Psychologist Dr. Phil flying solo

Sunday, September 15, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Dr. Phil strides out onto a sleekly decorated set, a rousing Shania Twain tune blasting from video monitors behind him and a cheering audience before him.

As the applause and strains of "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" ebb, it takes just moments for Phillip C. McGraw, psychologist, best-selling author and Oprah Winfrey sidekick, to strike.

"All right, don't suck up now. It's too late, you're in and the door is locked," he says, tweaking the crowd at the taping of his new syndicated talk show.

It's quintessential Dr. Phil -- a slice of straight talk, hold the whipped cream and the whining -- and the largely female audience loves it.

"He's wonderful," said Shannon Little, 31, of Anaheim Hills, Calif. "I think he's brilliant. ... He doesn't mess around. He gets right to the point."

After some four years of dispensing prickly advice on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in regular guest appearances, McGraw has his own one-hour daily program. An impressive forum it is.

"Dr. Phil," created by Winfrey's Harpo Productions and produced by Paramount TV, debuts Monday in virtually all television markets (97 percent), an astounding start for syndicated fare.

Most stations will air the program in the afternoon, a choice slot usually bestowed after shows prove themselves in lesser time periods. What's different here is Dr. Phil's lineage.

"You're looking at the only (talk) show that's ever gotten the Oprah seal of approval and is as close to a spinoff of Oprah as there'll ever be," said Bill Carroll, an analyst for media buying firm Katz Television in New York.

"I think he has a very good chance of success, but there are no guarantees," Carroll said.

McGraw was able to ensure contractually that he won't compete against Winfrey, a major advantage, the analyst noted.

However, the competitive afternoon time slot may put "Dr. Phil" up against other established talk or courtroom shows or even a network soap opera. Will viewers choose a regular dose of McGraw's directness?

"Dr. Phil" also must jockey for attention with a pack of other new syndicated hopefuls, including John Walsh, Wayne Brady and Caroline Rhea.

Since stations are forking over substantial fees for McGraw's show, Carroll said, there's "huge pressure" for it to be a quick success. There's also recognition that in 2006, if Winfrey ends her run as expected, there will be a golden opportunity for someone to fill the void.

That doesn't mean he must immediately produce Oprah-sized top ratings. But there should be evidence that McGraw is beating the competition, Carroll said.

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