Twelve million votes.
That's twice the population of the state of Missouri. Five times that of Utah's. When Ryan Seacrest announced the margin of victory in the AI7 Finale, out of 97.5 million votes cast, American Idol fans from coast to coast could be found sitting in front of their televisions doing their best goldfish impersonations. Out of a Final Two purported to be one of the most evenly divided in AI history, how did David Cook wind up cleaning David Archuleta's clock by eight digits?
The Idolsphere's bloggers and journalists have been trying to answer this question all week, and they've come up with enough good theories to fill a book. Cook took more risks, they speculate. Archuleta's fans got complacent. (In the Finale?! Please.) The judges' criticisms of Cook backfired. Archuleta peaked too early. The aging Idol audience preferred the mature rocker (viz., "Cougars 4 Cook") and were able to overcome little David's army of teen power voters by sheer strength of numbers. And so on.
We happen to think that all of these factors have merit, some moreso than others. Normally we'd hit you with one of our patented statistical analyses at this point, but not today. For all the hard data we've compiled, nothing we have can explain a gap of 12,000,000 votes. We can only toss out a few theories of our own, plus an anecdote or two that might help you understand the biggest, most yawning gap of all: that between the British producers of American Idol and their American viewers.
First though, all props to Cook for his spectacular achievement this season; let no one take that away from him. Starting as an unhyped afterthought, he ran one of the finest Idol campaigns we've ever seen, combining the rock chops of Chris Daughtry with the cleverness and musical sensibilities of Blake Lewis. Several analysts, notably USA Today's Ken Barnes and Leo The Idol Guy, along with ourselves have been writing for months about the recent emergence of a new breed of contestant: one that offers less belting, fewer glory notes, more artistry, and more intelligence. We consider Lewis to be the beta prototype of Idol 2.0, and Cook (who is a far better vocalist) the first successful production release. Make no mistake, more are on the way, particularly now that instruments are a permanent part of the mix.
But still: twelve million votes? There has to be more to it than that.
Anecdote #1: We observed a clear trend among our website's correspondants this season. Younger fans generally backed Archuleta and older ones favored Cook, but that's no surprise. However, there was another dichotomy we noticed, one that we believe is more telling.
Viewers who'd been watching Idol for only a year or two seemed to break predominately towards Archuleta. And why not? He was humble, cute, sang with a voice that belied his youth, and his backstories and promo clips were adorable. But the veterans of the Tuesday Night Wars, those whose battle scars go back to Kelly vs. Justin, or Ruben vs. Clay, broke significantly...one might say overwhelmingly...towards Cook.
Why? Because longtime fans of the show know all of the tricks in the producers' repertoire by now. They can tell instantly when a contestant gets "the treatment": favorable reaction shots of the judges during their audition, extended and fawning backstory pieces, disproportionate airtime during Hollywood week, dramatic lighting and camera angles during early performances, and much more. They can also tell when a cannon-fodder contestant is being given "the business" via throwaway promo clips, zero Hollywood exposure, unusually harsh judges' reviews, and a general transmission from the 19E Control Tower stating, "This person is not worth your time. Pay him no mind." Newer viewers haven't been around the producers' block yet.
Right or wrong, justified or not, Archuleta was widely perceived to be getting the most favorable early treatment of any contestant in memory. No doubt some of this stemmed from the widespread rumors that 19E is desperate beyond all desperation to break into the Hannah Montana / Jonas Brothers / High School Musical market. The anti-Archie backlash among the Idolsphere thus started early and never let up. We first mentioned it in our episode summary the week he sang Imagine, but other analysts had picked up on it long before the semifinals had begun.
It didn't help that the Idol Machine's repeated miscalculations and blunders this year were staggering, particularly for a show that's been on the air for seven seasons. Rather than simply own up to the professional background of several finalists, they instead tried to peddle them as average Joes who'd just wandered in off the street. When the truth came out, Idol fans felt outraged and hoodwinked. The callous manner in which Michael Johns was dismissed enraged his fans. Paula ripped a performance that Jason Castro had yet to give, enraging his fans. The blatant Happy Feet sabotage of Syesha Mercado in the Final Three somehow went a step further: it enraged people who weren't even Mercado's fans.
Thus, when Cook delivered three solid performances in the Finale and was told he'd lost by a "knockout", something snapped in many viewers' minds. We observed it in forums and blogs across the Idolsphere as we tallied the approval ratings. People who'd never picked up their phones or posted reviews before wrote that they'd dropped 10, 20, even 50 votes for the Missouri bartender. Never mind that Archuleta was blameless for the producers' shenanigans, nor that he really did win the night according to the Web reviewers. He was seen as the producers' Company Man, and thus the easiest target for viewers to vent their anger. Call it "19E Fatigue." Cook, meanwhile, was widely viewed as having won the season fair and square over the previous three months (a perception that also was supported by the WNTS.com approval ratings.) A lot of folks took all this into consideration and decided that enough was enough.
Incidentally, while 56% to 44% is a landslide by any measure, we suspect that the margin would have been much greater had there been a limit of one vote per phone line.
Many analysts have pondered the question of why the producers seem so shameless year in and year out in directing the outcome, to the point where they hardly bother to try to hide their biases anymore.
The usual conclusion is that a massive conflict of interest is in play. The same people responsible for running a fair and unbiased singing competition are also the ones who stand to profit handsomely from representing and recording the contestants in their post-Idol careers...but only if they're marketable ones. The producers thus have a vested interest in ensuring that the "right" contestants go far. If a baseball umpire's paycheck each night was calculated as a percentage of the winning team's salary, you can be assured that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox would hardly ever lose a game, and the Florida Marlins might never win one. That is American Idol in a nutshell.
But perhaps there's more to it than that...
Anecdote #2: A few years ago, one of our senior editors spent a week in London on business while the European Soccer Championships were being held. Though not widely reported in America, the outcome was as heartwarming as any U.S. sports fan could dare dream. Greece were incomprehensibly huge underdogs in the tournament. Not only had they never previously won a game in a World Cup or Euro finals, spanning more than seven decades, but they'd scored just one goal in all that time. Their mere qualification for the 16-team finals of Euro 2004 was seen as a monumental achievement in itself, considering their team was comprised mostly of unheralded club players. But they squeaked out an early victory, and then another. In the quarterfinals, they shocked the defending champs, France, on a tricky play. They ultimately reached the title match, where they were dominated from start to finish by mighty Portugal, managing to put just one shot on goal all evening. But it went in. Final score: Greece 1, Portugal 0. Think George Mason, Boise State, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team all rolled into one.
In the U.S., an underdog who accomplishes a miracle championship is adored far and wide. Not so in Europe. The reaction in England and elsewhere was primarily embarrassment and dismay. Our American visitor was puzzled until a British/Indian colleague set him straight. Such a victory goes against the natural order of things, you see. Only the top clubs are supposed to play for the title; it's their birthright. The second- and third-tier countries are supposed to mind their place. It's acceptable if they score a surprise victory once in a while to rise through the ranks slowly. But for an inferior team to win the championship, well, it just isn't cricket...soccer, football, whatever.
Perhaps we're being too charitable to the Brits who rule the power halls of 19E. Most likely, naked greed really is the best explanation for their ways. But the story of the Greek National Soccer Team has stayed with us. For all of the producers' antics, we're forced to admit that there's an obvious chicken-and-egg aspect to the situation. The producers promote contestants who are strong and popular, and those contestants become more popular because of all the promotion. David Archuleta, for all his lyrical hiccups and uptempo disasters, is a superb vocalist. If he was indeed the producers' Chosen One, it surely wasn't for no reason. But American viewers don't want there to be a Chosen One at all. They want to do the choosing.
No television show's production staff is criticized anywhere near as frequently or as fervently as American Idol's. Some of this is because AI shoots itself in the foot on an astoundingly regular basis, of course. But, we've suspected for a very long time that some of the problem is cultural. As every traveler knows, perfectly acceptable behavior in the United States is considered deeply offensive overseas, and vice versa. Tuesday's landslide, we believe, was partly a revolt by the show's fed-up American voters. If the Idol bosses react to it by acknowledging the culture gap and recognizing that Americans like their competitions fair and unmanipulated, fantastic. If instead they respond by resolving to hide their manipulations better in the future, we suspect that they have a lot more Bunker Hills in their future.
- The WNTS.com Team