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‘Idol’ creator says change, charity are good

Simon Fuller was determined to stretch the boundaries of the hit TV show this season, staging an ambitious charity special and a songwriting contest.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“American Idol” creator Simon Fuller was determined to stretch the boundaries of the hit TV show this season, staging an ambitious charity special and a songwriting contest.

So far, he’s more than pleased with the results.

The online competition to create the new idol’s first single got off to a robust start with nearly 30,000 entries, which were winnowed down to 20. Voting on those was to begin after Wednesday’s show, with the most popular song performed later this month by the top two finalists and the winner recording it.

The entries were screened by Fuller and series producers and include “a handful of world-class songs,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Any tinkering with the Fox series — the centerpiece of a hugely lucrative franchise that includes albums and concerts — is carefully considered but vital, Fuller said.

“When you’re sitting in the amazing position of having the biggest show, it’s a great opportunity to experiment,” he said. “You either sit there and think, ‘It’s great’ and wait for it to fall apart, or say, ‘Right, we’re No. 1, how do we maintain, improve the show and the interactivity with our viewers?”’

His eye and ear for what the public wants is undeniable; other accomplishments include managing the Spice Girls and Annie Lennox. On the just-released annual list of Britain’s richest musical figures, Fuller landed in the top five along with Paul McCartney and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But Fuller’s clout didn’t make it a breeze to turn TV’s top-rated series into a charity vehicle.

“I think with everyone ... primarily the network, there was a little bit of trepidation. We have a good thing going and when you look to change it in a way that’s never been done before, it makes people nervous,” he said.

“With credit to all concerned, they backed me on it,” Fuller said. “Along the way, there were a lot of questions asked, lots of worrying faces. But we pulled it off.”

Even President Bush weighs inHe was inspired to act by friend and filmmaker Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill,” “Love Actually”), a founder of Britain’s Red Nose Day charity event.

Curtis had long wanted to stretch his fundraising to America and suggested that “American Idol” would be the perfect vehicle.

“Idol Gives Back,” last week’s two-night fundraiser for relief agencies serving needy families in America and Africa, drew pledges of $70 million with the help of borrowed star power from Bono, Celine Dion and others.

President Bush weighed in on the results in a taped appearance on Tuesday’s show, thanking viewers “who have shown the good heart of America.”

One element in “Idol Gives Back” that Fuller concedes could have been done differently: Although it was decided to refrain from bouncing a contestant last Tuesday in the spirit of the evening, the show briefly made it appear that Jordin Sparks was in jeopardy.

That drew sharp criticism from some viewers; in hindsight, Fuller said, they might have handled it differently.

He has no second thoughts about this season, which some have called lackluster although ratings have remained strong.

“This has been an intriguing year. It’s been a slow burn in terms of getting to know the talent ... It’s more of a journey than ever this year,” he said. Two or three “terrific” contestants have emerged that Fuller sees dueling until the last.

“No names,” he said, diplomatically.