Pop Culture

Oprah Network accused of fixing reality contest

Oprah wants to give someone a chance to host their own show on her network, but her "Search for the Next TV Star" is causing controversy after allegations of vote rigging.

For the show, "Your OWN Show: Oprah's Search for the Next TV Star" contestants gathered through online audition tapes and open casting calls at four Kohl's stores.

Over 10,000 hopefuls signed on, each proposing the kind of show they would like to host. From that pool, five finalists will be chosen from online vote, and others by judges from the live castings. Ten finalists will appear in an eight-episode boot camp to determine who will get to host; shows will air when OWN launches in January 2011 and will be executive produced by Mark Burnett.

As of this writing, the top two online vote-getters are Phyllis Wick-Turner, a Florida college professor, and Zach Anner, a 25-year-old from Austin.

And that's where the controversy begins.

Anner uses a wheelchair because he has cerebral palsy — which he describes in his audition tape as "the sexiest of the palsies." His online submission was a pitch for "a travel show for people who never thought they could travel," inspired by his own experiences.

Tucker-Wicks said she always "wanted be a Hollywood actress." Her audition proposes a "teacher reality show" showing "the days and the lives of a teacher" and "the drama in the classroom."

Anner's humorous, self-deprecating clip received a groundswell of support on the internet thanks to mentions on several blogs, including the personal site of singer John Mayer and popular online messageboard 4chan.

As a result, his vote totals took off — but when Tucker-Wicks had a vote surge of her own, the Annerfans cried foul.

Message-board postings began carrying accusations that OWN was rigging the online voting in favor of Tucker-Wicks.

Tucker-Wicks is African-American and Anner is white, and the allegations eventually took on a racial tone. Hackers eventually manipulated search results to make "Oprah rigs contest in favor of African American" the number one most-searched term on Google.

A spokesperson for OWN told TheWrap: "No contestant has been favored in this competition. The rules were designed to ensure that it is run fairly and in an unbiased manner." He added that all votes would be put through two different levels of verification to ensure everything is on the up-and-up.

In fact, tech blog Geekosystem uncovered evidence that the angry Annerfans did some cheating of their own. The site published screen grabs showing 4chan users discussing automated "bots" to generate extra votes for Anner. 4chan members also launched a campaign against Tucker-Wicks that has included posting nasty reviews to her pages on various teaching websites.

As for the idea that the network would fix the contest, it seems a bit far-fetched. OWN producers already have final say over who will get selected for the show. Still, the network said it will be putting the votes through two different levels of verification to ensure everything is on the up-and-up.

"We are conducting compliance reviews and we are investigating the allegations," said the spokesperson.

As of this writing, OWN said it has received over 70 million votes in the online portion of the contest. Anner is in first place with 8.3 million votes, and Tucker-Wicks is in the number two spot with 6.6 million.

Voting ends on July 3.