`Idol' vote is on the line

Fans worry theirs won't be counted for the winners


May 25, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Melanie Meyer has been an American Idol fan since the show debuted in June 2002 before 9.9 million viewers. But as far as she's concerned, the show in recent weeks has been one long, frustrating lesson in how un-democratic a popular vote can be.

"I don't know if I'm ready to say the heck with American Idol and stop watching, but their voting system is a sham, and that makes me angry," said the 37-year-old computer software engineer from Baltimore. "They need to get a system that works. If they don't, they are going to lose all the fans that made them such a hit."

Now ranked No. 1 on network television with an audience of 25 million viewers, American Idol tonight and tomorrow will air its two-part finale.

As the final face-off - which showcases the 16-year-old contestant Diana DeGarmo and her 19-year-old rival Fantasia Barrino - approaches, so has the chorus of fan complaints grown.

What's at stake is the credibility of a multibillion-dollar show built on a series of democratic beliefs and concepts with a winner ultimately selected by viewer votes. "The whole show is founded on the premise of giving Americans a voice," Meyer said.

The process works like this: Once the field of 70,000 applicants is winnowed down to a dozen finalists by judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, viewers decide who is eliminated on a one-by-one basis each week. They vote via phone calls and text messages, with 24 million votes cast on the night of last year's finale.

But in recent weeks, the voting process - touted by Fox as proof that the show respects and empowers its audience - has been exposed as one riddled with flaws. The primary problem is that with tens of millions of fans trying to vote, many local phone systems have become overloaded and unable to funnel calls through to the long distance AT&T network where the votes are recorded.

The result of such congestion: Instead of being able to vote, callers get a repeated busy signal. Many simply have given up after more than an hour of not getting through. And who could blame them?

The trade publication Broadcast & Cable estimated the number of calls not getting through in recent weeks at more than 10 million.

On the other hand, text messages sent via AT&T, one of the sponsors of the show, at a cost to the voter of 10 cents each, always get through and get counted. And, then, there's the problem of power dialers using auto-dialing software to "slam" the system with thousands of votes cast with one click of a mouse. Not exactly one person, one vote.

Though the problems are now beginning to receive scrutiny from the mainstream media, fans like Meyer were skeptical as early as last year - at the end of Season 2, when Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard finished in a dead heat. Studdard was ultimately declared the winner, and while it might not have mattered in the long run to the performers (since both are now stars), it did to many angry Aiken fans.

"That's when I started to get suspicious," Meyer said, adding that she let it drop as the season ended. "But some of the voting this year was just a total sham, like LaToya [London] losing to Jasmine [Trias]. That's when I started to get really angry."

Supporters of London, who was the consensus front runner in online chatrooms and discussion groups, howled over the fact that more callers from Hawaii, Trias' home state, were allowed to get through because of a six-hour time difference. The only response from Fox was a brief statement asserting the "integrity of the voting process."

But the complaints grew louder. Over the weekend, Barrino and DeGarmo found themselves fielding questions about the controversy during telephone news conferences intended to promote tonight's final competition.

"I really haven't heard that much about it - we live in a bubble," said Barrino, sounding like someone who had been coached in staying on message.

But as more questions came, Barrino admitted that she thought DeGarmo might become the next American Idol, "because she's 16 and a lot of young people relate to her - people who are probably sitting on the phone lines [waiting to vote] and calling all their friends [to also vote for her]."

DeGarmo's response: "Fox and American Idol assured us that the voting is as fair as possible. ... But I know the lines can get busy and people can't get through."

In trying to remedy the situation, Fox yesterday announced that it would have three phone lines open for each finalist tonight and would expand the voting window to four hours.

"We had already planned on expanding the voting window for the finale," Cecile Frot-Coutaz, the show's executive producer, said in a statement issued by Fox. "With the volume of calls this season already exceeding last year's finale, we also felt it important to give fans additional phone numbers in an attempt to reduce congestion at local exchanges."

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