Dee Law has been a diehard fan of Fox's runaway hit American Idol since it started three seasons ago.
But as the show speeds toward its May 26 conclusion with three songbirds left, the 40-year-old Pennsylvania homemaker couldn't care less about the outcome. A Clay Aiken fan, she lost faith in the process after making a shocking discovery last year: No matter how often she tried, she couldn't place her vote.
Law says she tried to dial "five or six hundred times" on the final night of competition but hasn't tried since. "I'm not gonna get suckered into voting again," she says. "Why should we sit here and waste two hours of our time when our votes aren't going to be counted?"
American Idol, the wildly successful talent show based on the democratic premise that viewers cast ballots for a winner, has a serious voting problem. Interviews with telephone companies, data consultants, federal agencies, and fans expose a flawed system in which tens of millions of votes are potentially lost. Indeed, evidence shows that the only people choosing the next American Idol are the ones lucky enough to get through—or skilled enough to get around—tremendously overtaxed phone lines.
While overzealous fans have accused Fox of tampering with results, one fact is indisputable: Technology is thwarting democracy on American Idol. Power-dialers can skew the vote. Text-messagers have an unfair advantage. And potential hackers have a powerful new incentive to alter the vote tallies: betting on the outcome through Internet gambling sites. Despite fans' repeated accusations of inaccurate results, Fox is sticking with a voting system vulnerable to serious manipulation and tampering.
A consistent ratings leader, American Idol became a cultural phenomenon overnight, changing the fortunes of the Fox network, rocketing unknowns to stardom, and capturing the public's hearts, minds—and wallets, if CD sales are counted. In many ways, its colossal success has created a massive headache for a network trying to convince viewers that they are choosing the next American Idol.
Critics say it's akin to winning a prize on radio: The caller with the best speed-dialer and text messaging gets through. "I am starting to feel like a fool for believing in the show after last week," one viewer wrote in an April 24 complaint to the Federal Communications Commission.
Despite repeated requests, News Corp's Fox Broadcasting Co. declined to comment. "We are going to pass on this piece," a spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
Last season, when Ruben Studdard won the second competition, host Ryan Seacrest proudly announced that the previous night's voting had resulted in a virtual photo finish.
The two singers received a total of 24 million votes, with viewers urged to vote as often as they like. But on the same night, Verizon, the nation's largest phone company (which handles 1.5 billion calls daily), had a call volume that was up by 116 million calls. Although it's impossible to know where each call went, according to Verizon's Daniel Diaz Zapata, "there was no obvious reason for all those calls, other than American Idol."
SBC also reported a call volume on May 20, 2003, up by 115 million calls, which means more than 230 million potential votes never got through, much less got counted. Together, Verizon and SBC handle nearly one-third of the long-distance market.
In reality, no phone system has the capacity to handle that kind of call volume. A logjam is inevitable and starts at the local level. AT&T, along with Telescope UK, is in charge of the Idol tabulations. "The real issue is not with the long-distance carrier network" but with jammed local phone lines, says Linda Lungo, vice president of AT&T's domestic business development.
"You've got to look at how fast the inbound phone system can receive messages," says Tom Cobbs, Database Systems Corp., which designs complex telephone and computer networks for companies. "It's a bandwidth problem. There's only so much volume they can run through that pipe at one time."
This means that, no matter how many people vote, only a limited number can get through in any two-hour period. In the second season's Studdard-Aiken contest, each of the two contestants had his own phone number, and each received roughly half of the more than 24 million votes. The winner was decided by a statistically insignificant margin: a mere 134,000 votes, or less than 1% of the total.
In the latest controversy, Jasmine Trias from Hawaii advanced while frontrunner LaToya London was knocked out. When fans howled over another voting glitch—this time alleging that more callers were allowed from Hawaii, six hours behind New York, Fox released a statement: "The producers and network have gone to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the voting process on American Idol. America votes, an independent company calculates the tally, and the show reports those results."
But while some fans are getting blocked, others are guaranteed to be counted. No such capacity problem exists with text messaging. Of the 24 million votes recorded for Studdard and Aiken, 2.5 million were AT&T Wireless text-messaging votes, which cost 10¢ apiece. Every one of them got through and was recorded. Why? Cynics charge that it's because AT&T is one of the show's sponsors and stands to make a bundle.
But text messaging is digital (unlike phone lines, which are analog) and simply doesn't have the same traffic jams. A text message is also time-coded, meaning that all of the votes messaged during the two-hour period can be lined up like jets on a runway and eventually recorded. "Manual phones have a very limited capacity because the voice takes up so much of the phone line," says Kurt Knutsson, a high-tech expert on TV's Cyberguy, syndicated in 114 markets. "Text takes up so little: It's like a whisper versus a presidential inauguration."
So, as ordinary phone lines are being maxed out, says Knutsson, text messaging could theoretically swing the vote—a vote that may already be compromised.
A year ago, Fox answered charges that power-dialers, also known as "phone phreakers," were skewing the Idol vote. In response to questions from the Associated Press, producers acknowledged that about 100 "phreaks," using fast Internet connections and powerful computer autodialing software, were casting thousands of votes with the touch of a button. "They're all over the country, and they tend to be slamming the system at all ends," Michael Eaton, vice president of home entertainment for FremantleMedia, the show's London-based producer, told the AP. Eaton insisted that there were safeguards in place to sniff out power-dialers and throw out their votes.
But that doesn't mean the power-dialers aren't affecting the outcome. Says Knutsson, "They're not only using the system to vote for whomever they want, they're using it to tie up the lines so that other people can't vote."
He says he laughed when he heard producers say the problem was confined to a handful of people. "This is thousands upon thousands of moderately tech-savvy fans who really get emotionally compelled to do something about who they want to win. It could be anybody with a computer, a modem, and a phone line. "
Phone phreakers have already tested the tactic with Ticketmaster, Knutsson says. For sold-out concerts, they attempt to tie up phone lines at Ticketmaster while a cohort tries to buy available tickets at the record store.
Another real danger, Cobbs points out, is that someone could hack into the database containing the overall vote tallies. "It literally takes one line of code and two seconds to change the number to whatever you want."
Who would go through all that trouble? Critics say follow the money. Today, viewers can bet on American Idol online. One site, Bet365.com, offers 6/4 odds for contestant Fantasia Barrino and 11/2 for Diana Degarmo. Intertops.com offers 5/2 for Barrino, 5/1 for Degarmo, and 6/1 for Jasmine Trias. Credit cards are welcome.
But the odds-makers aren't the only ones trying to make money off the show. In March, the Federal Trade Commission lowered the boom on Telemarketing Inc., a Utah firm trying to cash in on misdialed American Idol votes. According to the settlement in which the company was forced to pay $40,000 in fines, an astonishing 25,000 callers dialed the wrong number. Prior to the show, Telemarketing bought phone numbers similar to those for Idol, then told viewers who misdialed that they had to call a second 900 number to actually place their "vote." The fees for those "votes" ranged from $1.99 to $2.97 per call.
Meanwhile, the FCC has received more than a thousand complaints (69 e-mails sent to the FCC directly, 1,140 sent to Fox and copied to the FCC) about legitimate Idol voting. Most of them are from last season and center on the inability of Aiken fans to get through. The agency doesn't make public whether it is considering a formal investigation. But the trigger for such an investigation, according to the FCC's Rosemary Kimball, would be clear evidence of the show's intentionally "fixing" the numbers.
Whether a formal investigation is launched or not, the discontent over the voting is getting louder. as fans protest on Web sites, in e-mails, and by water coolers.
Dee Law says she has deliberately kept her distance this season, refusing to become emotionally involved in the show.
With such a lucrative franchise on the line, fans wonder why Fox isn't doing something to address the problem. A month before the finale, on April 27, this reporter tested the system by trying to vote for Barrino every 10 minutes for the two full hours—a total of 12 times—and couldn't get through. The same was true on May 4.
Producers said last year that they were considering instituting online voting, but nothing ever came of it.
So, why not limit the vote to one per person? The answer may be money. Says AT&T's Lungo, "One of the requirements [AT&T and Fox] discussed early on was whether they wanted it to be one vote per person or whether it didn't matter. And they said, 'It doesn't matter, vote as many times as you want.' It would be more expensive [to limit the voting] because we have to tally it and eliminate all of the [multiple] votes."
But it may start costing Fox far more not to overhaul the system. When loyal viewers like Law start turning away, that's fewer sets of eyes watching the screen and fewer consumers buying the CDs. "They should have it so that you have to log in and register and you could only enter once," she says. "That, to me, would be fair. They need to change it so that every vote counts."