Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Phil, otherwise known as Phil McGraw, has been a regular presence on TV screens and online since the coronavirus outbreak. With a Master of Arts in experimental psychology and a PHD in clinical psychology, he has been helping his guests and viewers deal with the emotional aspects of the pandemic.
His CBS daytime show was one of the first to film without an audience and shut down studio production. But it has remained on air, essentially never stopping as he and his exec producer Carla Pennington pivoted to a news mode. Filming on his iPad from his Beverly Hills home with guests joining via Zoom, the show was largely taped in real time, covering topics ranging from mental health and parenting to handling addiction and isolation.
In addition, McGraw has been conducting Facebook and Instagram live sessions as well as snippets on TikTok.
DEADLINE: How have the last few weeks been for you? Feels like you’re busier than ever.
PHIL McGRAW: It really has been a busy time, I shot three shows yesterday from home and started shooting at 10:30 AM and didn’t finish until 6 PM. I also did a podcast as well. This is Dr. Phil from the kitchen, I’ve got a one-man crew: my wife Robin, she’s doing lighting, cameras, does hair and makeup, wardrobe with a good attitude. I’m actually just shooting into an iPhone or iPad depending on what’s happening. The cameras on these devices are amazing, they take a really good picture and Robin has got me a bunch of her mirrors with lights on and set them up and it’s really amazing. I’ve got a teleprompter, I’ve got Carla and a supervising producer and the producer who’s actually doing the show, they’re all joining by Zoom, and then there’s John Perry, who’s directing and has the patience of Job. We’ve set up one Zoom session for all of the staff and crew and then another Zoom session where we put the guests in a green room and then we move them on to the active camera when it’s time to go. We’ve got it down to a pretty good style.
DEADLINE: How has that process been from filming the show at Paramount to Phil’s kitchen?
PENNINGTON: It was quite the turnaround process because we wanted to follow the guidelines and shut down. Everyone in town has been having to react to the ever-changing guidelines and Phil is a mental health expert so for him to go dark and sit around in his pyjamas didn’t make sense for us so we rallied. So, we figured out how to record on Zoom and seed it out. CBS in New York was having such issues, the broadcast center was shutting down, so we had to figure out how to feed the show. We have an amazing staff and we were able to do it in a couple of days and we’ve got a good system now. Everyone is at home wanting to talk to PhIl with a lot of anxiety.
McGRAW: We’ve never been through anything like this. From a psychological perspective, my attitude was this is the biggest challenge, psychologically as a nation, that we’ve faced since 9/11. My attitude was this was the worst time in the world for Dr. Phil to go silent. We’ve spent all of this time building this relationship with the country, when we have these disasters like 9/11, which happened to the whole country but was [largely] in one location, and hurricanes, which hit Miami or New Orleans, then the rest of the country can rally around that one location and we come together. But here, it’s every state, every town, every city and we’re told not to come together but to stay apart. So, what we’re doing is coming together by staying separate. It’s a challenge that brings on loneliness and that brings on depression, then you add in the pressure of economic collapse around everybody’s ear, where they’ve lost their jobs but still have their mortgage or lease and kids to feed and on top of that they’ve got three or four children at home and have become teacher with homeschooling and one computer and having to do three or four curriculums with one computer – what could possibly go wrong?
DEADLINE: You made the decision to stay on TV rather than move online as a number of other people did. How was that?
PENNINGTON: It definitely was a challenge. For us to just to do a vignette, didn’t make much sense because there’s so much to say. I wore many hats during the first few shows. I’m not very good at math but suddenly I was having to count down in Phil’s ear, giving him times for the segments; I was script supervisor and AD, but it worked and we all pulled together and made it happened because it’s an important thing to do. It’s not exactly the prettiest show but it’s a talk show and Phil knows how to deliver a message and I’ve never seen a country in more need of that message. I’m glad we were able to do it. We’ve got an edit system set up at home but we’ve set it up in a way that we don’t really have to do a lot of editing so that’s made it a lot easier.
DEADLINE: Are you able to take a long-term view of the show or are you getting by day-by-day?
McGRAW: Right now, everything has been framed in the challenges brought on by COVID-19 but really we’re dealing with human functioning. The fear of the disease and the pressure from the financial strain and the tension brought on by the togetherness and being on top of each other for extended periods of time are human functioning issues of stress, loneliness, anxiety, all of those things that are common challenges to the human experience are being brought into sharp relief by the situation. We’re dealing with the things that we typically deal with, they’re just being framed by the virus. I’ve always said “crises don’t make heroes, crises show who you really are.” If someone turns out to be a hero in a crisis, they were a hero waiting for a crisis. If they turn out to be a real jerk, they were a jerk waiting for a stage.
DEADLINE: You’ve spoken to some of these jerks like the influencer wannabe who licked a toilet bowl to get publicity who threatened to spit on you.
McGRAW: Oh my god, if brains were lard, she couldn’t grease the skillet. She was just unbelievable.
DEADLINE: It feels like now is the return of the expert, something we necessarily haven’t said over the last few years. Do you agree?
McGRAW: I’m not an immunologist, I’m not an infectious disease expert but because I have the profile I do, I have access to the top people in the world and I will tell you what they’re telling me with no political spin, no agenda. I hate when I turn on Fox News or CNN and I hear people beating the political drum around all of this, that is so frustrating to me, I just want to say to the politicians “shut up and let the scientists speak.” What I’m doing is giving people the facts as we know it and that’s a moving target because this is a new virus and we’re learning about it every single day and some things that we were talking about a couple of weeks ago, we’re able to add to it now and that’s going to continue. We don’t need to politicize this.
DEADLINE: A number of the late-night hosts from Jimmy Fallon to James Corden have talked about the need to entertain people during this crisis. How important is laughter right now?
McGRAW: They’re all friends of mine. Those guys are really important right now. We need to take our mind off this, we need laughter and we need to watch sitcoms and watch something on Netflix that was taped six months ago before all of this happened. We need to not obsess on this and I hope that we’re going to get to the point where we can air some shows that were shot before all of this started to remind people of human functioning before to show that we’ll get back to that. We need to find some laughter, I love the memes that we’re seeing out there and the jokes about people hoarding toilet paper. People ask “how can you joke at a time like this?” You better joke at a time like this or you’ll go crazy.
DEADLINE: In addition to the CBS show, you’re appearing on TikTok and Instagram and Facebook. Any platforms left that you’re not on?
McGRAW: I’m sure there are; I didn’t even know about TikTok until a month ago. My social team said “we want to put you on TikTok” and I said “they time me doing everything now” but, apparently, it’s a new app. I’m not exactly a tech wiz but anywhere you can find people right now to give them a message, whether it’s to put a smile on their face or give them information they need, we need to use all of that. That’s why I’m doing Facebook and Instagram live every morning, doing a fireside chat telling people about the show that day and things that have popped up in the news. Anywhere I can get the message out to pay attention to your mental hygiene as well as your physical hygiene, that goes along with it. because if you neglect that, it can cause as much damage in your life as the virus itself, we have to take care of our mental health.
DEADLINE: We all know that we need to wash our hands thoroughly. What’s the 20-second handwash for your mind?
McGRAW: You have to decompress a couple of times during the day. If people will actually in a meditative way, get by themselves and clear their minds and rid their bodies from tension, clench your fists and relaxing, breathing in for three second and breathing out for six seconds, 10 times in a row. That calms your body. You can do that for 10 minutes and the effects last for eight to 10 hours so if you do that twice a day, it can have a profound effect on the accumulation of stress and lactic acid; it really has a lasting effect.
DEADLINE: Do you ever miss the simpler stories of catfishing and wanting to be like the Kardashians?
McGRAW: Those were certainly easier and I look back now and sometimes asked Carla “can we do something different for a couple of days.” Now I’d like a few of those stories.
DEADLINE: You must be dying to get back in front of your audience?
McGRAW: It’s interesting for Dr. Phil – I’m not talking about myself in the third person, I mean the television entity – our audience is very different. A lot of shows in L.A. will pull a bus up on Hollywood and Vine and say anybody want to watch a TV show. Our audiences are booked out six to nine months in advance, our audience is passionate and committed and very much a part of what we do because we talk about things that matter to people that care. The people who come in, watch every day for the last 20 years, to come and be in the audience is a real highlight. They feel the pain and victory of our guests. The energy and buy-in in the room is very special.