Pop Culture

Five ways ‘Idol’ pimps out its favorites

The pimp slot

F Micelotta / Getty Images North America
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 28: ***EXCLUSIVE ACCESS*** Contestant Adam Lambert performs live on the American Idol Season 8 Top 5 Performance Show on April 28, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by F Micelotta/American Idol 2009/Getty Images for Fox)

Ryan Seacrest may love to say that America is in control of “American Idol,” and viewers’ votes are what ultimately decide, but the finalists’ fates can be influenced by the gods: the show’s producers. One of the many ways they not-so-subtly promote particular contestants is by choosing the order in which the finalists perform every night. Fans have affectionately or not-so-affectionately nicknamed the final performance the “pimp slot,” because that’s where the show puts contestants it wants to promote and play up. The reasoning is simple: Viewers definitely remember the last performance, and not just because more viewers tune in during the second half-hour. Voting opens nearly immediately after that person sings, and of course, that person and their phone number also appear last in the recap that closes out each performance show.

Pimp chair banter

R Mickshaw/American Idol 2009 / Getty Images North America
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 05: ***EXCLUSIVE ACCESS*** (L-R) Host Ryan Seacrest and contestant Kris Allen live on the American Idol Season 8 Top 4 Performance Show on May 5, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by R Mickshaw/American Idol 2009/Getty Images for Fox)

Every night, one or two contestants get to chat with Ryan Seacrest in front of the wall of TVs with Coca-Cola logos on them. Since they sit during their conversation, it’s been nicknamed the pimp chair by viewers who know that having a few extra moments to chat with the host offers a contestant an advantage, if only because viewers get to know contestants better than before. Not everyone gets that opportunity, so who is selected seems extremely arbitrary and even sketchy. The pimp chair can backfire — being able to talk freely offers an opportunity to say something stupid — and it can get out of control, especially if Seacrest gets the judges involved. But it’s valuable screen time that only a few contestants get each night.


AMERICAN IDOL: Tatiana Nicole Del Toro performs in front of the judges on AMERICAN IDOL airing Tuesday, Feb, 17 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/ PT) on FOX. CR: Frank Micelotta / FOX.

During the audition rounds, some semi-finalists get long, extended segments about their sob stories; other semi-finalists are people we’ve never seen before. How much screen time and attention contestant gets throughout the show, from auditions to Hollywood to the finals, can earn them increased favor with viewers (just as is the case with some of the annoying auditioners, like drama queen Tatiana, it can hurt them). Likewise, how much time a contestant gets during the performance show also has an impact. Because producers of the live show are terrible at managing time and overload the performance episodes, the show often rushes through the final few performers, usually because Ryan Seacrest and the judges gave a lot of extra time to earlier contestants. That may offset the pimp slot’s benefits slightly, but it has the potential to really hurt a contestant, which was most evident in a recent episode when Adam Lambert’s entire performance aired after “Idol” should have ended, meaning millions who’d DVRed the show missed his performance. If someone less popular than Adam had performed in the not-so-pimp slot that night, they could have gone home simply because of bad time management.


F Micelotta/American Idol 2009 / Getty Images North America
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29: ***EXCLUSIVE ACCESS*** (L-R) Contestants Matt Giraud, Kris Allen and Adam Lambert are seen live on the American Idol Season 8 Top 5 Elimination Show on April 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by F Micelotta/American Idol 2009/Getty Images for Fox)

In order to accomplish a five-second task— elimination a contestant — during a 60-minute episode, producers need more than Ford commercials, lip-synced group numbers, and performances by reanimated singers. They need drama, and that’s what they get by choosing how exactly the group will be narrowed to those who are in the bottom two. They’ve devised all kinds of creative and cruel ways to thin the group: pairing two favorites and saying one isn’t safe, sending someone to safety immediately to give the perception that person is extremely popular, making someone else wait until the last commercial break to see if they’re in danger or not. Even though every person except one is ultimately safe, the process can frighten some fans into supporting their favorites, or giving up on those who seem hopeless.

Simon Cowell (and the other judges)

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LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22: ***EXCLUSIVE ACCESS*** (L-R) Judges Kara DioGuardi, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell are seen in the audience at the American Idol Season 8 Top 7 Elimination Show on April 22, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by M Becker/American Idol 2009/Getty Images for Fox)

Past contestants have said it and viewers know it: people care what Simon Cowell says. More often than not, viewers seem aligned with Simon’s perspective, so his thumbs up or thumbs down can be enough to encourage people to vote or make voting seem pointless. The other judges’ critiques play a role, too (well, not really Paula Abdul and her platitudes), but Simon holds the most power. Simon’s criticism, especially if it’s relentless and comes week after week, can also rattle the contestants, affecting their future performances. Who Simon wants is often who Simon gets; since before this season started, he’s talked about having a male winner, and now there are coincidentally just three men left.