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American democracy meets American Idolatry

From "Big Brother" to "Survivor" to "American Idol," reality shows are relying on the audience to vote in a winner. By Wendell Wittler.
/ Source: contributor

America is facing an electoral crisis.

It's not about punch cards and hanging chads, but touch-tone phones and cliffhanging divas. The candidates aren't raising and spending massive amounts of money, but the winner will likely earn more than the president of the United States. There are no exit polls, but there's this goofy guy who keeps saying "Out!" This crisis is happening not in American Politics, but "American Idol".

Democracy is one piece of reality that has had problems on reality TV.

When "Big Brother" was imported from Europe, the show's format had the viewing public voting to evict one player each week.

In the other nations that the show had appeared in, dull contestants were voted out early, and the show was a smash. But in the Greatest Democracy on Earth, the strongest characters were eliminated early, the house got boring, the ratings bottomed out, and the grand prize was awarded to one-legged Eddie in a sympathy vote.

CBS panicked and totally redesigned the contest, cutting off the public vote. In season two, America watched Will, self-proclaimed "Evil Doctor", plot behind the other players' backs, the ratings came back, and now "Big Brother America" is a summer TV mainstay, but still very undemocratic.

CBS may have learned a lesson, but the only thing the Fox Network learns from history is how to make copies. So two years later, Fox imported "American Idol" from England, lock, stock and Simon Cowell. (The original sported the un-nationalistic title "Pop Idol.")

The telephone system on "Idol" was simpler than Big Brother's. Instead of a single phone number for all voting, fans were given a separate number for each singer, and the singer with the least votes each week went home (except for group albums and tours promoted by the show). On "Idol", viewers are encouraged to vote for their favorite "early and often." The closest thing to a controversy the first year involved a finalist whose first name was Justin and whose last name an undetermined number of clueless fans apparently thought was Timberlake.

Phone woesIn year two, the success of "Idol" grew, and the final two were the competition's least typical pop stars: Clay Aiken, a skinny kid who got a major makeover that only lowered his Geek Rating from 11 to 8, and Ruben Studdard, a "teddy bear" who defied the conventional wisdom that a neutered Barry White couldn't be a hit. Idol fever peaked as the two unlikelies went head-to-head, and the show proudly proclaimed a victory for Ruben that was as thin as he wasn't: about half of one percent out of 24 million votes.

But the big vote and the close vote were dangerously related: the flood of calls overwhelmed Idol's  phone system, and with both phone numbers running at capacity, a near-tie was inevitable. The winner seemed to have been decided by the relatively few voters who used AT&T's wireless text-messaging system, which never had capacity problems. Or a technical difficulty lasting less than a minute to Clay's number could have accounted for the half-percent margin.

Nobody outside the show knows for sure, and nobody inside the show is talking. Meanwhile, the two largest phone companies reported a surge in calls the day of the vote ten times the show's vote count. With uncompleted calls far outnumbering the completed, either of the finalists could have had twice as many attempted votes as the other, and the show would never know. And building in extra capacity for rare peaks in usage has never been a priority with the telephone system; just try calling your mom on Mother's Day.

In the third year of "Idol," telephone voting issues became more visible. The show answered concerns about so-called Power Dialers using computerized equipment to cast thousands of votes, limiting votes from a single phone number to 500 in two hours. With the live show tape-delayed for the western U.S., they opened voting lines from different time zones at different times, which apparently created an advantage for the hometown favorite from usually isolated Hawaii. The best way to make sure your vote gets through is text messaging, but those using the feature are likely to be more affluent, more technically savvy, and most alarmingly, more comfortable expressing themselves with cliche acronyms like "LOL" and "YMMV."

Fox and the producers have handled damage control well, except for Producer Nigel Lythgoe, who, in a heavier British accent than Simon's, put the blame on the "50 percent of the viewers who don't even vote".

The most serious investigative journalism on the issue was done by a team of AP reporters who tried to vote in the semi-finals, getting through only 4 times out of 100 calls.

Points to remember
Now that the final vote has been tabulated and another "American Idol" has been crowned, even the most dedicated fan must remember the following basic principles:

• It's only a television show. (Repeat as often as needed until breathing returns to normal.)

• It's on the Fox network, which almost single-handedly invented Faux Reality, with "Joe Millionaire" and "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance" setting a sub-standard for Prime Time Dirty Tricks. If it's ever revealed that the competition was fixed all along, there's probably something in the fast-scrolling small-print disclaimers at the end of the show to explain it away.

• In the current state of pop music, becoming the Next Big Thing is not all that big a prize. First year winner Kelly Clarkson is already overshadowed by every popular teen actress not named Olsen with a recording contract. The music business is so fragmented, many of the musical sub-genres already have their own contests, and "Nashville Star" is totally British-accent-free. And the industry is in such disarray that it hasn't even been able to strip Michael Jackson of the title "King of Pop".

• As any fifth-grade civics teacher or local Republican party official will repeat to you a dozen times: "The United States of America is a republic, not a democracy." America's ever-popular Founding Fathers spoke frequently of guarding against "the tyranny of the majority" and every time we did something to expand the voting franchise, from women's suffrage to the absentee ballot, we were warned of dire consequences. Real elections today attract 40 percent or less of eligible voters. Does America need to be told to "vote often" just to bring the number up to 50 percent?

• One more civics lesson: the word "Idol" does not occur anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the only place it might appear in a government office is where the office-holder keeps a copy of the Ten Commandments; and that document doesn't speak highly of the concept either. A more American competition would select the next "Pop Mogul" (Think "The Apprentice" with guest judge Clive Davis).

But even as Fox and "American Idol" stumble over potholes on the road to democracy, CBS surprisingly has changed direction. "Survivor," where villains were always more likely to win than heroes, added a coda to its "All-Stars" season by offering up "America's Tribal Council", allowing voting by the Great Unwashed Masses (who are actually more hygienic than Survivor contestants). Lovable teddy bear Rupert won by a predictable landslide.

Maybe it's true what some political scientists say, that you don't really appreciate Democracy until you've had to live without it.

Or maybe America just loves teddy bears, even more than guys with one leg.

But just as you've repeated "it's only television" the hundredth time, there's a new Reality Show premiering on cable next month titled: "American Candidate". I guess somebody had to use those discarded voting machines.

is the online alias of a writer from southern California.