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An idle wish: Reveal 'Idol' vote tallies

As the best contestants get voted off American Idol, the show ought to make viewer vote tallies public.

ERIC DEGGANS
Published April 28, 2004

As American Idol prepares to reject another contestant tonight, fans are still buzzing over why the hit reality show seems to be dumping its best singers.

Some blame dial-in computer hackers; others cite a power blackout in an expelled contestant's hometown and racism among viewers whose call-in and text-messaged votes determine the weekly outcome.

Let this Idol-weary critic offer a solution: Make the voting results public.

Idol is the nation's second-highest-rated TV show. But because Fox officials release almost no information on the public's vote, we don't know how the losers' results compared with other contestants, the history of their vote tallies or where in the country their votes came from.

Indeed, the show's secretive voting process has led to constant allegations of vote-fixing by producers, most recently, when powerhouse diva Jennifer Hudson was expelled last week while lesser talents - say, carrot-topped 16-year-old crooner John Stevens - remained.

Because last week's bottom three contestants were black female singers considered among the show's best, concerns about race and favoritism have only intensified.

(It doesn't help that Idol producers always train a camera on an astonished Stevens each time he survives a round, as if even he realizes he should be gone by now.)

The talent inequities surface sharply on the show's latest CD release, American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics, which sounds as if it were arranged to feature the 12 finalists in order of quality. Parked at the top are favorites Fantasia Barrino (Chain of Fools) and George Huff (Me and Mrs. Jones), while Stevens' tentative take on the Stylistics' You Are Everything falls last.

This is the same controversy we saw last year, when underdog R&B phenom Ruben Studdard (who performs at Ruth Eckerd hall tonight) beat the seemingly more popular Clay Aiken. (Aiken later notched record sales that dwarfed Studdard's, further angering fans.) Journalists noted that a victory by Studdard, who is black and reportedly weighed 350 pounds then, helped silence criticisms that the show was tilted against minority and oversize contestants.

Fox TV could answer the questions if it released a tally of votes for every singer each week, grouped by region and vote method, so fans and journalists could observe trends. Game shows such as The Price is Right must reveal their methods and data to the public; why not Idol?

Of course, there could be another reason why Fox isn't squelching the controversy: It's building interest in the show.

Stories on last week's Idol vote surfaced everywhere from USA Today to CNN and Fox's Good Day Live (I remain amazed at the relentless Idol push on Fox-owned shows such as Good Day and On Air with Ryan Seacrest). Expect a healthy boost in Idol's already-impressive ratings this week, just before the Thursday start of May's "sweeps" ratings period.

Given that Hudson was among the bottom three at least once before, allegations of vote-fixing seem hollow. Likely aware that even Idol losers can have big music careers, she has been a good sport about it all in public - even after an appearance on Seacrest's show last week in which her vocals blew duet partner Barry Manilow off the stage.

Since the show hasn't crowned a bona fide R&B diva winner yet, odds are still good for the show's black, female singers (although pop star Elton John, who has appeared on the show, reportedly called last week's vote "incredibly racist").

But it sure would help if Fox would go public with the vote counts. In a competition that seems the pop culture equivalent of a presidential election, isn't that the least they can do?

AT A GLANCE

American Idol's results episode airs at 8:30 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13.

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