American Idol: Idol Gives Back? We'll See.

Everyone's buzzing about American Idol's Idol Gives Back episode this week. For the second year in a row, the hit Fox show will try to

raise millions to help needy people, mostly children, in the U.S. and abroad.

The show airs Wednesday of this week, but was actually taped on Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre. It features huge stars such as Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, as well as musical performances by Carrie Underwood, Snoop Dogg, John Legend, Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana), Gloria Estefan and a duet between Fergie

and Heart.

Whew! That's a lot of celebrities. I'm practically out of breath. And I didn't even name them all.

So far I haven't heard a bad review about the program itself. Snoop Dogg supposedly gets sentimental, Fergie does some impromptu cartwheels, and Jimmy Kimmel makes fun of Simon Cowell's nipples. Does it get any better than that?

Last year, Idol Gives Back raised $76 million. If I had a nickel for every time Ryan Seacrest has reminded us of that fact, I'd be a millionaire. This year, the

show hopes to improve upon that mark and raise $100 million.

But part of me wonders if Idol's eyes aren't bigger than its stomach. Or your wallet.

In case the folks at Idol haven't been watching the news on their own network, which gleefully brings us the gloom and doom every second of every minute of every day,

there is a little thing called a recession happening right now. Unemployment is up, inflation is up, the housing market is down, and the stock market is a wilder ride these days than the

Cyclone on Coney Island.

Giving away money to help others around the world might not be top-of-mind for a lot of Americans right now, especially as they watch food and gas prices rise while their own

paychecks stay flat and their 401(k)s and IRAs evaporate.

It's also, by the way, tax time. The millions of Americans anticipating having to write a check to Uncle Sam may not be eager to pony up any more.

But perhaps I'm overestimating the problem. I have no doubt that the media is. Truth is, most of the country only thinks we're in a recession because they saw it on the news.

So maybe folks will dig deep for some good causes. This year's beneficiaries of Idol's altruism include The Global Fund, Malaria No More, the Children's Health

Fund, Save the Children, the Children's Defense Fund and Make It Right. Make It Right, by the way, is Brad Pitt's charity to benefit New Orleans.

Donors can supposedly rest assured that their money will go to good use. According to reports I've read, American Idol producers and staff have done an extremely

thorough job checking out all of these charities -- to make sure that they are worthy of help and that the money given to them actually makes it to the intended recipients.

Still, there are some lingering questions about last year's Idol Gives Back. So far, Idol has refused to release a formal accounting of how the money was spent. Which means that, of the $76 million raised, we don't know exactly how much actually went to charity, and how much Idol and others pocketed as "expenses."

Officials say the financial statements are being audited and will be released in May. That's convenient. So we won't know the answers until after we donate this year.

Fortunately, a recent New York Times article seems to indicate

that most of the money is helping. According to sources interviewed by the Times, about $68 million of the $76 million raised last year has been pledged to nine different charities, and only about $5 million went for administrative costs, which means Idol has a lower percentage of overhead than a lot of charities.

Here's another little tidbit to consider as you think about writing a check. Last year, the money raised was split pretty evenly between charities in Africa and the United States. And even though we've already seen several promotional videos showing former Idols like Elliot Yamin visiting impoverished villages in Africa, this year Idol officials say more money will go to domestic charities, especially related to (still) ongoing efforts to help New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina.

So if the recession hasn't hit you yet, if you don't owe the Feds any money and you're in a giving mood, tune in Wednesday night for some heavy-hitting stars and performances. Idol Gives Back airs Wednesday night at 8. In the meantime, the competition continues. Idol-ites perform Tuesday night, then face possible elimination

on Thursday.

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