To begin with, I work mostly with adolescents and their families and have read and used a good deal of Phil McGraw’s writing – as well as some of his son’s (also, a psychologist.) I have no personal ax to grind against him and I do feel that his TV show successfully exposes some of it’s viewers to psychological thinking for the first time. It is not all bad and I have watched more than a few shows to better understand what my clients are talking about when I see them after they have watched it. He is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, is fully trained and certified to practice psychotherapy and is quite careful, as I’m sure the network lawyers have cautioned him and his staff, to have ‘participants’ sign a document indicating that they understand that what they will be getting is not therapy, but that they are participating in a form of entertainment. Fine and good – however, it is clear from the guests that appear – people who are in a LOT of trouble, psychologically speaking, that they are both 1) desperate for help and 2) greedy for their few moments of fame and attention on national TV. Papers signed notwithstanding, most viewers feel that they are watching him perform the activity of ‘psychotherapy’ and the sponsors, producers and Dr. McGraw himself MUST be aware of this. The ‘misunderstanding’ is quite obviously deliberate and facilitates greater viewer interest and, consequently, commercial time value – the real point to ANY television show. By doing what he does on the air, this particular psychologist, I suggest, is doing more harm to the helpful enterprise of therapy than he is doing good.
He pontificates, argues and lectures. His wisdom must fit in between commercials and be completed by the program’s end. He listens only a little – after all, the network is not paying the guests millions to speak -they are paying HIM. People watch to see what Dr. Phil will do with these trainwrecks who, all humility tucked not-so-neatly into a drawer in their basement, appear on his show to make a spectacle out of themselves, their families and loved ones. Dr. Phil eats it up – it is the grist for his mill of entertainment in the shallow guise of psychological help. His guests are not, no matter what form of ‘informed consent’ they have signed, entertainers. They are people in pain desperate to get help. I do not hold it against him that he is successful at what he is doing – at least monetarily, nor that he strongly resembles Peter Boyle’s character in “Young Frankenstein.” It is WHAT he is doing and the effect it may be having on his viewers and their views about and expectations regarding the process of therapy that concern me.
Fights explode, tears and tempers erupt and the audience eats it up – yet, after an hour or so (less the essential time for commercials), the good doctor is able to deliver his summary wisdom to the rapt minds and adoring ears of his audience while his visibly adoring wife, who is always there to escort him off the set at the end – rises from her own seat in the audience to walk with him hand-in-hand off the set.
Therapy is serious business. It deals with human suffering and pain – but not by making it into a sideshow for the edification and entertainment of the voyeuristic among us. Be clear. If you watch Dr. Phil; – go right ahead. But try to remember that what you are seeing has little if anything to do with psychotherapy – it has to do with entertainment. Much like other forms of the increasingly popular genre of what is loosely referred to as ‘reality TV’, Dr. Phil’s show is no more about psychotherapy than “The Survivor” is really about survival. These are entertainments in their most banal incarnations in that they engage and entertain their audiences by exposing others to the suffering, pain and anguish of their fellow human beings.
If there is no confusion about what is ‘real’ therapy and what is Dr. McGraw’s psychobabble sideshow, there is no problem. To those for whom the disctinction is moot, I can only offer my most sincere cautions, for a misunderstand of the essence of real therapeutic help can predictably interfere with a person’s willingness to seek it out when and if it is really ever needed. “Reality TV” simply does not help anyone understand ‘reality.’