In just two years, Phillip C. McGraw -- better known as "Dr. Phil" -- has turned his daily talk show into a huge hit, boosted by a string of best-selling books and related merchandise. He recently spoke to BusinessWeek Los Angeles Correspondent Arlene Weintraub in his office after a recent taping. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: How do you prepare for the show every day?
A: We have about 10 production teams, and each one does about every 10th show. So they each have a couple of weeks to develop a specific show. I get involved fairly early on deciding what stories we're going to do, because I want to make sure we stay within topics that I really know something about.
I usually get a notebook, which will be anywhere from 15 to 200 pages, that gives me all the information about our guests. We look at their history. I also read a lot. If I get into a particular topic, like postpartum depression, we do thorough research to see if there is anything new under the sun -- new medicines, new techniques, new findings.
Q: How do you define the topics that you're comfortable covering?
A: If it's within the realm of human functioning, I feel comfortable with it. I'm not going to tell you what to do with your 401(k). That's not my long suit.
Q: Some critics say your style with guests is too confrontational, and that your approach to solving problems is too simple. How do you respond to that?
A: I don't ever confront just to be confronting. I don't support just to be supportive. There are times to push, and times to ask questions that lead to answers, and there are times to connect the dots and say "This is how I see it." I really don't think we're doing 8-minute cures up there on stage. I think what we're doing is being an emotional compass. People come in, I tell them to consider this and consider that. Then when they leave, that's when the real work starts.
Q: You once did a drug intervention with a teenager on your show. How risky did you feel that would be?
A: That's on the edge of the envelope. I've done it many times off the air, so I felt comfortable, but I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out. Not every intervention turns out with someone willing to go to treatment. We worked on that in concert with his parents for weeks before we did it.
We had escorts from a San Antonio treatment center available and ready to receive him directly from our stage to rehab. But we did it in real time. I didn't know what he would do -- if he would get up and rip his mike out and walk off. [He went to rehab.] He's doing really well now.
Q: How did you change the show in its second season?
A: We decided to create a mix of ongoing stories. We had 13 people in our weight-loss challenge that we followed all year. There was one family that we did 19 or 20 shows with. The whole idea is to make it relatable for people and to deal with some things in a more ongoing, serious fashion.
Q: How did you first become interested in the issue of obesity?
A: It comes from my family. First and foremost, I buried my dad years before he should have gone, because he had heart disease secondary to lifelong obesity. He was always 100 pounds overweight. The weight strained his heart. He was 63 when he died. I've buried five aunts and uncles who were overweight. I've been burying family members in big coffins for a long time. It's horrible.
Q: What do you think is the key to weight loss?
A: It's about changing the way you think. People medicate themselves with food. You have to start eating for nutritional reasons and get out of the pattern of using food for different reasons.
Q: You started a legal consulting firm, Courtroom Sciences Inc. (CSI) in 1989. What drew you to that business?
A: I'm a competitive person. I play tennis every day. I love things where you keep score. I had been in private practice as a psychologist, and I found that it was too subjective. If I work with you and you're depressed, are you better in six months? It depends what day I catch you on. I enjoyed litigation much much more. You get involved in a case, you prepare it, you prepare the witnesses, review the jury, the graphics. Then it's game time.
Q: It was through CSI that you met Oprah Winfrey, who invited you on her show. What did you learn during your five years on that show?
A: I've always said I'm the only graduate from Oprah University. Oprah has a unique ability to relate to the audience and to ask questions that people at home want her to ask. She also has an unwavering commitment to do it right. She could produce her show a lot cheaper than she does.
What also makes her so unique is she didn't come out of the faucet of everybody-looks-alike Hollywood. She's female, overweight, black. She always told me "Be who you are."
Q: Where did you first hone your straight-talking style?
A: I once did training seminars for corporations. I'd train everyone from the CEO down on how to create a corporate culture, improve communication skills, manage stress, and resolve conflicts. When I'd come into a company, I'd stand in front of the room, watch everyone for a few minutes, and then say "O.K. everyone, congratulations, you just wasted the first five minutes of your time here. Did anyone talk about anything meaningful? You've got problems. Let's talk about it." It's no different than what I do now on the show.
Q: What's the root of your trademark style of telling it like it is?
A: That's how I was raised. I grew up in an era of athletics. I played football all my life. I had coaches who weren't worried about being politically correct. You blew a play, and they said, "That's absolutely horrible. You're slow and clumsy. Come back here and do it again." They weren't afraid of hurting my feelings. There are people who are very straightforward. It's the only way I know how to be. You learn what you live, I guess.