The Real Threat to 'Idol'
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 5/8/2005 8:00:00 PM
Talk about a media spectator sport. Little in recent memory has been more amusing than the spat between ABC and Fox over “Fallen Idol,” an oh-so-special edition of ABC's Primetime Live that chronicled allegations of an affair between American Idol judge Paula Abdul and Corey Clark while he was competing on the show. In the wake of the overheated, overlong yet convincing “Fallen Idol,” Fox issued a statement that attempted to spin the scandal on its head. They didn't really have any choice, no matter how riddled with holes the Fox defense is: American Idol is the franchise that's keeping the whole network afloat.
The Fox statement opened its counterattack by questioning “the motive” behind the heavily hyped investigation, referring to “Fallen Idol” as a “purported news special” that was “filled with rumor” from Clark, who during the course of the show “admitted to telling lies” in the past. But ABC had plenty of other evidence—including phone records and voicemail—that indicate a less than judicious relationship between Clark and Abdul. If a judge on a TV show has been getting horizontal with a contestant and giving him pillow-talk advice on how to get ahead, that's news. Every week, 3 million or 4 million kids watch Idol. Is this how they should think the game is played?
Sure, I get it—as the Daily Show's Jon Stewart said the night following the ABC exposé: It wasn't like this was a news special where someone finally found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Yeah, like most newsmagazine shows, Primetime Live took what should have been a solid 12-minute segment and turned it into an hour. And of course, it's fair to question if Primetime would have given the story the same treatment if American Idol was a mega-hit for ABC or that other Disney network, ESPN, instead of Fox. But the fact remains that something hardly kosher seems to have gone on behind the scenes at the most popular show on television, and that's a story any newsmagazine would be foolish to ignore.
Yet Fox's statement did inadvertently point to an area where Primetime would have been wise to investigate. Hoping to downplay any effect Abdul's relationship with Clark might have had on the competition, the Fox statement pointed out that Idol judges don't determine the show's outcome. That's done by the voting public. To ensure that's the case, Fox said, the network has gone “to great lengths and great expense to create a voting system that is fair and reliable.” So they say.
A year ago, B&C investigated American Idol voting and discovered a system that seemed about as reliable as Florida's in the 2000 presidential election. Regional phone systems had nowhere near the technical capacity to handle the volume of calls that poured in during the final rounds of Idol voting, which meant that millions of potential votes never got through. Indeed, the way the system was set up left the door wide open to questions of vote manipulation through the use of computerized speed-dialing software, easily facilitated with a PC and a high-speed Internet connection. Postings on fan sites show there's still plenty of frustration among potential voters whose calls don't go through.
Let me get this straight: The network is conducting its own investigation into the allegations raised by Primetime, and yet it's still trumpeting American Idol's dubious voting system? It remains to be seen how responsive to outside criticism Fox truly is. My prediction: Justice Abdul will ride out the remainder of the May sweeps but will be gone when American Idol returns next season. Long term, however, the biggest threat to the show's phenomenal popularity won't be allegations of judicial misconduct, but ones of voter fraud.
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