'American Idol,' Ready for An Unflattering Close-Up?

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

After beating back attacks by rabid fans and foes over three brilliant seasons, will Fox's "American Idol" be dragged down by the snapping teeth of ABC News and VotefortheWorst.com?

ABC is set tomorrow to run "Fallen Idol," its much-talked-of "Primetime Live" broadcast that, according to sources familiar with the situation, is mostly about "Idol" judge Paula Abdul and whether she coached contestant Corey Clark during the second season.

Fox had not, as of late yesterday, responded to any of the questions put to it by ABC News; a Fox rep declined to comment for this story.

Ditto ABC News, which continues to play coy as to what is in its report -- a strategy sure to drive about 15 percent more viewers to "Primetime," which is, you notice, not airing in its regular Thursday slot but on the night of the "Idol" results show. That's because it's the May ratings sweeps and ABC is not stupid.

But among the many bits in the broadcast is a message Abdul allegedly left on Clark's cell phone urging him not to respond to media inquiries, say sources familiar with the story, who insisted on remaining anonymous. The sources say the call was placed after syndicated gossip columnist Cindy Adams broke the story that Clark was shopping around a book proposal promising to tell all about his alleged relationship with Abdul.

Also in store for viewers is a look at Clark's telephone records, which allegedly show that he and Abdul spoke often and long while he was a contestant in the singing-competition series, according to some sources.

And, as part of ABC News's deal to get Clark's cooperation, we'll get to hear a portion of his new single during the newscast, one source reported.

As of last night, Abdul was standing by last week's statement that she would not dignify the allegations with a response. Her attorney also wrote to ABC last week informing the network of possible legal action if the broadcast runs, according to news reports.

Tomorrow's "Primetime" also will include appearances by second-season "Idol" contestants who did not make it as far as Clark. They complain they did not get the same help as Clark allegedly did from Abdul, including what to sing, how to look, etc.

Nonetheless, Clark didn't make it much past the 32-contestant mark. Viewers winnowed those 32 down to 12 finalists and, after three of those were voted out, Clark got the hook because word got out that he had been arrested for allegedly assaulting his teenage sister and then resisting arrest.

The "Primetime Live" report is from producer Harry Phillips and senior producer Chris Vlasto, who also produced ABC News's report on Donald Trump's finances, which aired the same night as the Donald's NBC reality series, "The Apprentice." Vlasto is better known for producing Jackie Judd's report nailing the Monica Lewinsky blue-dress story during the Clinton days.

Tomorrow's report also will include interesting behind-the-scenes footage from "Idol." Ironically, ABC News was the invited guest of "Idol" producers during the Fox show's second season; lots of footage was shot for a profile of the show that ran on "20/20" on Jan. 31, 2003.

The "Primetime" broadcast purports to show that Clark became one of the 32 finalists without Abdul's help but their alleged relationship began almost immediately thereafter.

In "American Idol," the three judges, Abdul, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell, decide which 32 wannabes get to go to Hollywood. At that point, viewer voting takes over.

"Idol" is the most watched television show in the country; Tuesday performance broadcasts this season have averaged nearly 28 million viewers and Wednesday's results show snags an average of more than 25 million.

"Idol" is critical to the Fox network's success. Before the third season debuted in January, Fox was in fourth place among the 18- to 49-year-olds whom advertisers pay a premium to reach and the broadcast networks therefore target. After the January debut, Fox jumped to No. 1 in the key demographic group.

If the ABC report has legs, pundits forecast it is unlikely to bring down the franchise. But they speculate the show might sever its relationship with Abdul, although she always tests extremely well in focus groups because, people say, she's caring and nurturing, unlike Cowell, who's been cast as the blunt one, and Jackson, who plays the unintelligible keeper of the keys to dawg-dom.

"Idol" has been plagued each season with attacks on its credibility, launched mostly by die-hard fans who claim they cannot get through on phone lines to vote for their favorite singers. Viewers are encouraged to vote often for their fave at the conclusion of each performance show; the lowest vote getter each week is booted from the competition.

Last year the Associated Press conducted its own inquiry, assigning reporters to join the tens of millions of fans seeking to decide the talent contest's two finalists. The AP reported busy signals on more than 100 calls the team placed from Los Angeles and the home states of the three remaining contestants. The AP team was able to cast only four votes and concluded that "beleaguered phone systems, trying to slurp up a tsunami of calls with a straw, can't help but choke."

Ironically, this season there has been no outrage over the voting logjam. Instead, the producers are dealing with something more insidious, a Web site encouraging people to vote for "the worst."

The Web site picked Scott Savol this season because of his lack of charisma and the kind of arrogance that should belong only to a genuine superstar, site founder Dave Della Terza told the Associated Press yesterday. Then there's Savol's background: He was arrested in 2001 on a felony domestic violence charge after a fight with the mother of his child and ultimately pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. "How do you promote the guy who threw a phone at his child's mother?" said Della Terza -- a reference to 19 Entertainment, which oversees recording and other deals for "Idol" stars.

No one was taking VotefortheWorst.com too seriously -- it's been around since last season -- until last week, when contestant Constantine Maroulis, who had never landed among the weekly bottom-three vote-getters, was axed, while perennial bottom-dweller Savol landed in the top three.

Since then, the VotefortheWorst movement has gained steam and the number of visitors to the site has increased exponentially, as "Idol"-obsessed Reporters Who Cover Television spread the word. In the past week, the Web site has been the subject of stories in the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times, Fox News Channel, "Access Hollywood," Entertainment Weekly, MSNBC, E! Online News, MTV News and a slew of blogs, among others.

Late last week, Fox responded to inquiries about VotefortheWorst with a very long statement, insisting, "While it is unfortunate that a small group of people are so caustic that they believe it would be humorous to attempt to negatively sway the voting on 'American Idol,' the number of purported visits to the website would have no impact on voting."

It continued: "Until the media started writing about this website in the past 2 days, the number of visitors was practically nonexistent," and, Fox added, some are visiting the site only to urge its creators to shut it down.

"Each week millions of votes are received for each contestant, and based on the tiny number of visitors this site has allegedly received," Fox said, "their hateful campaign will have no effect on the selection of the next American Idol."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company