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'American Idol' Gets Some Really Wrong Numbers

By Lisa de Moraes
The Washington Post
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page C01

The evil geniuses at FremantleMedia have found a way to add an extra hour of behemoth "American Idol" ratings to Fox's week, give the network more ad time to sell at "American Idol" rates and get Fox some serious traction Thursday night.

They posted the wrong voting phone numbers for three contestants at the end of Tuesday's "Idol" broadcast.

Jessica Sierra performs on Tuesday's "American Idol." (Fox)

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But in a hastily put together phone news conference with TV critics, "Idol" Executive Producer Ken Warwick called "rubbish" the suggestions by hard-core "Idol" fans on the Web that the mix-up was deliberate. Which is an interesting way to handle hard-core fans, but there you go.

"Why would we contaminate the honesty of the top-rated show in America by fiddling with it?" Warwick asked rhetorically during the phone call.

Fox announced late Tuesday, after East Coast viewers brought the error to their attention, that it would run a second hour-long broadcast of "Idol" last night, combining new live elements with replays of the singers' Tuesday performances and including the correct phone numbers.

Viewers would be allowed to vote for two hours after last night's broadcast, and only that vote will be used to determine which of the 11 contestants get the boot on the half-hour results show, which has been moved to 9 tonight.

Warwick said the situation was the result of "human error." In answer to the very first question he got from reporters -- "How did this happen?" -- he explained that the producers had had "sync problems" on the show the previous week, that they went to HD this season, something about "5.1 wraparound sound as well as stereo" and, summing things up, that "as always in these situations, you take your eye off one ball and it slipped through."

But that didn't stop conspiracy theorists, who wondered why the mistake was not caught, given that the Tuesday show had been taped Monday.

As each contestant performed during the broadcast, Fox ran a "chyron" at the bottom of the screen letting viewers know how to vote for that contestant. The phone numbers are posted twice. First, in larger print, as 1-866-IDOLS, followed by the two digits that indicate a vote for that particular contestant. Each week, the first performer's two digits are 01, the second's are 02, the third 03, and so on. Underneath, in smaller print, is the phone number in digits for the letter-impaired: 1-866-43657 followed by each contestant's two digits.

On Tuesday night, the phone numbers posted while performers were singing were correct. But at the end of the show, when host Ryan Seacrest did his let's-recap-the-performances-shall-we? thing and each singer was shown again for about five seconds, the digits for the final three performers were listed incorrectly in the bottom set of phone numbers. Those performers were Mikalah Gordon, Anwar Robinson and Jessica Sierra.

So anyone who wanted to vote for Mikalah -- but then, why would you? -- and hadn't caught her phone number as posted on the screen for 15 seconds (which is a lifetime in TV time) during her performance and didn't know that because she was the ninth performer her last two digits were 09, and didn't catch the top phone number in larger print during the recap and instead took down the bottom phone number only, would have wound up inadvertently voting for Anthony Federov.

Yes, you had to try really, really hard to get the wrong phone number. Nonetheless, conspiracy and cover-up theories abounded yesterday morning. You know, that "rubbish" Warwick alluded to:

"I think it's an attempt to weed out/irritate the power voters, since it takes a lot more effort to power-vote two days running," suggested one Web chat writer on Televisionwithoutpity.com, adding that "there were maybe 2 or 3 people who couldn't figure out that the 11th contestant was 11, not 3."

"I assume the graphic is computer generated . . . all they would have to change each week would be to edit the name attached to the number," weighed in another. "Why would they need to rebuild the graphic from scratch each week? I call shenanigans on the AI folks for this ratings grabbing stunt."

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