I'm sitting in Acer Arena, part of the Olympic Centre in Sydney, and it's 7.30 pm. In half an hour, popular TV relationships counsellor and talk show host “Dr Phil” McGraw will take to the stage. Looking around, I note a predominance of women in the audience: there must be at least five times as many women as men.
“Excuse me” (I'm speaking to the two ladies seated behind me—a mother and daughter). “Why are there so few men here tonight?”
“Well,” the daughter replies (I guess she's in her 30s), “men don't have time to watch daytime TV. It's us women at home with the kids who get the chance to watch his program. Also, Dr Phil's into relationships and that's not men's territory!”
The mother adds her opinion: “He's so positive. And so into families. I'm Italian and we love our families, so I like him.”
I wonder if this opinion is shared by others in the nearby rows.
“Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” (I'm talking to the lady across the aisle.) “Why does Dr Phil attract so many ladies and so few men?”
“Oh, that's easy,” she says. “He taps into the emotions—something men aren't into so much!”
I decide to check this emerging theme with the woman two rows down: “Women are more into this ‘stuff '; men don't see a need to do this kind of thing!”
It's about now that I think my wife would really have enjoyed this show, and I could be home working in the shed! But the opinions do give a clue to his popularity.
Since the launch of his one-hour daily TV program in September 2002, Dr Phil has become the second-highest rated daytime talk show in the US.
It has achieved the highest ratings of any new syndicated program since the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is also the author of six number-one New York Times bestsellers, including Relationship Rescue: A Seven-Step Strategy for Reconnecting with Your Partner; Family First: Your Step-by-Step Plan forCreating a Phenomenal Family; and Love Smart: Find the One You Want, Fix the One You Got. Dr Phil is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Ultimate Weight Solution Cookbook: Recipes for Weight Loss as well as the Ultimate Weight Solution Food Guide.
His books have been published in 39 languages with over 24 million copies in print.
So why has Dr Phil made his way into the homes and hearts of so many Australians and New Zealander's, particularly women? Is it about him, or more about what he does?
I branch out to a few rows across the aisle. “Excuse me, do you mind me asking why you came to hear Dr Phil?
What qualities in him do you admire?”
“Oh, he's such a positive man, with such strong family values. He really is a family man.”
“I think he has such a nice personality; he comes across on TV as being really approachable, a good listener, intelligent—and he offers such good, solid advice.”
“He's motivating; I go back to his books often! “He's hot! And I like his moustache!”
“He's inspirational and so positive.”
“He deals with everyday stuff—offering advice to deal with issues you can apply to your own life.”
“His program covers such a wide variety of topics; something is going to touch someone's life somewhere!”
“He gets people to admit their problems and to take an objective look at themselves.”
Dr Phil McGraw has been telling millions of his listeners to take a closer look at themselves and “get real” for almost seven years, and his popularity and fan base suggest that's exactly what they want to hear. He's seen as being serious about helping his guests, who are real people with real problems.
He comes across as genuinely compassionate and respectful. There's real concern for those who are hurting. Is it this compassion, empathy, respect and a genuine desire to find solutions that wins so many listeners? Is it his readiness to confront the so-called silent epidemics— child abuse, domestic violence, depression, substance abuse and racism that creates so much appeal to the midday viewer?
If the women in the seats around me are right, Dr Phil's appeal lies in his ability to delve into human relationships, find the flaws and foibles, call them for what they are, then provide some directions for healing and renewal.
His focus on relationships is core material of the heart—even for us men.
We all relate to someone, somewhere— our partners, our kids, our bosses or employees, and at sports and social events. And we all have to admit we get them wrong at times! We mess up relationships. We break the relational rules, either out of mindlessness or malice.
We hurt and are hurt. The trouble is we tend to “press on regardless”—we don't always stop to assess what might be going on that's leading to the pain and breakdown.
It is in this that Dr Phil calls for accountability. “We're 100 per cent accountable for our lives,” he states.
“You will live by design.” “You need to choose to be who you want to be, because one year from now, you will be better, or worse—you choose now. Your choices have consequences!”
Dr Phil's listeners are also drawn by his authority. He's a voice of strength in times of uncertainty. There's a conviction, a strength of opinion and a certainty that his way is the right way to go. He is regarded by many as an “anchor” for families when all else seems so fluid and unsettled. As some said, “His real strength is that he tells it like it is!” “He is bold and strong!” “He is confident and has a tough no-nonsense approach.”
The human heart will rightfully fear someone who speaks with authority alone. Authority without compassion can be critical and cruel, destroying self-worth and dismantling courage.
Authority needs to be tempered with respect and sensitivity.
Dr Phil's listeners give him full marks right there. He speaks with conviction that's wrapped in compassion. He “gives it to you straight” but there's a genuine warmth, sincerity and empathy that softens the blow.
For some listeners, Dr Phil's call for responsibility, ownership and behavioural change might be likened to the call of the community priest, rabbi or reverend. It may be that Dr Phil, in fact, has become “church” for some.
He certainly highlights people's failures to be responsible and to be decent human beings. He speaks of “guilt” and the need for “forgiveness” and personal “realignment.” He offers solutions for making things right and clearing the air. It's a no-nonsense invitation to get things in order, pick up the game, make a U-turn, get things into proper perspective. These are all common religious themes that can be readily heard from a pulpit.
Maybe in an age where formalised church is often unpractised, it's that Dr Phil is providing an alternative “pew”— a loungeroom church. Does the average Australian or New Zealander feel more comfortable being challenged to personal order from inside their home rather than inside a formal church?
Does McGraw provide a more private place for his listeners to address fundamental human needs—the need to find forgiveness from guilt, to be challenged to rise above the ordinary or to face the consequences of decisions and actions?
Maybe we prefer a less public place to consider our key concerns. Reverend Brian Heath of St John's Anglican Church in Asquith, Sydney, recently said, “The days of expecting people to walk through the doors (of the church) are over.”1 Or maybe it's that we're strangely drawn to observing people struggle through deep, personal issues on stage while we iron the shirts or feed the baby at a safe distance?
I want to ask these questions of those around me but I've run out of time.
It's a few minutes past eight, and Dr Phil emerges from the corner door. The arena instantly comes alive with fervent clapping, whistling and foot stomping.
“Well, hello, Australia. How ya doin'?” he says, and the show begins.
He sends-up the typical Australian husband for being lazy, and more interested in beer and sports than supporting the wife with housework. He then challenges the wife to be less intense and to start enjoying life.
He tells personal stories of his youth and doesn't leave out the detail of being the son of an alcoholic father.
He highlights the challenges of raising kids and parenting teens.
He speaks of the differences between husbands and wives, and reminds his listeners that differences “are OK.”
He reminds the audience that the divorce rate in Australia is 43 per cent, then adds, “God had a plan, and we decided to fix it!”
He points out that you can't solve a problem with the same strategy that you created it with! He leads his audience to both silent reflection and raw humour.
Through it all, he stays faithful to his core message—“You live by design.
You need to choose to be who you want to be.”
That's a fair message, and maybe it is time for us all to “get real.”
1. Steven Deare, “Bring on the Debate,” Hornsby and Upper North Shore Advocate, January 22, 2009, page 11.