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Analyzing 'Dr. Phil'

Is Dr. Phil all style and no substance, or is the wildly popular show therapeutic? We seek counseling on the issue.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 19, 2002

Did you hear the one about the three psychotherapists who watched an episode of Dr. Phil . . . ?

Known for years as an attention-getting element of Oprah Winfrey's blockbuster daytime talk show, psychologist Dr. Phillip C. McGraw has emerged as the likely successor to her throne. The start of his own program this fall generated the biggest debut ratings of any new talk show since Oprah's 1986 bow.

Centered on McGraw's blunt, no-nonsense advice on everything from middle-aged women dating to oral sex among teenagers, Dr. Phil purports to cut through the complexities of modern life with common-sense solutions and a minimum of excuses.

It's an approach that has led to blockbuster success. McGraw's show has emerged as the nation's second-highest-rated syndicated talk show, right behind Oprah. Locally, Dr. Phil drew 16 percent of the available audience during November's "sweeps" ratings period, winning its time period and once again falling just behind Winfrey among all syndicated chat series.

But is his advice truly healthy for viewers to follow?

To answer that question, the St. Petersburg Times invited three psychotherapists to watch portions of two Dr. Phil episodes with an eye toward dissecting the tough-talking Texan's counseling style.

The participants:

Lynda Gurvitz, 52, a Clearwater therapist with a general psychotherapy practice specializing in behavioral medicine, women's issues and neuropsychology;

Charles Wheaton, 58, Gurvitz's husband, works in the same office, often handling forensic work in which he must diagnose the mental state of those who have been arrested.

Naomi Korn, 62, a St. Petersburg therapist with 38 years of experience and specialties in family work, sex therapy and trauma.

The three generally didn't dispute much of the substance of McGraw's advice, but they did object to his in-your-face style -- particularly during a show dubbed "Project Single Girls," in which McGraw dissected the behavior of four middle-aged, single women who said they couldn't find quality men to date.
“I really didn’t have a problem with the content . . . though there were some things that were kind of corny.”

Lynda Gurvitz,
a Clearwater therapist

"I really didn't have a problem with the content . . . though there were some things that were kind of corny," said Gurvitz, noting McGraw's distinction between the "authentic self" (the person you truly are) vs. the "fictional self" (the person you reveal to the world for social acceptance).

"I had a (bigger) problem with the humorous kind of put-down style that he has," she added. "It's easy to come up with these kinds of reasons for why people are having the same problems in relationships. But the hard work is helping people figure out how to do things differently . . . and I'm not sure he's giving them any tools to do anything differently."

During the "Project Single Girls" episode, McGraw presented Lauren, Nina, Jill and Crystal, all thirtysomething, attractive women, who, somehow, can't find the romantic relationship they want. Seating the women onstage before his audience, McGraw presented comments from old boyfriends, feedback from parents, interviews with the women themselves and footage from two panelists' blind dates to discover what problems they may have.
“If you can take a set of steps out of a book or off a TV show and go out and use it and it works, that’s fine.”

Charles Wheaton,
a Clearwater therapist

It was an interesting display, turning what might have been a paper-thin topic into a compelling hour of television. And McGraw's laserlike focus on his audience -- primarily middle-aged women from the Oprah demographic -- allowed him to bluntly highlight each woman's shortcomings without looking like a bully.

"Y'all need to give (men) a code book," McGraw said, his Texas drawl coloring his words. "When you say, 'I'll call you,' you mean tomorrow. When a man says, 'I'll call you,' we mean before we die."

For Gurvitz, such comments were more than an attempt to entertain; they were a subtle put-down that poked fun at already vulnerable women.

"I feel like he's in very subtle ways ridiculing these women . . . and the audience gets to, in a sadistic way, ridicule them (too)," Gurvitz added. "It reminds me how several of my patients who have real problems with anger just love Judge Judy; they really get into how critical and angry she is. I think they are kind of indirectly (fulfilling) their own sadistic needs . . . but they're not doing it, so they don't have to feel guilty."

Like some other therapists, Korn worried that viewers will come to real-life mental health professionals expecting a dose of Dr. Phil's medicine, or worse, assume that such shows are a possible substitute for serious therapy.
“Watch it with someone whom you can talk to later. I like to encourage people to process and talk about what they’re seeing. ”

Naomi Korn,
a St. Petersburg therapist

"(His solutions) are kind of like a recipe; I was thinking of Julia Child -- first you do this, then you do that . . . and then you can go home," she said, mocking the simplicity of McGraw's solutions. "If you go to a therapist, this might not be what you get. I mean, how many people come in, and what they really want is for you to give them advice?"

Gurvitz hopes viewers who may have problems similar to those featured on the show use the program as inspiration to seek help from professionals. But Wheaton felt the kind of people whose problems were mild enough to be solved by an hour of Dr. Phil likely wouldn't need his services anyway.

"I think of myself as seeing people this kind of (show) doesn't work for," he said. "If you can take a set of steps out of a book or off a TV show and go out and use it and it works, that's fine. The people who come and see therapists are people that try to use that, and something more self-destructive happens. Then they get madder."

A onetime therapist-turned-trial consultant who now calls himself a "life strategist," McGraw's showbiz career began after his Courtroom Sciences firm helped Winfrey win a lawsuit from Texas cattlemen and she began featuring him on her shows.

Given his background in traditional psychotherapy, it makes sense that our panel saw some techniques used by mainstream therapists mirrored in McGraw's approach. Terms such as "authentic and fictional" self and "tapes" (defined as internal messages that play repeatedly in your mind and may preprogram you for failure) may not be the actual words used by other professional therapists, but some concepts come close.

Even the practice of setting participants on a stage and delving into the details of their problems is something psychologists have done in seminar settings, Wheaton said.

"On his Web site, he says very clearly that he does not do any therapy, and the only way to talk to Dr. Phil about your problems is to go on the show," he said. "It's a way of using these examples to entertain and educate."

For Wheaton, the parallel between the show and established therapy techniques emerged in statements like the one McGraw delivered confidently to the "Project Single Girls" panel: "You look at a common pattern of (your) relationships that go down . . . the only common factor is you. You have to own part of that."

"That's a commonly used (method) . . . to look at people's thinking that has negative consequences, that's self-destructive, and help them see when they're doing it," Wheaton added. "Now, that progression from looking at what you're doing to developing a plan for making it better -- I just don't know (how well McGraw's show handles that)."

Indeed, what emerged early into the "Project Single Girls" episode is that the women already knew what their likely problems were in attracting men: pressuring men for commitment, being too judgmental too quickly, going into dates with a defeatist attitude.

But what they needed -- concrete strategies for overcoming those problems and handling dates better -- wasn't as plentiful. (At the end of the show, which our panel did not see, McGraw did offer some tips to the women on living their "authentic self" and meeting men.)

"Some of these women, their authentic self is that they're pretty aggressive and judgmental," Gurvitz cracked after watching a clip in which Lauren told a divorced dad on a blind date that she dislikes dating men with children. "The problem may be that their authentic self isn't very pleasant."

McGraw scored much higher marks in the second episode the panel viewed, in which he drafted son Jay McGraw to talk with teens and their sexual activity. In a departure from an earlier episode, when he focused on teen girls talking about sex, McGraw showed footage of boys who talked of finding as many girls to provide oral sex as possible, with no emotional attachment.

Brandishing statistics showing that 10 percent of teens have sex by age 14 and 50 percent are sexually active by the 10th grade, McGraw urged viewers to wake up to the "silent epidemic" of oral sex among teens.

"Oral sex is, like, testing the waters," said Jay McGraw, a handsome, blue-eyed twentysomething whose easygoing interview style seemed to work well with his teen subjects. "That's why most teenagers do it -- the rush."

"I really felt this was educational and not just entertainment," Gurvitz said. "He missed the boat on . . . teaching these boys to treat girls with respect . . . (accepting) that guys are just pigs and there's nothing we can do about it, and you just have to teach girls to protect themselves. But I felt he really met his goal of teaching things that were useful to the community."

But Wheaton had a problem with one aspect of the show: showing the identities of young girls who admitted to engaging in oral sex.

"If he believes that casual oral sex is stigmatizing, what's he doing making these girls so identifiable . . . showing their faces on TV?" Wheaton said. "Why are the parents letting their daughters be that identifiable?"

Still, our panel admired the central messages of his episode: that parents should realize the scope of the trend, should get involved in the lives of their children and should talk about sex openly and honestly with children as soon as they can understand the issues.

"Kids will roll their eyes and look out the window . . . but their ears are still open," McGraw told a father, who admitted he urged his teen daughter to avoid sex while teaching his teenage son how to practice it safely. "But the whole plan is, you keep talking and the day comes when she plays it back when you're not there."

Indeed, compared to freak shows like Maury Povich's Maury and Jenny Jones, McGraw's programs -- centered on isolating problems, informing the audience and suggesting solutions -- may be models of enlightenment.

"It's hard to think how any (of his advice) might be damaging, with the possible exception of the 'authentic self' part," Wheaton said. "That's one of those bromides, where if you always put it into action, you may have trouble. It's like communication: if you always communicate how you feel, sometimes people won't want to hear it."

Korn, who remained concerned that viewers might spend too much time watching such shows, urged fans to see them with a friend or relative.

"Watch it with someone whom you can talk to later," she said. "I like to encourage people to process and talk about what they're seeing. Don't just take it in like pablum."

At a glance

Dr. Phil airs weekdays at 10 a.m. on WTSP-Ch. 10.

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