on anti-bullying, we work very hard on that, teen pregnancy, a lot of these things that go on that people don't talk about in polite society. And I think they do need to be talked about. And one of the things I'm proudest of is that I think we have advanced the dialogue on mental health in America and mental illness in America. Of course, you know, "The Dr. Phil Show" I think is the first and probably still the only show that is completely devoted to mental health issues. And I think the fact that it's successful speaks to the need.

MARTIN: What do you think Oprah's legacy will be? And understanding that she is going to continue with the Oprah Winfrey Network, but that is not accessible to everybody. You have to have cable and everyone does not. So what do you think for this chapter of her life, what do you think her legacy will be?

MCGRAW: Well, I think she has legitimized the format. You know, I think there are so many shows, particularly in this day and time, of reality television, and we've got such a voyeuristic and narcissistic element to our society where people think they need an audience for brushing their teeth - I mean with YouTube and everything on the Internet. And I think what she's done is said look, there's a way to do this right. There's a way to do this with a responsible dialogue and not sensationalism and I think that has really defined it. And it set the standard for me.

I mean she is the gold standard in television and I grew up in that realm and she, you know, she taught me from the beginning, you know, do it right or don't do it. And you don't have to go for the cheap thrill to be successful.

MARTIN: And are you worried at all though, that this genre, because of the success of her show and then the success of your show, that it has spawned a genre where people are going to continue to up the ante for no other reasons than to distinguish themselves from you in which you're not sure what kind of advice people are actually getting, whether they really are cared for after they have these very searing experiences exposed? Do you ever worry about that?

MCGRAW: Well, I, you know, I do and I think that people look sometimes at the tip of the iceberg, Michel. I think, for example on our show, we have an advisory board that's made up of the top minds in psychology, psychiatry, medicine. I'm mean I have, I think we have like 15, 16 people on our advisory board and I have two past presidents of the American Psychological Association, a professor emeritus from Stanford University, the head of the Family Division from the Harvard Medical School, Dr. John Chirban. All of these different people from the top learning centers around the country, University of Texas, UCLA, all these places. And whenever we do a show, I send that topic and oftentime guest information to some or all of our advisory board and they give me input, they give me feedback.

Hey, Dr. Phil, here's a new study that isn't even published yet. Here's what the, here's what's going on with evidence-based treatment in this area. And so we take all that into account when I go on stage and start saying the things to the guests that I do. And then we have 100 percent aftercare program, resource program where when our guests go home to Omaha or Seattle or Poughkeepsie, then we provide them support in their community with professionals there. And so there's a lot that doesn't meet the eye. And I think most people aren't willing to do all of that and I think that's what you have to do to do it right.

MARTIN: Well, finally, we only have about 30 seconds left and you've already told us a little bit about what you're going to continue to work on. But what are you most excited about going forward, even as we are all mourning the loss of Oprah, at least for this chapter?

MCGRAW: Well, you know, I think we're going to continue to do it right and Oprah will continue to be in people's lives. She has her magazine and her network. And I can just say this: She taught me well and I intend to make her proud.

MARTIN: All right. Dr. Phil is the host and executive producer of the popular syndicated television show "Dr. Phil," which launched in 2002. And he, of course, was known for his association with Oprah Winfrey. Her over-the-air network show is ending this week. And as she shifts her focus to her own work on cable, you can expect to see Dr. Phil there in a series called "Finding Sarah," that involves the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, and "Ask Oprah's All-Stars." And Dr. Phil was kind enough to join us from his home office in Los Angeles.

Dr. Phil, thank you so much for joining us.

MCGRAW: Thank you, Michel. Have a wonderful day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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