It’s Tuesday, 9:01 p.m. Ryan Seacrest just recapped the night’s performances and the standout is obvious. With adrenaline flowing through your fingers, you pick the phone, dial the numbers and get …
A busy signal?! No!
Frustrating, right? Well, Ken Warwick feels your pain.
As co-executive producer of “American Idol,” he’s one of the people responsible for making the competition fair. And as the series get closer and closer to naming the next winner, more eyes are looking at the mechanics of the voting system.
“We do have a concern,” Warwick said earlier in the season. “The fact of the matter is … there are only so many telephone calls that can be handled by the national network at any one time.”
Warwick is encouraged, however, that the technology is constantly being upgraded, thanks in part to the producers’ extensive work with phone companies since “Idol” launched three years ago.
“We have said to AT&T [one of the phone companies, which also handles the text-messaging voting option], ‘Listen, guys, make sure that when it comes to voting night, you have as many lines free as you possibly can,’ ” Warwick said. “Unfortunately, like everyone else, we are in the hands of the national network and there are sometimes hiccups.”
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The biggest hiccup so far came on last season’s final voting night, when hordes of Claymates from Clay Aiken’s hometown complained that they couldn’t get through. “The whole city of Raleigh [North Carolina] was on the phone voting like mad, so their exchanges got plugged up,” Warwick said. “There’s nothing we can do about that, and it will always be a problem in the hometowns of the final two.”
A problem in one city is usually not enough to skew the voting results, as producers made clear when they debunked the theory that Jennifer Hudson was eliminated because tornadoes shut down phone lines in Chicago (by noting that she would have been booted regardless). Still, the producers monitor calls just to be sure.
“We check afterwards, and throughout the night, just to check that it’s all running smoothly and there are no anomalies and there are no breakdowns and an equal number of lines are open for both contestants,” Warwick said.
The main reason the calls are monitored, however, is not to look for clogged networks, but to deter cheating. “Our main concern is that there is now power dialing [technology],” Warwick said of computer programs designed to dial rapidly. When producers suspect power dialing (a human can log more than 500 calls in two hours, so significantly more than that is a red flag), they remove the votes.
Warwick said the “Idol” brain trust has considered using the Internet for voting, like “Survivor” is doing this week, but ultimately decided against it. “People generally have to leave their television sets to vote on the Internet, [and since that means they're] not watching the rest of the contestants, therefore, it’s not fair.”
The producers have found that even though Seacrest emphasizes that the lines don’t open until the show ends, millions of viewers still try to vote before.