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‘Idol’ plays nice on night devoted to charity

None of the finalist went home and money was raised for charities in Africa and the U. S. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“American Idol” spent two hours on Wednesday soliciting money for charity. One early beneficiary was this week’s lowest vote-getter.

Faced with the prospect of marring a feel-good episode with the heartless booting of one of the six “Idol” finalists, the show decided to take a pass on delivering bad news. One by one, from Melinda Doolittle to Blake Lewis to Phil Stacey to LaKisha Jones to Chris Richardson to Jordin Sparks, each contestant was told that they were safe.

Ryan Seacrest opened the show promising “the most shocking result in our history,” but when Melinda was the first to hear that she was safe, the outcome was a lot easier to predict. It was either keeping everyone or bringing back Sanjaya Malakar, and there’s no reason to do the latter when some of the guest celebrities felt free to make jokes about him anyway. Moreover, each of the contestants seemed remarkably calm during the process, either indicating that the news wasn’t a surprise to them, or that seeing the hurdles faced by the less fortunate made their own status on the show less important.

There wasn’t much else the show could do. On a moral level, it’s hard to mix videos of starving children with cutthroat competition. On a practical level, it’s hard to ask LaKisha fans for money if you’re kicking her off the show an hour later.

Whether this was less of a surprise that Chris Daughtry’s finishing fourth, Ruben Studdard beating Clay Aiken, or the “Idol” crew screwing up the phone numbers last season is a question best left for the ages.

But “Idol” has always been good at the hype machine, and on Wednesday that hype generated close to $30 million before the East Coast episode had finished, when corporate donations were included.

Opening the checkbookFive million of that money came from Fox’s parent NewsCorp, based on 10 cents each for the first 50 million votes. More than 70 million votes were actually cast, so 20 million of those carried no charitable value whatsoever.

Nor did they carry much practical value. They’ll be added to next week’s total and the bottom two finishers will be voted off, but the process made this week’s show meaningless for viewers unmoved by the calls for donations.

Guest singer Jack Black is always entertaining, Ben Stiller showed he can rival William Hung for talent, and the Simpsons got to send Simon Cowell down a pit to be eaten by lions after Homer dismissed him by saying “Lose the accent Mary Poppins. This is ‘American Idol.’”

But it was ultimately a two-hour phone-a-thon for worthy causes in Africa and the United States rather than a singing competition, at least for this week, which had to be at least a little disappointing to those focusing more on saving Jordin than saving the world.

Cast of thousandsNothing gets the top talent to appear like a worthy cause, especially a cause that also involves the chance to perform before an audience as huge as the one “Idol” offers each week.  It was strong enough to lure Bono to the studios to talk to the remaining “Idol” finalists, and there aren’t any bigger stars either in the music business or in the philanthropic realm.

The U2 frontman and noted crusader for Third World debt relief was joined by musical acts like Carrie Underwood, Josh Groban, Kelly Clarkson and Jeff Beck, Annie Lennox, Rascal Flatts and Earth, Wind and Fire. And those were just the normal performances.

The show used the magic of television to bring the audience a duet between Celine Dion and Elvis Presley, which isn’t something that needs repeating in the future. It also highlighted some strange corporate sponsors, like Allstate and Exxon. Considering that insurance companies haven’t generally been cited for their quick and easy handling of Katrina claims, and Exxon is still best known for spilling oil off the coast of Alaska, they seemed a strange fit here.

And though Sanjaya was voted off last week, he wasn’t forgotten. He and his sister were both in the audience, and got to hear a number of jokes at his expense.

Eric McCormack of “Will and Grace” fame noted that “If everyone who ever voted for Sanjaya donates just one dollar, we could do a lot of good.” Ellen DeGeneres talked about his hair care, while Simon reacted to Black’s performance with a tepid “You were better than Sanjaya.”

Black’s performance of Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” was the most energetic of the “Idol” season. Paula Abdul wasn’t impressed, telling Black that “The School of Rock called. They want their diploma back.”

She didn’t even coach the criticism by saying Black looked fabulous, her usual tactic in such situations.

Serious subjectOf course, it wasn’t all fun and games.

“Idol” faced a challenge in that unlike earlier fund drives after Sept. 11 or Hurricane Katrina, there was no obvious sense of urgency to build on. When viewers tune into telethons after a tragedy, they come knowing that money isn’t just needed, it’s needed immediately.

But disease and starvation in Africa and homelessness, hunger and poverty in America are sadly a daily reality for far too many people.

All are a problem today, and will likely be a problem tomorrow and next year as well, and tend to be such big issues that many find it better to avoid thinking about them altogether. The show’s producers therefore not only had to present the issues as critical and force people to take notice, they needed to make a case that time was of the essence in soliciting funds.

To that end, they offered a host of heartfelt celebrity endorsements.

More importantly, they showed a number of videos of Ryan and Simon traveling to Africa, viewing the poverty and disease there. And they showed tape of Paula and Randy Jackson in the United States, examining issues closer to home.

The total package was a tearjerker that inspired countless donations, including $100,000 from special guest co-host DeGeneres. And if nothing else, it leveraged the show’s huge audience to focus attention to causes that often struggle to get significant airtime. In that sense, it truly was a case where “Idol” gave back.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.