Sep. 7, 2009 at 10:53 AM ET
A young production staffer at "The Dr. Oz Show" wasn't buttering up her boss when she took a bite out of a carrot as he approached in an elevator lobby recently.
Vegetables were on the menu. So were fruit, yogurt, whole-grain breads and natural peanut butter. True to a mission of making Americans healthier one at a time, Dr. Mehmet Oz banned all junk food backstage at his new talk show.
"The Dr. Oz Show," starring the heart surgeon and health evangelist, debuts Sept. 14. It's perhaps the most eagerly anticipated syndicated talk show since another Oprah Winfrey associate, Dr. Phil McGraw, went solo in 2002, said Bill Carroll, a market expert for Katz Television.
Oz has a sleek new studio at New York's 30 Rockefeller Plaza in the same room where Conan O'Brien worked before heading West. Its most fearsome element is the "truth tube," a platform that can display a person's weight, body fat and other health indicators, much like "The Biggest Loser" scale.
His goal is to make health information interesting and entertaining without trivializing it.
"There is no question we can save lives every day if we can motivate people to do what we're talking about," Oz said in a backstage conversation over lunch (salads, of course). "The challenge isn't what to say — because we know that — the challenge is how to say it so people are motivated."
He expects few celebrity guests, and no Winfrey visit is on the schedule. The show will typically open with a health "hot topic" like swine flu or immunization, and will end with audience questions. In between, Oz will try different ways to make health advice personal, recognizing that lectures don't work as well as stories viewers can relate to.
In one pre-taped episode, a woman brings her beer-bellied husband for a surprise "intervention." He listens to Oz describe how an unhealthy lifestyle was likely taking years off his life.
A woman who scrimps on sleep to take care of her family gets on a driving simulator while tired. She's reduced to tears and recognizes how sleeplessness affects more than herself when she "kills" six people, including a family of three, in accidents caused by dulled senses.
Besides controlling what his own staff eats, Oz has been secretly monitoring the food brought in to Jimmy Fallon's studio down the hall. Expect an unflattering public comparison.
"The crew is an experiment for us," Oz said. "If all I offer you is healthy food, you're either going to eat that stuff or you're not going to eat. And most people will eat. After a while, it becomes what you're used to eating. It's a little bit every day that makes a difference."
Oz envisions a "Let's Make a Deal" type game with four contestants to illustrate ways of curing vitamin D deficiency. One contestant opens a box with a "prize" of cod liver oil. Another reveals a picture of the sun, and wins a tropical vacation.
That's the tightrope Oz walks — fall off and he makes the serious seem silly. He's convinced this is the best way for people to remember what they've learned.
"The audiences can tell when you are real, and he is real," he said. "He's very likable. He's the person you wish was your doctor."
Oz had a decent enough career before television beckoned. He's a prominent surgeon with expertise is repairing heart valves. (Disclosure: His partner, Dr. Craig Smith, performed a quintuple bypass on this reporter two years ago.) He will continue to perform surgery one day a week.
Yet Oz noticed that he was getting more jazzed up persuading people they didn't need surgery than operating on them.
He landed a show, "Second Opinion," on the Discovery Channel and persuaded Winfrey to appear. "Before Oz went on Oprah, Oprah went on Oz," he said. That opened the door to Winfrey's media kingdom, resulting in 55 appearances on her talk show in five years, and eventually his own show. It's co-produced by Winfrey's Harpo Productions and Sony Pictures Television. He's contractually prohibited from airing in direct competition with her.
Oz likes to point out how real-life versions of Dr. Marcus Welby, the fictional doctor from a hit ABC series in the 1970s, are dying out — the ranks of general practitioners thinned by specialists, and the desire for high-tech solutions profound. The missing human touch is now often supplied by real-life TV doctors like ABC's Tim Johnson and CNN's Sanjay Gupta.
"I found myself going to work and taking care of people who wanted to get better who believed that their only path to salvation was through my scalpel," he said. "I can heal with steel. I know how to do that. But it's very disenfranchising when you realize the true solutions are outside the operating room."