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Dr Phil’s reinvention as a culture warrior isn’t working

Dr Phil McGraw speaks to Benjamin Netanyahu last week. Credit: Dr Phil Primetime/Youtube

May 13, 2024 - 3:20pm

The interview of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last week by reality TV host Dr Phil McGraw has already provoked controversy for allegedly glossing over Palestinian suffering. But, really, it’s just another stage in the progression of America’s sensationalist talk-show format.

In the early Nineties, genre pioneer Jerry Springer “started out with shows about the Waco siege and the Iran-contra scandal. But the ratings weren’t there,” according to Irina Aleksander. In response, he leant into what did bring in viewers: “porn stars who set world records, child alcoholics, conjoined twins, people who self-amputated their limbs and married farm animals and their own cousins”. If TV was a circus, then Springer was P.T. Barnum. While he didn’t create the daytime trash genre, he owned it.

That’s the scene which McGraw surveyed when, having made his name as a recurring guest on Oprah, his eponymous show began in 2002. Dr Phil would go on to define the next generation of daytime programming, and was emblematic of the reality TV age of the 2000s. McGraw was Springer with none of the camp and in some ways represented a decline of the form: too self-serious, too “real” despite the show’s scripted nature. It was self-help as entertainment, but with no knowing wink at the audience like Springer had done.

Unlike Springer, though, McGraw survived the digital age. Where Springer would always be a creature of TV, Dr Phil was eminently meme-worthy. His show was either binge-watched online or digested in 30-second viral clips, the latter approach best exemplified by the interview which produced the “Cash me outside” meme or his infamous conversation with actress Shelley Duvall in 2016. It was TikTok before there was TikTok, and eventually his show landed on that platform and conquered it too.

Yet these things ebb and flow, and in 2023 McGraw’s CBS show ended. His particular brand of spectacle just wasn’t driving clicks anymore. Why bother with a ringmaster when we occupy the golden age of hearing it straight from the freak’s mouth?

More interesting than the show’s waning popularity, though, is the host’s decision to rebrand as a culture warrior within this decade’s hot-take economy — itself a pernicious and, crucially, declining form of infotainment. His recent appearances — the controversial interview with Netanyahu and an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast — feel dated: he’s a man in the twilight of his career who doesn’t realise it’s not 2017 anymore.

If an interview with Bibi isn’t driving clicks, and it received remarkably little attention considering the guest’s profile, then maybe politics isn’t his ticket out. Rather than desperately clinging to relevance, McGraw should depart with some grace. After all, there’s a certain dignity in leaving the stage before the audience demands it.


Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
14 days ago

Well, this is a hot take! The journo gives us five paragraphs of backstory, then we get to the meat, which is just her opinion that Dr Phil ‘feels’ dated, or something.
I’ve heard of burying the lede, but this takes it to the next level: bury the evidence that the lede was never anything more than the headline.

George K
George K
13 days ago

Yeah the choice of an interviewee for his breakthrough is a blind shot. I’m very interested in the region but Bibi is the least interesting person to talk to. His array of Israeli myths is totally predictable: we want peace, they only understand power, they started, etc.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
13 days ago
Reply to  George K

, they only understand power, they started
But he’s right-not sure its a “myth”

Samantha Stevens
Samantha Stevens
12 days ago

Disagree 100%. I have watched Dr. Phil for years. He invariably gives solid advice, always placing the safeguarding of children above all else. I have not watched the Netanyahu interview, but given the UN’s admission today that the Hamas fatality figures were inflated by 50%, it’s fair to say the true story of this war has yet to be told.
Other shows Dr. Phil has done on his Primetime show have been about violence in schools (teacher here at a NY public school for 25 years) which is an actual crisis, the medical transitioning of children, and the trafficking of children at the US/Mexico border. All very worthy topics.
Dr. Phil is nothing like Jerry Springer. He is an actual PhD in psychology. He has deep convictions about family and protecting children. He has never wavered from these values. His age does not make him irrelevant.
This writer does not know what she’s talking about.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
13 days ago

Meh

T Bone
T Bone
13 days ago

The only people that use the term “Culture War” or “Culture Warrior” are Socialist sympathizers losing the argument they initiated.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
13 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

A valid observation. Language changes over time. It will be interesting to see how many of these intended pejorative lose their negative connotation in a few years.

Cantab Man
Cantab Man
13 days ago

Current Palestinian suffering from this Gaza-Israel War is solely due to the actions of the Palestinians’ own duly-elected Gaza Strip Government that breached negotiated peacetime via their clear and unilateral Act of War against Israel on October 7. This surprise attack not only included an invasion into a neighboring sovereign State to kill unsuspecting soldiers, but also to purposely mutilate, torture and massacre as many innocent civilians (including many women and children) as possible.
As the Palestinians – by their own voice via their own government – initiated these War Crimes and this unnecessary war (that they are now losing), I’m not sure why the author of this article thinks McGraw should have asked Netanyahu about the Palestinian side of the war.
Such questions should be asked – and answered – by those who were and are responsible for this war and, therefore, responsible for their own citizens’ suffering during their war. Namely, the leadership of the Government of the Gaza Strip, aka Hamas.
Here are some draft questions for journalists to consider asking the Government of the Gaza Strip:
Q1: “As the elected voice of the Palestinian People of the Gaza Strip, why did you breach the negotiated peace with a neighboring Sovereign State to commit War Crimes against civilians living within said Sovereign State, and why did you not prepare your citizens for the possible eventuality that your side might start losing the war, which would inevitably lead to a bloody invasion into your own Territory – an invasion that you would be fully responsible for initiating?
Q2: “Do you understand that you are viewed as War Criminals due to all of the unnecessary pain and suffering that you’ve caused both Israelis and your own people?
Q3: “When will you lay down your arms in an unconditional surrender, give yourselves up to the demands of justice, and sue for peace on behalf of your people so that this war – a war that you unilaterally started – will end?”
All of this being said, it seems that McGraw approached the interview fairly by focusing his questions to the things that Netanyahu is responsible for. Namely, Israel.
Perhaps it’s possible that some journalists are angry with McGraw because he has higher journalistic integrity than the many journalists who gloss over the above facts in their emotional and anti-semitic diatribes against the Jewish people?