Analyze this

From his seat on Oprah, Dallas' Dr. Phil McGraw reigns as the king of quick fixes for troubled relationships. But what about his own?

The following September, McGraw became a regular part of her new psycho-spiritual lineup, a format change under the fix-me-fast New Age banner: Change Your Life TV. No longer did Oprah need to lower her tastes to raise her ratings. Jerry Springer be damned. She would empower, enlighten, and unlock the mysteries of the universe -- as long as it happens in 60 minutes. "Deepak Oprah," as one critic labeled her, gave you a choice of gurus. If neo-cosmic soul-searcher Gary Zukav didn't reverse your karma, or Mars/Venus self-helper John Gray didn't convince your inner child to come out and play, there was always the tough love and colloquial catechisms of "Tell It Like It Is Phil."

As far as Thelma Box was concerned, her former partner had finally found the right vehicle for himself. "He always wanted to be a star."

Phil McGraw turns slightly defensive when questioned about whether he is changing anyone's life on Change Your Life TV.

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Dr. Phil McGraw, far left, co-founded Courtroom Sciences Inc. in Dallas after quitting his silk-stocking psychology practice in Wichita Falls.
Mark Graham
Dr. Phil McGraw, far left, co-founded Courtroom Sciences Inc. in Dallas after quitting his silk-stocking psychology practice in Wichita Falls.

"Absolutely," he says. "And I'll tell you why. In order for people to change, there has to be a dramatic event...I think coming on the Oprah show as an event in itself is a watershed occurrence in people's lives. They get told the bottom-line truth about where they are. And in that environment, I don't think they will ever forget it."

But actual, genuine change from an encounter with Oprah? Is that possible or just good TV?

"It's the psychological version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," says Dr. Ellen McGrath, past president of the Media Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association and a media consultant to several national news shows. "It's the quintessential cultural product. Get some quick advice and change your life. You, too, can hit the psychological jackpot."

But there is no quick fix to behavioral change. It's slow, often painful, and hard to make stick. "Dr. Phil is a gifted motivational speaker, and if your goal is to begin the change process, he is a master at it," McGrath says. "But igniting change is just 30 percent of the change process."

Which is, of course, better than nothing.

"But what happens after the magic of Oprah wears off?" asks Dr. Marion Jacobs, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles. "If you feel you ought to be able to do what Dr. Phil tells you, but can't, that can cause guilt. It can be anti-therapeutic."

The real work comes after the TV high craters, when those feelings of loss or anxiety return in the night and Dr. Phil is nowhere to be found. "No one changes by themselves," McGrath says. "You need to work through the problem, talk through your struggles with somebody, figure out why you do what you do. Only then can you consolidate the change by making it a habit. That takes time. Not 15 minutes of fame."

McGraw contends that much behind-the-scenes work goes on before the guests ever get on the air. Oprah staffers conduct extensive background interviews, which he studies in depth. "We also follow up with the guests," he says. "We may recommend that they get therapy. Sometimes we even bring them back for follow-up shows. It may be a seven-minute segment, but it represents three weeks of focus on their lives. I think it's a tremendous gift."

But the real value, continues McGraw, is the show's effects on its viewers. "I think it educates and inspires millions."

"Both Phil and Oprah are very skilled at emotional education," McGrath says. "But the man is also doing therapy on TV, and that raises some real ethical concerns."

Dr. J. Ray Hayes, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at University of Texas Medical School in Houston, is more blunt. "People who try to fix people on TV are committing malpractice. Any competent therapist knows you must have a personal relationship with someone in order to treat them. Otherwise the intervention is just entertainment."

But it's precisely his entertainment value that makes McGraw such a hot property. His TV persona is anything but cuddly -- the style that builds trust between therapist and patient and is most conducive to change. "He doesn't have a good relationship style," McGrath says. "He's a bottom-liner; he loves to win. He's an attorney doing therapy. That's not the way to work with people's vulnerabilities."

But America loves that kind of "command and control" performance, someone with the absolute answers to life's uncertainties. "It's a spectator sport to watch someone be humiliated," McGrath says. "It's entertaining, it's good TV, but whether or not it's helpful is debatable."

McGraw insists he does more than merely entertain. "I don't confront just for the sake of confronting," he says. "I listen, I weigh, I respond with what I believe is the truth, whether they want to hear it or not."

And what's the truth about his life? How have the life strategies he's divined for others worked in his? He started out a workaholic, he says, neglected his wife, his infant son, absorbed with making money and building a career. "That was a real bad time for me," he admits. But one of his life laws is, life is managed, not cured, and right now, he says, he's managing just fine.

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