I knew Dr. Phil was in trouble when my wife took him off the TiVo.
A fan since his show's 2002 debut, she would sit with each day's episodes like a good magazine, savoring the life lessons offered by feuding families set right by Phil McGraw's hardheaded straight talk.
But that formula felt a little worn six years later, and faced with a stream of tabloidy topics — McGraw has gotten involved with Britney Spears' meltdown and Octomom Nadia Sulemon — he was banished from our video recorder last year.
Today, after steadily declining local ratings, WTSP-Ch. 10 will downgrade the show, too, moving Dr. Phil to 7 p.m. weekdays, with a rerun airing at 9 a.m. the next day. The reason: A show that once handily won the 5 p.m. time slot now places third or fourth among key viewers, pulling down ratings for WTSP's 6 p.m. newscast.
When WTSP first began airing the show at 5 p.m. against local newscasts in 2003, it was inspired; viewers flocked to the only big network affiliate that wasn't offering local news in the time period. McGraw's mystique as a star disciple of Oprah Winfrey probably persuaded a few of her viewers on WFLA-Ch. 8's 4 p.m. show to switch over to Dr. Phil at 5 p.m.
"He was the No. 1 news team," said Pete Nikiel, director of marketing and promotion for WTSP, now known as 10 Connects. "They've told us they're testing the show with focus groups and Dr. Phil himself is involved with changing the show. He's talking about turning away (from tabloid topics) and being more current … talking about the recession, which should help."
Dr. Phil's move also makes room for a new, half-hour 5 p.m. newscast led by top anchors Reginald Roundtree and Heather Van Nest, followed by Inside Edition at 5:30 p.m. It will be the first time WTSP has offered local news at 5 p.m. since 2003; the station's 4 p.m. news also goes away today, replaced by the syndicated Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as anchor Dave Wirth prepares to take over as lead sports anchor next month.
Locally, Dr. Phil's ratings for May's "sweeps" ratings period were down nearly 30 percent from May 2008, attracting about 1 percent of viewers ages 25 to 54 and landing in third place, according to figures from WTSP. Nationally, the show dipped from an average 7.2 million viewers daily in the May 2005 sweeps to 3.9 million this year, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.
McGraw didn't help himself with questionable tactics like trying to see Spears in a hospital, then talking publicly about their interaction.
He also had to cancel a show on the Lakeland girls who placed the videotaped beating of a classmate online, after news broke that one of his producers bailed out one of the participants.
News service begins today
WTSP also plans to join the Local News Service announced by rivals WTVT-Ch. 13 and WFTS-Ch. 28, uniting to gather footage at routine news events and share aircraft expenses.
Under the agreement, which WTVT and WFTS start today, each station contributes a small number of employees to the service, working independently inside each station's newsroom.
These staffers gather footage to share with members, so each station avoids sending a photographer to the same news conferences and ribbon-cuttings.
WTSP will join the effort on Wednesday. And while WTVT will shut down its helicopter to share WFTS' aircraft, WTSP general manager Ken Tonning said that station won't stop using its helicopter right away.