LOS ANGELES — He had won “Survivor,” the reality TV test of grit and strength. But Todd Herzog was so drunk when he appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show in 2013 that he had to be carried onto the set and lifted into a chair.
“I’ve never talked to a guest who was closer to death,” show host Phillip McGrawdeclared on camera.
TV viewers, however, didn’t see the setup for this shocking scene. Herzog, who was battling alcoholism, told STAT and the Boston Globe that he was not intoxicated when he arrived at the Los Angeles studio. In his dressing room, he said, he found a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. He drank all of it. Then someone handed him a Xanax, he said, telling him it would “calm his nerves.”
America’s best-known television doctor presents himself as a crusader for recovery who rescues people from their addictions — and even death. But in its pursuit of ratings, the “Dr. Phil” show has put at risk the health of some of those guests it purports to help, according to people who have been on the show and addiction experts. Guests have been left without medical help as they face withdrawal from drugs, a STAT/Boston Globe investigation has found, and one person said she was directed by a show staff member to an open-air drug market to find heroin for her detoxing niece.
While McGraw has been buffeted by controversy and lawsuits since he broke out as a celebrity on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” two decades ago, the show’s handling of guests seeking treatment for substance abuse disorders has largely escaped scrutiny.
McGraw declined an interview request through a “Dr. Phil” show representative. Martin Greenberg, a psychologist who serves as the show’s director of professional affairs, said guests have never been provided alcohol or directed to where to buy drugs.
In a statement, he denied Herzog was left alone with a bottle of vodka in his dressing room, or given Xanax. “We do not do that with this guest or any other,” he wrote. He called the allegations “absolutely, unequivocally untrue.”
“Dr. McGraw has a very strong sense of trying to not exploit people,” Greenberg said in an earlier interview. “Now it is a television show. These people volunteer to come on. They beg to come on. And he tries to treat them with respect … and to give them the opportunity to get help if they want to do that. It’s not a complicated formula.”
But in interviews, show guests and their families described a different reality.
Guests confront a painful and potentially dangerous detox as they wait up to 48 hours in hotel rooms for their scheduled taping, leading some to look for illegal drugs. One guest bought heroin with the knowledge and support of show staff, according to a family member. Another guest, who was pregnant, was filmed by a show staffer while searching for a dealer on Skid Row in L.A.
“It’s a callous and inexcusable exploitation,” said Dr. Jeff Sugar, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Southern California. “These people are barely hanging on. It’s like if one of them was drowning and approaching a lifeboat, and instead of throwing them an inflatable doughnut, you throw them an anchor.”
The “Dr. Phil” show said staff members have no right to detain guests or direct or restrict their behavior, and may not even know they are in danger of withdrawal or overdose.
“Addicts are notorious for lying, deflecting and trivializing. But, if they are at risk when they arrive, then they were at risk before they arrived,” Greenberg said in the statement. “The only change is they are one step closer to getting help, typically help they could not have even come close to affording.”
The show’s addiction segments aren’t just compelling TV and good for driving huge ratings: They also serve to boost related businesses. Treatment center operators are being offered valuable endorsements in exchange for buying a new virtual reality product that features “Dr. Phil” offering tips and coping skills to people in treatment.
Centers that buy “Dr. Phil’s Path to Recovery” have been promoted on the “Dr. Phil” show as well as a second program called “The Doctors” that is owned by the production company founded by McGraw and his son, Jay.
Many guests are sent to Origins Behavioral HealthCare, a company so closely associated with the show that some in the field refer to it as the company that Dr. Phil built. So intertwined are the two that Origins, in a Florida licensing report, bragged that the company has “a reputation that even Dr. Phil recognizes.”
Origins, which was founded in 2009, lists McGraw’s graduate school mentor, Frank Lawlis, as a member of its executive team. Lawlis has been a key adviser to the “Dr. Phil” show since its inception. His biography on the Origins website indicates Lawlis “consults with Dr. Phil about potential guests, and oversees resources for the guests as they leave the show.”
The show said, through Greenberg, that Origins is one of many treatment centers used as a resource and that the show doesn’t consider Lawlis’ role with Origins a conflict of interest. Greenberg said “no money changes hands” between the show and Origins.
“It’s a callous and inexcusable exploitation.”
JEFF SUGAR, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF CLINICAL PSYCHIATRY, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
On television, McGraw, 67, plays the role of a tough-love, no-nonsense adviser with a southern twang and a dogged determination to help his guests. He promises to “haunt them to the ends of the earth” once he gets involved in their lives. Segments where guests resist his advice often feature harangues from McGraw, prodded by cheering from his studio audience.
Many of his guests view “Dr. Phil” as a savior. Parents come to him begging for help saving their children’s lives. For many treatment centers, his endorsement brings patients and legitimacy; they offer guests free care in return for the show’s promotion. For viewers, McGraw offers hope. Some pepper the show’s Facebook page with their own requests for help, leaving sad stories and phone numbers where they can be reached.
The show seeks to “educate, inform, inspire and entertain our viewers,” Greenberg said. He said hundreds have emailed the show “thanking us for helping them face or address an issue that either they, or a family member might be struggling with.” The American Psychological Association presented McGraw its presidential citation in 2006, saying his “work has touched more Americans than any other living psychologist.”
The show has also made him wealthy: McGraw, according to Forbes, is the highest-paid daytime TV personality, earning $79 million last year.
McGraw holds a doctorate in psychology, but has not been a licensed psychologist since 2006, when he let his Texas license expire. He became “Dr. Phil” after he worked with Oprah as a consultant when she was unsuccessfully sued by cattle ranchers in Texas for bad-mouthing the beef industry. He started appearing on her show, and then, in 2002, launched his own.
His show has been a subject of unsuccessful lawsuits by guests, and his forays into the lives of celebrities Britney Spears and Shelley Duvall have sparked outcries because of concerns they were exploited.
Some of McGraw’s own employees have raised alarms about the treatment of guests. In one lawsuit filed last year against McGraw and his production company in Los Angeles Superior Court, a former segment director, Leah Rothman, accused McGraw of false imprisonment for trapping employees in a room to threaten them over leaks to the media. Rothman also alleged that guests complained that their lives were “ruined.” One guest attempted suicide after the show, according to a deposition with another staff member.
McGraw denied the allegations. Rothman’s attorney said the case was settled and dismissed in September. A representative of McGraw said Rothman was a “disgruntled” employee, and noted that McGraw’s production company is currently suing her in federal court. Rothman’s attorney, however, said she was a hard-working and long-time employee who is “vigorously defending herself” in the federal case.
“Plaintiff’s experience with Dr. Phil was that his primary interest was not about helping people on the show, but rather, done for the sake of ratings and making money,” says Rothman’s suit. “Dr. Phil often embarrassed guests on his show in their darkest hour, leaving the staff to pick up the pieces of the broken people who had put their trust in Dr. Phil.”
When camera crews arrived unannounced at Todd Herzog’s apartment in Utah in 2013, he had no idea what was happening. The footage that later aired on “Dr. Phil” shows him sitting bewildered and barefoot on his couch, surrounded by his family and a two-person intervention team dispatched by the show after it was contacted by his family.
“What … is this?” he asked, his speech slurred and halting. “Can someone please tell me?”
Herzog’s hands were shaking and he said he was afraid he was going to die. One of the interventionists explained that Dr. Phil wanted to meet with him. Herzog was a flight attendant when he won “Survivor” at age 22 – and its $1 million prize. But his life spiraled downward after that, and he said, his alcoholism intensified while dating someone who was a heavy drinker.
After the show flew him to L.A. and put him up in a hotel, Herzog said he detoxed in his room over about two days. In a recent interview in Salt Lake City, he said he was sober when he walked into his dressing room on the set, and intoxicated on vodka and Xanax when he emerged. Herzog’s father, Glen, confirmed in an interview that his son was sober when he arrived at the studio to tape the show.
“Today, I had an entire bottle, like a liter, of vodka,” Todd Herzog told McGraw on stage. When Dr. Phil breathalyzed him in front of the studio audience, Herzog blew a .263 — more than three times the legal limit to drive.
“You know, I get that it’s a television show and that they want to show the pain that I’m in,” Herzog said in the interview. “However, what would have happened if I died there? You know, that’s horrifying.”
The combination of alcohol and Xanax can be deadly, said Dr. Maureen Boyle, the chief scientific officer for the Addiction Policy Forum, an advocacy organization for patients and families. No one should detox from serious alcohol addiction without medical supervision, she said, as withdrawal can cause seizures.
“The important thing here, this isn’t a TV drama,” she said. “This is someone’s life.”
The show, through Greenberg and a lawyer, offered a series of shifting explanations over two weeks regarding the medical oversight of guests when they come out to L.A.
In the interview, Greenberg said the show was not a medical facility, and did not have a responsibility to monitor guests.
“No, of course not, it’s a television show,” he said.
After STAT and the Globe sent detailed questions about Herzog’s case and others, however, the show, in a lengthy response signed by Greenberg, said guests with substance abuse problems are medically supervised “100% of the time.” The show said that any time a guest is likely to need inpatient rehabilitation, medical personnel from a treatment center are flown to L.A. “to supervise and manage any medical needs.”
Herzog, the response said, was “medically supervised the entire time he was involved with tapings of ‘Dr. Phil.’” The supervision, according to the show, included a nurse-practitioner flying with him to L.A., a nurse sitting up with him during the night, and a medical professional from a treatment center who “happened to be in LA at the time.” The show declined to name any medical personnel.
Then this week, Greenberg, through the lawyer, responded to follow-up questions by qualifying his earlier statements about medical supervision: “We mean 100% of guests agreeing to treatment. It does not mean that a guest is being monitored 100% of the time,” he wrote. He noted that “substance abusers adopt very clever means” to obtain alcohol or drugs, and “we cannot control what we cannot control.”
The director of the treatment center where Herzog agreed to go for help at the conclusion of the show said no one from that facility monitored Herzog while he was involved in the taping of the show.
“I was watching them walk him out severely intoxicated,” said Steve Thomason, who was then the executive director of The Arbor in Georgetown, Texas. “That was the first time I ever laid eyes on him.”
Thomason said he and his medical staff couldn’t offer medical supervision in California because they are licensed in Texas, and the person being monitored must first give consent to treatment and be on the premises of the treatment facility.
He said he was so upset by the condition of Herzog on the “Dr. Phil” show and the manner in which the show was conducted that he never had anything to do with it again.
“I honestly regret having ever done it,” Thomason said.
If it had only happened once or twice, I’d write this off as the typical ravings of an addict. With continued repetition and the credibility of non-addict witnesses however, one must question such an assumption. Add to that the fact that “Dr. Phil” is so highly paid and what the ratings are like for these shows, there’s little room left for uncertainty. Let the reader decide.