Some say the vote-fiddling Sanjaya has inspired could be fatal

[10 April 2007]

By Jonathan Storm

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Sanjaya Malakar

Sanjaya Malakar

Can a vocally challenged 17-year-old string bean with a smile brighter than the xenon headlights on Ludacris’ Lexus bring down America’s pop-culture behemoth?

Backed by organized efforts to distort the voting - most notably a campaign by satellite radio star Howard Stern - and generating an unprecedented public fascination, Sanjaya Malakar has become the focal point of this season’s “American Idol.”

And, according to one media analyst who has done extensive research on the show, that’s not good.

“It’s already starting to cause trouble,” says Stacey Lynn Schulman, who has examined how “Idol” connects with its fans. “People gravitated toward the show because it was a true contest, providing real people with real talent with real opportunity. Sanjaya degrades that. ...

“The essence was about the real competition. If this goes too far, they’ll lose the audience. They’ll lose the faith.”

Schulman is doubly qualified to comment. She was a professional studio singer for years. “When I put on my vocalist hat, I think, `Oh God, help us,’ ” she said.

Rearranging his long locks every episode and milking shouts from the audience, Sanjaya last week got props as an entertainer from judge Randy Jackson. But his performances have left Simon Cowell, the hanging judge, basically speechless. Cowell has said he would leave the show forever if Sanjaya won.

At least the teen throb is aware that it isn’t his talent that is lighting up the “Idol” switchboards. “I want to prove to America that I really can sing,” he said last week.

America doesn’t care. It’s voting for him anyway. Sanjaya has consistently finished safely in the middle of the pack. And in AOL’s “American Idol” poll, a good popularity barometer that is not affiliated with the show, he vaulted into first place this week, ahead of presumptive favorite Melinda Doolittle.

Yahoo’s Buzz site, which tracks online search requests, reports that Sanjaya is not only the most sought-after of the current “Idol” contestants, he is receiving more searches than any previous “Idol” winner, and this week even surpassed Justin Timberlake and (gasp!) Harry Potter.

Searches are up at another site, too. Buzz found that hits at had jumped 154 percent after last week’s “Idol.”

Started in 2004 by Dave Della Terza, then a recent grad of Northern Illinois University, the site has urged “Idol” viewers to vote for the weakest contestant for two reasons: just for fun, and to undermine “Idol’s” commercial prospects. Della Terza believes that Cowell manipulates the show’s outcome to ensure winners who will make him the most money when signed to record deals.

Della Terza, who will appear on “The Late Show With David Letterman” next Tuesday, has said his site bubbled along with about a million hits a week this season (compared with “Idol’s” roughly 30 million viewers), until he appeared on Stern’s radio show March 20. The following week, traffic jumped to 3 million, he said. Now, if the Yahoo! figures are correct, it’s 7.5 million.

On the Internet betting site, odds on Sanjaya’s finishing in the top five have dropped precipitously in the last week from 2:1 against to even money, and he has gone from prohibitive underdog to 8:1 to win the whole thing. The phenomenon has even spawned its own Web site,, where people can buy T-shirts, mugs and buttons boosting or blasting the Seattle songster, and express their thoughts, pro or con.

Example: “If Sanjaya wins, I will pack up my childrens’ bag and send them to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch for Blanket’s surprise birthday slumber party.”

One force not stacking the votes: the one billion residents of India, who some have suggested have been backing the show’s first Indian American. The Associated Press reports that Sanjaya is a virtual unknown in India, where “American Idol” runs on an obscure channel a day late and the country’s copious contingent of call center employees cannot program their automatic dialers.

Nielsen numbers show “Idol’s” ratings are down, and seem to be dropping slightly each week. The show’s producers blame it on Daylight Saving Time, a perennial TV-viewing inhibitor, which came early this year, and not on Sanjaya.

Executive producer Ken Warwick told TV Week he wasn’t worried about organized voting campaigns.

“Even if every single person who listened to Howard Stern voted ... there is very little hype anybody can do that would affect the vast number of votes that we get.”

Media consultant Schulman disagrees. If half of Stern’s listeners (his Sirius satellite radio show has 600,000 subscribers) voted 25 times, that could be as much as one-quarter of each show’s total.

“There have been issues with the voting mechanism, which allows for multiple votes, since the get-go,” Schulman says. “It lets them hype the numbers, but can you imagine what the outcome of presidential elections might be if people could vote 50 or 100 times?”

Schulman says the producers themselves are partially to blame for the Sanjaya problem: “This is someone who shouldn’t be in the contest.”

But she also said the situation was unavoidable.

“With a show like this, it was inevitable. It is, in a way, a perfect case study of what happens when you allow the audience into the production process.

“It’s not the singers’ contest anymore. It has become the peoples’ contest: the people who love it versus the people, many who have ulterior motives, who hate it.”

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