This September marks the first time in 25 years without The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in the battle to assume the Oprah throne, Dr. Phil has fired the opening salvo. The talk show beat out the network and cable news operations to land a heavily touted interview with George and Cindy Anthony, the parents of Casey Anthony, who was acquitted on charges of killing her toddler, Caylee.
Phil McGraw recently spent more than nine hours with the Anthonys, and interview will air on the September 12 season premiere of Dr. Phil. (In some parts of the country, Dr. Phil is taking Oprah's old slot.)
McGraw told TV Guide Magazine that he believes the Anthonys chose to sit down with him because of a public plea he once made to protestors to stop harassing the family. He also confirmed that Dr. Phil agreed to make a donation to a non-profit that the Anthonys plan to set up in Caylee's name (no money has been issued yet); but beyond that, McGraw stresses that he paid no fees to them whatsoever. That includes no money for home videos and photos — which are frequently a backdoor method for news organizations to pay for interviews.
In the two-part special (the second episode airs on September 13), McGraw methodically goes through the timeline of the case with George and Cindy Anthony and, in an attempt to compare their stories, also separates them. Among the reveals: Cindy, who still makes excuses for her daughter's behavior, has a new theory based on a previously undisclosed medical condition of Casey's. Also, the couple doesn't agree on how things transpired, but both acknowledge that Casey told them a myriad of lies.
The host says he understands why a jury didn't convict Casey Anthony — there wasn't enough evidence, he says. And he still doesn't have a definitive take on how the toddler died.
TV Guide Magazine: For those of us who hadn't paid a lot of attention to the Casey Anthony case, other than the verdict, what was your interest in doing this interview?
Dr. Phil McGraw: I spent 15 years as a trial consultant and founded a company called Courtroom Sciences Inc. We spent years involved in all kinds of trials and we did trial strategy, witness preparation, jury selection, jury monitoring, and so when you see a case like this, I always pay particular attention to it. And then secondly, when I had my children — I have two boys, Jay and Jordan — it truly changed who I was. And that was the last really big event change in my life until I had a granddaughter. And she is about the age of Caylee. And I would sit there looking at that, not just as a professional but also as a grandfather with a little girl. So when this came up, it became intensely personal for me. I watched it and studied it.
TV Guide Magazine: How did you keep track of the story? Did you watch much of the wall-to-wall TV coverage?
Dr. Phil: I did, but I read more than I watch TV. I read a lot of accounts and when I could get a transcript, I'd pay particular attention to that. And of course, I'd watch TV as well. Catch the highlights.
TV Guide Magazine: What did you make of the coverage? There's been quite a bit of criticism over the kind of coverage this case got.
Dr. Phil: I think this trial, like many others — the O.J. trial, certainly; recently, the (polygamist leader Warren Jeffs) FLDS trial — there are two trials going on simultaneously. One is the court of public opinion and one is the court of law. And the media presents it with a point of view often times. They have a very different evidence standard than a jury. People get frustrated by juries sometimes because I think they don't really understand how restrictive it is. Have you ever been a juror?
TV Guide Magazine: Yes.
Dr. Phil: I'm sure the judge instructed you on three important things. One, that he or she was the judge of the law, that you were the judge of the facts and that you were to focus only on what was given to you in the trial.
Then they give you instructions as to the standard of evidence, the burden of proof. People say "beyond a reasonable doubt." And that's a very high burden, as it should be, if you're going to deprive someone of their liberty. I think people get mad at the jury and don't understand that they're under rigorous requirements from the court, very specific instructions as to what the definition is.
[In this case,] I knew they had a steep wall to climb because it was a "dry bones" case. You had no soft tissue, so forensics is going to be weak, and the defendant doesn't have to testify. From a litigation consultant standpoint, I knew this was a steep hill for them to climb from the beginning. Which is why I think they took so long before they actually brought charges.
TV Guide Magazine: You mentioned the court of public opinion vs. the court of law. Obviously when you watched the coverage, particularly via the modern 24-hour cable news cycle, there was a point of view, an opinion, and that means certain network hosts were trumpeting Casey Anthony's guilt as fact. Does the media do a big disservice to the justice system in these cases?
Dr. Phil: I think sometimes we underestimate the intelligence of the American viewing public. Sometimes they're more discerning than we give them credit for. If you've got (a host) with a transparent agenda, I think people know that. But I don't think they understand the judicial process. And so I think it's hard for people to make a distinction between what can be talked about and interpreted vs. what can be presented in trial. So I don't think anybody would have acquitted Casey Anthony in the court of public opinion but it's a very different set of rules when you get into court.
TV Guide Magazine: How did your interest in the case lead you to pursue this interview?
Dr. Phil: I think people were really unfulfilled by the verdict. We don't know what happened, but here's what we do know: This precious, innocent little girl woke up one day, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed like we've seen in her pictures. And by the end of the day, she was dead. And no one has been held to account. Is there any way that's OK? Does that not bother any rational person that no one has been held to account for this? I know this is really on people's minds; they're really passionate about this.
And at the same time I got to say, because of my professional background and my personal life experience, this one mattered to me. This one had hooks to me. It was interesting to my viewers; it was interesting to me personally. And I intend to do what I can to find out what happened here. I don't think what was said in court is necessarily what happened. The people closest to this little girl, aside from her mother, the people who were in her life and around the key players in this were Casey Anthony's parents, and I wanted to talk to them, and that's probably not the last people I intend to talk to.
TV Guide Magazine: You mention in the first episode that you're not interested in talking to Casey Anthony. Why not?
Dr. Phil: I think it's highly unlikely she's going to tell what she knows. Her actions have spoken much louder than any words she could speak. Everybody says she's out of jeopardy now, and therefore she has nothing to lose, but she has everything to lose. If she comes out and tells a different story now than what was told before, a very difficult lie for her is just going to get that much harder. She's not going to be forthcoming about this.
TV Guide Magazine: What was the process of reaching out to the parents?
Dr. Phil: I wasn't involved in it directly. But I think I have the best team in television and they've known of my interest in this. I have so many young mothers here that are intensely interested in it. During this two or three year period, we did shows on this. I occasionally did interviews about it or be asked about it on morning shows or Larry King or Anderson Cooper.
I know at one point on my show when things were getting really violent in Orlando, there were crowds in front of the Anthonys' house, there were death threats — people yelling and screaming, confrontations at the curb with the Anthonys. I went on the air and said something to the effect of, "Look, people I know you're passionate about this... but if you really want to help, go home and pray for this little girl. Don't be standing out in front yelling at these grandparents. That's not helping this in any way whatsoever." When we reached out to them, and obviously everyone was trying to talk to them, I think they knew that I was the one guy who said, "Leave these people alone."
TV Guide Magazine: Were you surprised that they were willing to go with you? In some ways you have license to lecture them than if you were a journalist.
Dr. Phil: A little bit. I think if you watch my show, you know that I'm very direct but I'm going to ask the questions. I think they knew that, but I think they also thought, "He's a professional, he has experience in these matters, he's a grandfather." I think all of those things culminated in their decision.
TV Guide Magazine: You stress that your show didn't pay for the interview, that instead you're making a donation to their new foundation. Do you feel confident that that money will go to the right place?
Dr. Phil: They haven't gotten their authorization yet. They didn't make a demand, they made a request. And I asked when we sat down, "Let me be clear, you didn't ask to be paid for this. You asked that we make a donation to this 501c3 charitable organization. And you take no money from that, you get no salary, no fee, no reimbursement, nothing from the foundation." He said that is correct. I said, "You understand that this is federally licensed, and the IRS and the government monitors this." They said that is absolutely correct. So I moved on with that confidence in mind.
TV Guide Magazine: Sometimes news organizations get around paying fees by licensing videos and photos. Did you do any of that?
Dr. Phil: We paid no money to the Anthonys whatsoever. They didn't ask for any.
TV Guide Magazine: Did that surprise you?
Dr. Phil: I didn't really know. I know there were a lot of folks after them who typically license this that or the other thing. But we don't play that game. We didn't license any photos or anything of the sort.
TV Guide Magazine: Talk about the interview. Anything that surprised you? What was your takeaway?
Dr. Phil: I interviewed them for nine and a half hours across two days. That's a long time to talk to somebody. I organized it in a certain way to talk about different sections of what was going on. And I felt that at the end of it, that they had very candidly and in an unfiltered way told the truth and the reality as they believe it to be.
TV Guide Magazine: You don't feel like they were putting on a show for you? Do you believe that they actually believe what they told you?
Dr. Phil: I'll let the viewer make up their mind about that. But for me, I thought they were very candid. And I pushed on them pretty hard. If they were putting on a show, they wouldn't have told me some of the things that they told me.
TV Guide Magazine: It does seem like they have two different takes on what transpired. She's still making excuses, while he seems a little more realistic about what has happened.
Dr. Phil: I've never been a mother. I've never had that maternal bond, so I can't judge that. But I think they see some things very differently.
TV Guide Magazine: You talked to them together and also separately. Did you get more out of them when you talked to them individually?
Dr. Phil: I think they were really quite candid throughout all of it. I did separate them for exactly that reason. I wanted to see if there was a difference in what they gave themselves license to talk about and say. For example, I asked George about the allegations that he had an affair and the allegation that he had told this woman certain things about the case that he couldn't have known if he hadn't been involved. I asked him about that without his wife there. I asked Cindy some of those same questions. Do you think he was messing around? Or do you not? So I did talk to them some things different. But I found their tone and demeanor to be pretty consistent, whether they were by themselves or somebody else.
TV Guide Magazine: What was the most surprising or candid thing you learned?
Dr. Phil: There's so much. I found one of the most revelatory moments for me was their reaction to the verdict when it came in.
TV Guide Magazine: Did your opinion of this case or of the Anthonys change after talking to them? Do you feel like you have a different take on what might have happened?
Dr. Phil: I do. I think I learned a tremendous amount about their perception of what took place, particularly what was going on behind the scenes leading up to and during the trial. What was going on between them and the defense team and the prosecutors. Everything that was happening behind he scenes, I don't think anybody has a clue about that. People are going to find that very informative, very interesting.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you have a take on how Caylee died?
Dr. Phil: I don't know. I wish I did. I think I have some ideas about what didn't happen but I don't know what did happen. And I think you get to what did happen by eliminating things that didn't happen. What we know, this little girl woke up alive, and she finished the day dead and in a field. And nobody's held to account for that.
TV Guide Magazine: What does landing this interview mean for your show, particularly given the new Oprah-less world of syndicated talk?
Dr. Phil: The Anthonys are of great interest, and of course are very controversial. I believe this interview will provide some much needed insight into who they really are.
TV Guide Magazine: How are you positioned to fill that Oprah void and how competitive are you anticipating the landscape to be?
Dr. Phil: Dr. Phil has been the No. 2 syndicated talk show since we premiered nine years ago, and we're now the leading daytime talk show. Over the years, research has shown more crossover from the Oprah audience to Dr. Phil than any other show. I predict we will be the premiere platform in daytime for years to come, an opportunity that I take very seriously and with great humility.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you hear from Oprah after you landed the Anthony parents, and if so, what did she say?
Dr. Phil: Oprah and I did discuss it and she was very excited. She felt that they had made the right decision... She has always been in my balcony cheering me on and is and has been a great mentor.