Illumination Design Works sells a product called the PowerDialer, and it's designed to make life easier.
Connected to an ordinary telephone, the little $250 black box can place 1,200 calls an hour, sounding its alarm when a line is no longer busy—ideal for buying concert tickets or booking tee times.
But lately, dozens of the firm's customers say they purchased one to secure a clear line to vote for American Idol. "I think they're a little crazy," says President and founder David Hoch. "But people do it because they want their vote to be counted and because the rules allow it. A lot of people have a number of phone lines, and you can actually stack these in a sort of tower of power."
On May 26, when Fox ends the drama over who will be the next American Idol (soulful Fantasia Barrino or effervescent Diana DeGarmo?), fans of the most popular show in America will have a far more pressing question: Will the winner reflect the voice of viewers?
Fan outcry over the Idol
voting system has intensified in the wake of an investigation by B&C [May 17]
over how the system is losing tens of millions of votes. Last week, Fox changed its voting procedures and offered a more detailed defense of the system, adding that it discounts power-dialers. Each contestant will be "allocated additional phone numbers in a voting window that expands to four hours," Fox said.
Still, in responding to charges that millions of fans' votes aren't counted, Fox and Telescope Inc., which handles the vote tabulation, conceded that a bottleneck exists. "We recognize there is local-exchange congestion," says Telescope General Manager Sandy King. Moreover, the Idol
phone system run by AT&T reaches capacity in the first minutes of voting but remains under capacity after that initial spike.
"Unfortunately, it's something that is absolutely beyond the control of Fox," says King.
Fox isn't entirely unhappy about the congestion. The flood of calls builds tension and excitement around the contestants, and Fox executives like that. The very issue that outrages so many fans—too many callers, not enough open lines—is part of what Fox believes has made its show such a powerful franchise.
At a posh party for advertisers in Central Park last week, Fox Networks Group President Tony Vinciquerra praised Idol
—even its flawed voting system. "The short narrow voting window increases the excitement around the show," he says. "I'm a big believer in 'scarcity sells.'"
Fox has reason to build excitement, with more than 22 million homes tuning in each Tuesday night and 30-second spots on the show selling for as much as $500,000 each—making up a large part of the roughly $500 million Fox expects to bring in this year in ad revenue.
Vinciquerra says the current window is "the most democratic way—it's first come, first served."
Fox now says that Idol
plans to add phone numbers and double the voting period to four hours to alleviate congestion for the final week.
For last season's wrap-up, Fox extended the normal two-hour window to three hours, but viewers still encountered massive tie-ups. Two telcos reported a surge of 100 million-plus calls each on Idol
voting nights, but Fox says it recorded only 24 million votes. Viewers continue to complain about endless busy signals.
Even now, it appears inevitable that millions of callers will be frustrated by blocked lines on the grand finale. BellSouth, whose market covers the Georgia and North Carolina hometowns of the two finalists, says Idol
voting nights have already broken volume records and taxed its system. They are now BellSouth's heaviest call periods, beating the previous traditional record-holder, the Monday after Thanksgiving, when workers get back to business. "We're babysitting the switches," says a spokesman, declining to detail traffic numbers.
Verizon saw a 12 million- to 13 million-call surge on recent voting nights, out of 1.5 billion calls handled daily. That includes a 12%-17% jump in Hawaii, likely related to the rescue attempt of now-ousted Hawaiian Jasmine Trias.
Even though Fox may be discounting "power dialers," rapid speed-dialing is nonetheless clogging the system, in part because it's fairly easy. Most personal computers in America come with modem software that will dial a number over and over. Though mainly used by telemarketers, other, more specialized software, with names like "Automated Communicator," as well as power-dialing devices like "Protocall Predictive Dialer" made by Teletech Plus, a Texas firm, are sometimes sold to people who try break through to buy concert tickets.
"My friends told me about the PowerDialer, and I found it on the Internet," says one avid fan, declining to give her last name for fear of retribution from other Idol fans. The married graduate nursing student from Birmingham, Ala., was so upset by the voting congestion last season, particularly the final night, that her husband bought the device for her birthday.
"I thought Clay was a much better singer," says the resident of Alabama, which is also home to rival Ruben Studdard. "I was so mad, and I wanted some way to call and get more votes in."
The device, which resembles a small black answering machine, can dial once every five seconds, making 20 calls a minute, or about 1,200 an hour. It keeps dialing until it connects. After completing a vote, it starts dialing again. "I'm voting for Fantasia this year, and I think I'm getting a vote in every five minutes,' she says. "My friends all have PowerDialers."
Telescope, the firm counting Idol
votes, says it can spot machine-dialers easily. Computers, for example, dial at regular intervals. The duration of each successful call is typically consistent, whereas a fan likely listens to at least a snippet of the recorded message. A machine can call without pausing for the full voting period, while few human fans could last without a break.
"There are regularities and irregularities that we can identify," says King, quickly pointing out that the number of high-volume callers is small. Fewer than 50 callers are disqualified each week. When it comes to affecting the vote tally, she says, "it is absolutely not an issue."
Will people with quick fingers be discounted? Says Telescope Managing Director Troy Sample, "If you vote what you are humanly capable of voting with your fingers, rest assured that your vote would not be disqualified." Without being specific, he figures a single caller with a redial button would top out at six calls a minute, or 360 an hour.
Idol Executive Producer Ken Warwick also dismisses the threat of the machine-dialers. Appearing on the American Idol
host's talk show On Air With Ryan Seacrest, Warwick said, "The system goes straight to it and will eliminate those votes before they're even counted." He added, "It's as fair as it can be."
CBS took a different approach. The network decided against phone voting in its recent finale to Survivor: All-Stars
out of fear of congestion problems. In allowing fans to choose which Survivor should win an additional $1 million prize, CBS allowed a three-day voting period for Internet voters and text-messagers—but no phone calls. "We were concerned about the levels of congestion," says David Katz, a senior vice president. CBS, which tallied 38 million votes, put a cap on votes from any one computer.
Fox, though, maintains that Internet voting is just as vulnerable to ballot-stuffing as a system based on phone calls.
While most savvy TV viewers see reality TV as increasingly less "real" and more staged theatrics, an essential element of American Idol's success is the belief that the winners are chosen based on the number of times viewers call and vote.
Increasingly, fans are becoming more cynical, which could threaten the show's popularity. "OK, so this is some ploy to up the viewership?" wrote one fan to the FCC on May 13. "I'm giving up on the next season of American Idol ... I think this was all a ploy to create controversy."
With evidence that AT&T digital text-message votes have a better chance of getting through than phone calls, and with the specter of Internet betting looming, fans want the system fixed. "As soon as enough viewers lose faith in the results repeatedly," said fan Stan Pace, of Hampton, Va., in an e-mail, "the show's ratings will plummet, and that will be the end of what was a terrific show."
Says Telescope's King, "We understand that fairness is of the utmost importance of this competition. It is integral to the brand of Idol."
Additional reporting by Bill McConnell