Jim Hellriegel is an "American Idol" fanatic. He's also being threatened by the show's lawyers.
Like a lot of "Idol" devotees, Hellriegel always has a few favorites. Last season it was Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice, as well as Constantine Maroulis and Lindsey Cardinale. From the start of the season he was logging votes for each of them, which is when he discovered a pattern.
"Bo and Carrie had a lot more busy signals and Lindsey was hurting the most," he recalled Tuesday from his home near Cleveland. (Underwood, of course, went on to win, Bo was the runner-up and Lindsey finished 12th.)
Around the same time, Hellriegel was looking to save his dialing fingers from exhaustion and invest in a speed dialer. When he couldn't find an affordable one, he decided to create his own, and while he was at it he put his busy-signal pattern to the test.
What Hellriegel created is a speed-dial computer program available for download at his Web site, DialIdol.com. It allows fans to vote rapidly for whomever they wish — last week about 100 people using the program logged about 18,000 calls. Meanwhile, all the calling data, including whether the calls resulted in a vote or busy signal, are sent back to Hellriegel's database. From there he determines each contestant's busy percentage and ranks them. The one with the smallest is who he predicts will be eliminated.
"Really, though, it's just a poll to see who has the busiest busy signal," Hellriegel said. "I don't claim to be 100 percent accurate. The only way you're gonna know is to watch the show."
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During the semifinals Hellriegel's Dial Idol predictions were correct with seven of the 12 contestants and were only slightly off with most of the other five. Last week, though, it had eliminated singer Melissa McGhee in ninth.
The biggest flaw in the busy-signal theory is that "Idol" votes are also cast via text messages. And even though Hellriegel's program goes by percentage, the dialers using it represent a minuscule portion of the record 32 million votes cast Tuesday night.
Regardless, "American Idol" seems hardly thrilled with the site. Last week Hellriegel received a cease-and-desist letter from the show's lawyers, attacking him for copyright infringement and accusing the site of posting clips from the show — an allegation Hellriegel claims is wrong.
"There was never, ever, any audio, video or stills from 'American Idol' or any TV show on my site for viewing privately or publicly," Hellriegel said. "Completely false. That's not what the Web site is about."
Still, he took down the site, replacing it with a blog updating his users on the situation. He also called the lawyer per the letter's request.
"What they said on the phone was an entirely different thing," he said. "They said I was posting 'results,' but it's not. I'll never see them. I'm the last person who would see the results. My site isn't a lot different than other poll sites out there."
Hellriegel then hired a lawyer and relaunched the site Tuesday.
"I've done everything I can to [comply with] the cease-and-desist letter," he said. "My lawyer is overly satisfied. We didn't think they had a case in the first place, but their concern seemed to be around the logo, and that's been changed."
Producers for "American Idol" had no comment on Dial Idol and have discounted speed dialers in the past.
"It's not like I'm a telemarketer who used their phone systems to speed-dial thousands of votes," Hellriegel said. "Ryan Seacrest says to vote as many times as you can. My program is designed to keep people's fingers rested."
Hellriegel says he also believes he's doing a service to "Idol" fans. Since the show doesn't release vote totals each week, by showing the busy-signal percentages, he's letting them know which singers need their fans to vote the most. "They're using it as a tool to keep their favorite 'Idols' around," he said.
For the record, Dial Idol had Tuesday night's lowest busy-signal earner as Elliott Yamin.
"It's been frustrating, but I still love the show," Hellriegel said. "I'm hoping it's past us now and we can all get on and figure out who is going to be the next American Idol."