Web site challenges American Idol voting



By Jim Vorel

“American Idol” stands as a cornerstone of the boom reality TV. Without it and its contemporaries, like the original “Survivor”, we wouldn’t today have obscure, bizarre shows like The Travel Channel’s “Flight Attendant School,” or The Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef America.” “Idol”‘s first few seasons were nothing short of pop-culture frenzy. Eventually, the show leveled out, and even endured murmurs of cancellation. That is, until a spunky, 18-year-old Indian boy named Sanjaya Malakar made “Idol” history by succeeding using a tactic that had never quite worked before: being the worst contestant left on the show.

There aren’t many places a person could go right now without being aware of the current Malakar firestorm on “American Idol.” Since narrowly gaining entrance to the show, Malakar has infuriated the judges and many of the show’s fans by continuously giving atonal if spirited performances and earning constant admonishment from the celebrity judges, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

Cowell has threatened to leave the show if Malakar wins. He also routinely insults Malakar’s singing. After Malakar sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and entered the top 12, Simon said “When you hear a wail in Beverly Hills, that is where Diana Ross is watching this show.”

So why does the phenomenon persist, currently putting Malakar into the top seven remaining contestants? Why don’t fans listen to the judges and vote him off the show?

Enter Dave Della Terza, a 24-year-old Naperville resident and creator of www.votefortheworst.com. The site, which has been around for multiple seasons of “Idol,” was originally created on a “Survivor Sucks” message board to undermine what Della Terza and the other members of the message board saw as an unfair show.

“After watching season two of ‘American Idol,’ I saw that it wasn’t a real talent show,” Della Terza said. “It’s ridiculous how unfair the show really is. Wouldn’t it be better if the most entertaining and goofy contestants stayed around till the end? That’s why I run Vote For the Worst.”

On Vote for the Worst’s site, visitors can read an account of the “American Idol” auditioning process that makes some strong claims about the show’s auditioning being unfairly selected and edited. An MSNBC article cited reads, “During the auditions, the judges don’t show up until the last day or two, and only see about 100 people who have already been screened, first by producers and then by the show’s executive producers. And yes, all the way along, producers intentionally keep the worst and most absurd contestants, because it makes for good TV during the audition rounds.”

The articles go on to say that producers encourage the bad singers with promises that they will win the competition or do well, only to have them humiliated by the celebrity judges when they finally see them.

“At the top 12, we (votefortheworst.com) started voting for Sanjaya, because everyone seemed to hate him so much,” Della Terza said, who has been amazed by the upwelling of popularity of his site. “We don’t hate him. We think he’s playing into the site by acting even crazier on the show, and I think that means he loves this site. We really honestly do love him, and we think he’s a great person.”

Malakar’s possible overtures to the rapidly growing Vote For The Worst supporters included a bizarre, frizzy hairstyle now named a “ponyhawk”, (a combination of a ponytail and mohawk), and a rendition of The Kinks “You Really Got Me” that caused a young girl in the studio audience to burst into tears, which she later clarified to be tears of joy. The tearful performance was what Della Terza called unequivocally “The greatest performance in Vote For the Worst history.”

The site is not without its supporters and detractors. Radio shock jock Howard Stern has become a huge supporter of Vote For The Worst, urging his large Sirius Satellite Radio audience to vote for Malakar when “Idol” airs on Tuesday nights. Della Terza’s newfound popularity has brought him on a whirlwind tour of interviews and offers to appear on television, as he will appear tonight on NBC’s “The Late Show with David Letterman” to talk about his site and Malakar.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be reality TV without conflict, and so of course there are also impassioned detractors to Vote For The Worst’s plans. Each week, the site showcases some of its more flamboyant hate mail in a weekly mailbag. On Internet giants YouTube and MySpace, several angry fans declared themselves to be on hunger strikes until Malakar was voted off the show. They have subsequently quit their strikes. Currently, a Philadelphia radio disc jockey is camping out on the top of a Philadelphia-area car dealership until Malakar is voted off.

“I think if Sanjaya won the show, or even made it to the top three for that matter, it would completely discredit the show,” said Dalita Kerbabian, a student at Seneca University and the creator of a large anti-Sanjaya facebook network. “If the producers went as far as to arrange his departure, they would be doing the fans a favor! I think if Sanjaya wins, ‘American Idol’ would probably be over.”

Della Terza does not doubt that the show would take action to keep Malakar from winning the crown. “I think they probably already tamper with votes,” he said. “I’m sure that if he were to make it to the finals they would do things like mess with the phone lines, miscount the votes, something like that.”

Regardless of the outcome, it is certain that this round of outrage has bolstered the show’s declining viewers. And despite the claims of a staple of the show like Cowell to leave the program if he wins, Malakar has not made even the bottom three in voting for over five weeks.

The talk is everywhere. On Friday, the Chicago Tribune’s sports page claimed that the hot start of third baseman Alex Rodriguez “Is doing for the number 13 (Rodriguez’s number) what ‘American Idol’ contestant Sanjaya Malakar has done for talent-less hacks.” Even ESPN Sportscenter anchors have taken time out of their headlines to comment (negatively) on Malakar.

Purportedly, the final decision will lie with America. For more information, visit www.votefortheworst.com.

“American Idol” airs Tuesday’s on FOX at 7 p.m.