All in the Family

Article excerpt

Byline: Pat Wingert and Aram Roston

The popular daytime TV host hawks his diet books on his show. His son publishes them. Inside the McGraws' cozy clan.

The packed audience on the Dr. Phil show is hungry for advice. It is four days after Thanksgiving 2010, not long before the next holiday season of heavy feasting is to begin. Phil McGraw, the folksy host, is dressed in a light gray double-breasted suit, impeccably tailored to fit his brawny 6-foot-4 frame. He stands behind a festive holiday table laden with desserts. "Bad news," he warns the crowd as the hourlong show begins. "You could gain 12 pounds during the holidays. Twelve pounds!"

Fortunately, however, Dr. Phil has a simple solution to move the needle in the other direction. "Good news!" he exclaims, quickly changing course. "There's a 17-day diet that could help you lose 10 to 15 pounds in, you guessed it, 17 days -- This is the hottest new diet out there, and we're going to give you all the details today." The audience cheers with approval. But in case he hasn't been completely clear--Dr. Phil is nothing if not direct--he emphasizes later that he wants everyone to "embrace The 17 Day Diet."

On Dec. 1, just two days later, Dr. Phil tells his viewers that the new diet is already going gangbusters. "There's a new book out that, I mean, everybody is just going crazy about, called The 17 Day Diet," he says. He wants to be sure everyone understands how to buy it, and informs his audience that it is only available through direct purchase on the Internet--"at 17daydiet.com"--and not in stores. "These guys," he says, "aren't making it available except on that website."

The $27 hardcover book would become a national bestseller, generating a host of spinoff products, including a workout video, Spanish and audio editions, and a special 17 Day Diet Cookbook. But who exactly are "these guys," as Dr. Phil put it?

The Dr. Phil show and its sister program, The Doctors, which is run by McGraw's 32-year-old son, Jay, hosted enthusiastic discussions of The 17 Day Diet during 17 episodes, including several reruns. The marketing could be relentless: on Jan. 5, 2011, Dr. Phil mentioned The 17 Day Diet 27 times in one show.

The book was a runaway success, selling 200,000 copies in the first three months after its release, according to the author.

What those buying the book didn't know: Jay McGraw has had a financial interest in both The 17 Day Diet and another weight-loss plan he and his father heavily promoted. That plan, the P.I.N.K. Method, is a weight-loss program aimed specifically at women. It has also become a commercial hit after a similarly intensive promotional effort by the McGraws; the plan sold 150,000 copies in three months, according to its author. In the case of the P.I.N.K. Method, Dr. Phil in January of this year acknowledged on his show for the first time that his son was the publisher.

When Newsweek presented the two McGraws a series of questions about the family's business connections to the diets, attorney L. Lin Wood sent written responses from both men. Jay McGraw confirmed that he helped publish and distribute both The 17 Day Diet and The P.I.N.K. Method, and said he was "compensated for my efforts in a manner that is customary in the publishing industry." Phil McGraw said he had "never directly or indirectly received a single dime" from the diet enterprises, and thus he was not "required to explain that my son assisted in publishing" The 17 Day Diet on his show.

Why should we care that Dr. Phil was promoting his son's business interests on his syndicated show? Dr. Phil, a formerly practicing Ph.D. psychologist and Oprah protege, has a blunt tell-it-like-it-is manner that has earned him the trust of millions. His very name--Dr. Phil--implies to viewers that his advice is professional. His signature phrase, "get real," suggests candor. And he regularly tells guests on his show that they must take responsibility for their actions. …