Votes Come In, And Conspiracy Theories Come Out

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

Every year, you can hear the howling: allegations of fraud, suggestions of stuffed ballot boxes, charges of voting manipulation, outrage, calumny.

A disputed election? Well, yes. But in this case, the hard feelings surround TV's most popular show and not, say, a presidential contest or an emerging democracy's dicey vote count.

Try as they might, some viewers can't seem to shake the suspicion that something's not quite pure on Fox's "American Idol" after the last note sounds and callers begin casting votes for their favorite singer. Since the program's inception in 2002, "American Idol" has hatched almost as many conspiracy theories as John F. Kennedy's assassination. And this season's competition -- won last night by graying rocker Taylor Hicks, who beat sultry pop singer Katharine McPhee -- was typical.

Suspicions were primed Tuesday night when host Ryan Seacrest announced at the end of the final competition program that viewers would have "at least four hours to vote" for "Idol's" latest winner. At least ? A jolt of paranoia quickly surged through "Idol" fan sites and hit office water coolers: Perhaps this indicated that Fox was keeping the lines open longer to achieve some preconceived result? Actually, no, said Fox; Seacrest was imprecise and should have just said four hours, the typical window for a final vote, a network official said.

And some viewers complained this month that their attempts to vote for rocker Chris Daughtry were misdirected to McPhee's voting line. When Daughtry was eliminated from the program this month in a surprise, his supporters fumed. They started an online petition demanding a recount. As of yesterday, the petition had nearly 38,000 names, but no recount was in sight.

Cynicism seems to be an "American Idol" tradition. Some viewers have long suspected manipulation in the order in which the contestants perform (the last spot is supposedly the best, since viewers tend to vote for the singer they remember most). Those viewers see an unfair bias in the judges' comments (a favored performer might be praised for singing several songs in an identical style, but an out-of-favor contestant gets hammered for doing the same thing). And they suggest the show's producers maneuver the most demographically diverse, and most telegenically attractive, group of singers into the final rounds to maximize the program's appeal and pump up its ratings. As one "Idol"-bashing Web site ( http://realitytvcalendar.com/ ) recently framed the question: "American Idol 5: Is it Fixed? Do the Votes Really Count?"

Fox, of course, vigorously defends "Idol." "The producers and network have gone to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the voting process, Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said in a statement. "America votes, an independent company calculates the tally, and the show reports those results. While acknowledging that dedicated fans may be unhappy with the outcome, 'American Idol's' process -- the most sophisticated voting system in existence -- only reports the decision of the voting public."

Indeed, any program that attracts more than 30 million viewers is likely to inspire some passionate reactions. As with anything that is so closely observed, "Idol" can produce anomalies and oddities, most of which are innocent and apparently easily explained. And despite doubts about the voting process, the show's average ratings have increased each season.

But Fox has sparked suspicion by remaining highly secretive about most aspects of its voting system. Seacrest, for example, never has revealed the actual voting totals for winning contestants. In a very closely contested race between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken in the program's second season, the host infamously offered three different figures for the margin of difference between them.

The program is no stranger to controversy. Fox had to go on the defensive last year when former "Idol" contestant Corey Clark claimed he had had an affair with judge Paula Abdul and said she advised him on what to sing and wear on the show. Abdul and Fox denied the claims, saying Clark was trying to peddle a tell-all book and launch a singing career.

In 2004, millions of potential voters weren't able to register their choices in the final round when regional phone systems became swamped by the deluge of calls. The incident raised more questions about the use of computerized speed-dialing programs, which can generate hundreds of calls from a single user. At the time, Broadcasting & Cable magazine called the "Idol" voting system "about as reliable as Florida's in the 2000 presidential election."

Fox points out that it cannot be held responsible for the inadequacies of the phone system infrastructure. The network says it uses technology to detect and block mass dialers, such as "blast" devices used by telemarketers that can generate many calls simultaneously.

"I am pretty satisfied and confident that the integrity is there," says "Idol" fan Jim Hellriegel. "This is the most popular thing on TV, and if there was a real scandal there, it would destroy the show just like the quiz-show scandals of the 1950s. Fox has every incentive" to keep the program clean.

Hellriegel's endorsement perhaps packs more punch than the average fan's. A network systems engineer who lives near Cleveland, Hellriegel created a computer program and a Web site ( http://dialidol.com/ ) that enables fans to speed-dial "American Idol" voting lines and report their results to a central database. On the theory that the most popular contestant will get both the most votes and the most busy signals, the site predicts who will be eliminated each week based on the number of busy signals its callers get. Using this formula, it has correctly predicted the order in which 19 of the 22 semifinalists would be eliminated this season.

Yesterday morning, the Web site called Hicks the winner of Season 5.

Hellriegel says his site's 5,000 users made about 2.2 million calls to the "Idol" voting lines Tuesday night. Of those, about 500,000 calls got through to register a vote. Although that sounds like an impressive number, he points out that it's a small percentage of the more than 50 million votes cast overall.

Still, his speed-dialing program does sound a little like stuffing the "Idol" ballot box. Whatever happened to the great democratic principle of one man, one vote? Replies Hellriegel: "I expect someone from Washington to put the question that way. But this is 'American Idol,' and they encourage as many votes as you can."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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