American Idol Smithson Scandal

Extra, extra, read all about it. American Idol contestant Carly Smithson had a record deal in 2001. The then-17-year-old Dublin native inked a deal with MCA Records under the name Carly Hennessy and produced a CD called "Ultimate High."

Now, the Internet is abuzz with critics questioning the integrity of American Idol, wondering if Carly deserves to compete given her previous experience, and insinuating that she's a ringer or an Idol plant.

Stop the presses. Is this really such a scandal? No, and let me tell you why.

First of all, it isn't against the rules. American Idol prohibits contestants who have an existing deal, but not a past deal. According to the FAQ on the A.I. website, "...contestants are not permitted to have any CURRENT recording or talent management agreements." Okay, 'nuff said about that.

Second of all, lots of Idol contestants have singing experience. Many are in bands, sing at weddings, or take part in singing competitions. Like last year's winner Jordin Sparks, who competed in numerous singing shows and events before Idol and even recorded a 5-song album when she was thirteen. Whether you want to call it "professional" or not,

plenty of wannabe Idols have extensive crooning experience.

Third of all, Carly's album was... well... a flop. According to MCA, despite good reviews and spending millions on production and marketing, it sold fewer than 400 copies in the first three months. Carly was subsequently dropped from the label. I hardly think that a poorly selling album gives Carly an unfair advantage over the rest of the bunch.

As for questioning the "integrity" of American Idol, come on! I mean, why do we think American Idol exists. Is it to give young, talented, undiscovered singers a shot at fame? Nope. That's just the hook, and a coincidental side effect of the show. The real purpose of the program is to... (drum roll please) make money. Specifically, it's to make money by selling advertising for a highly watched television show.

The fact that the winner gets a record deal that might make them a star and earn some money down the road is a bonus. The fact that the show acts as a de facto 24-week long commercial to build momentum and enthusiasm for the eventual winner's CD is a double bonus.

But neither is really the point of the program.

If Idol producers knew about Smithson's previous record deal (which they probably did) then you can't blame them for keeping it quiet since it might sour viewers to her story. And now, of course, it's a great scandal that will garner the show a lot of attention during a season where ratings have already been slipping.

If Idol producers didn't know about Smithson's deal, shame on them for not doing their homework on each contestant, but congratulations that this little ratings present has fallen into their laps.

But I find it hard to believe they didn't know. MCA still has a web page dedicated to Carly Hennessy. You can also see a Carly Hennessy video on YouTube if you like.

And if you listen to Smithson's own "Introducing Carly" video on the American Idol site, she admits about five minutes into the interview that her father helped her get signed to a record deal when she was "quite young" and that "it didn't go very well...".

Now I will say shame on Carly for not being honest on her Idol bio page, where she answers the question, Do you have any formal singing training? with "Some later in life but didn't enjoy it." I guess if I were dumped by MCA, I wouldn't enjoy it either.

Bottom line: this isn't a scandal. It's not against the rules, it's not uncommon, it's not an unfair advantage. And while it hasn't been widely advertised by the Idol folks, it isn't a cover-up.

As to whether Carly is a "plant," only A.I. producers know for sure, but I hardly see the outright benefit, other than the increased ratings that are sure to follow this much ado about nothing.

Very bottom line: it's in the hands of viewers now, which is where it should be. Idol producers can't control whom we vote for. If people don't want Carly around, or think she's cheating, or think it's unfair, or just don't like her Irish accent, they can simply refuse to vote for her. Trust me, if they don't like her, she won't be around for long.

Ethan Morris: "Not always right, but never in doubt." Go ahead and write me.