The American singing competition show American Idol has generated controversy over the years in numerous areas. Many of the controversies have centered around the show's voting process and results, and in later seasons, gender bias against female contestants. Another major source of controversy that has spanned multiple seasons has been the activities of contestants prior to competing on the show such as past recording contracts in contravention of the rules, and undisclosed criminal charges.
Voting has been the biggest source of controversy with American Idol becoming embroiled in numerous controversies in various seasons over the voting process and its results.
Season one phone-phreaks' power-voting
Around 100 phone-phreak hackers with power-dialing hardware and software were reported to be able to place as many as 10,000 votes a night from a single phone line with the touch of a button. However, FremantleMedia, which produces the show, contended that the hackers represented 'statistically insignificant' proportion of the overall voting, and Fox insisted that the system was fair. Nevertheless concerns were raised about possible unfairness in the situation of a tight vote. The show executive producer Ken Warwick later indicated that equipment was put in place afterwards to address this issue but it has not detected any such problem since its installation.
Season two finale vote
Out of 24 million votes recorded following the season two finale, Ruben Studdard finished just 130,000 votes ahead of Clay Aiken. There was confusion over the winning margin as Ryan Seacrest initially announced it as 13,000, later again 1,335, finally corrected by Fox as 130,000. There was much discussion in the communication industry about the phone system being overloaded, and that potentially more than 230 million calls were dropped just by AT&T and SBC (over 30% of the market), making the results statistically invalid. The phone lines may have been running at capacity that made a near-tie inevitable, with the winner potentially decided by text-messaging which was unaffected by capacity problem.
In an interview prior to the start of the fifth season, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe revealed for the first time that Aiken had led the fan voting from the wild card week onward until the finale.
Season two phone scam
During the second season, a phone scam operation based in Salt Lake City, Utah was discovered, in which people were tricked into believing that viewers could vote for their favorites through an 800 number, rather than the 866 number used on the show. They were then instructed to call a 900 number to vote. This allowed the company to charge the caller anywhere from 99¢ to $1.99.
To raise awareness to the scam, Ryan Seacrest reminded the viewers that the legitimate numbers would never ask a voter to dial another number, and to check what they dialed. This reminder has carried on into succeeding seasons, as well as fellow FOX reality shows So You Think You Can Dance and The X Factor, where the hosts remind voters that the phone lines are 866 numbers and 855 numbers, respectively, and nothing else.
Season three Jennifer Hudson's ouster
At top seven, the three African American singers Fantasia Barrino, LaToya London, and Jennifer Hudson, dubbed the Three Divas, all unexpectedly landed at the bottom three. Jennifer Hudson was eliminated, prompting much discussion and criticism. Elton John, who was one of the mentors that season, called the results of the votes "incredibly racist" (though Barrino went on to win the competition). Criticisms were also voiced about the voting system that resulted in survival of contestants such as John Stevens over Jennifer Hudson, or Jasmine Trias over LaToya London. It was claimed that Jasmine Trias' fans were able to vote early and often outside of the 2-hour voting window, and a disproportionate number of votes came from Jasmine Trias' home state of Hawaii.
Season four voting numbers mix-up
During the Top 11 performance show, three of the contestants had their numbers mixed up with the wrong numbers appearing on the screen, resulting in millions of votes being voided. Recordings of the performances were therefore reshown on the Wednesday show with new, live commentary from the three judges, and the audience revoted. The elimination night was moved to Thursday.
Season five Chris Daughtry's vote-off
In the week finalist Chris Daughtry was voted off, some voters claimed that phone calls dialed for Daughtry during the first few minutes of voting were misrouted to Katharine McPhee's lines, and they heard her recorded message thanking them for voting. Other voters claimed similar problems voting for other contestants, in some cases resulting in votes going to Daughtry that were intended for another contestant, Elliott Yamin. It is not clear whether votes were actually tabulated for the wrong contestant, or if the "Thank you for voting for me" messages that callers heard were merely incorrectly assigned but votes would still have counted for the correct contestant.
An unsuccessful campaign to bring Daughtry back into the show was started by Daughtry's fans and garnered some attention in the popular press.
Season six voting campaign for Sanjaya
This season saw a concerted attempt to influence the outcome of the vote in American Idol, led most notably by Howard Stern and Vote for the Worst. Howard Stern encouraged his listeners to vote for Sanjaya Malakar who had become a phenomenon in Season 6, and to take delight in possibly "ruining" Idol.
Season six Melinda Doolittle's vote-off
Melinda Doolittle's departure stunned fans and critics alike. Simon Cowell admitted that the sixth season's crown should have rightfully gone to Melinda. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe responded, noting that "[Idol producers] were so engrossed with the mentors and didn't really focus on the Melinda Doolittles of the show." Lythgoe also produces So You Think You Can Dance, and has noted that the dance program gives background information about its contestants, while American Idol focused more on its big name celebrity mentors, such as Tony Bennett, Gwen Stefani, and Jennifer Lopez.
Season eight phone numbers
In the top thirteen in season 8, the expected phone number for finalist Alexis Grace, IDOLS-13, was not owned by American Idol, but by a company called Intimate Encounters, who used it as a sex line. Although host Ryan Seacrest made ample mention of the replacement phone number, IDOLS-36, some commentators feared that the phone number confusion could have led to Grace being inadvertently voted off the show. However, she was not voted off that week.
Season eight finale vote: "Textgate"
In May 2009, following allegations in the media of an American Idol texting scandal dubbed "Textgate", one of American Idol's corporate sponsors AT&T, admitted providing free mobile phones and texting services for fans of Kris Allen at parties organized on the night of the program's final episode. Company representatives also provided Allen's supporters with lessons in how to send "power texts" which send ten or more votes with the touch of a single button. Bobby Kierna, one of the 2,000 guests who attended just one of the events, told reporters that she had voted for Allen 10,840 times. AT&T denied attempting to "fix" the contest and apologized, saying that employees had been "caught up in their enthusiasm" and promised that they will in future "celebrate the competition, not individual contestants".
While speculations were rife over the reasons for Allen's win over Lambert, in a statement, Fox said that an independent monitor was employed to oversee the voting process to ensure the competition results were "fair, accurate and verified."
Season nine Siobhan Magnus' vote-off
Siobhan Magnus's elimination caused a stir among the judges and fans of the show. The controversy grew when it was discovered that a phone number printed on Facebook was not a number to vote for Magnus, but to vote for Aaron Kelly. Some commentators speculated that the phone number mix-up may have led to Magnus's exit. An unsuccessful campaign to bring Magnus back into the show was started by her fans.
Season ten gender voting bias and Pia Toscano's elimination
The first five contestants eliminated from the finals in Season 10 were all female, which led some critics to believe that it was partly due to the demographic of the voters being skewed towards females who tended to vote for men.Idol producer Ken Warwick said, "It's no secret that most reality shows are female driven, either by moms or by young girls. It does mean we're going to get a heftier amount of female votes and it's always bent towards the boys, obviously, we are very much aware that the voting can be skewed towards the boys." In response to the criticism, the producers considered tweaking the voting format for the following season to correct the bias. The last of these five girls to be eliminated was a presumed front-runner, Pia Toscano, and her elimination drew considerable criticisms, with various former Idol alums and celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher and Tom Hanks expressing shock and surprise. However, after Toscano's elimination, the next five eliminated contestants were all males.
Seasons seven to eleven winner ethnic and gender biases
From seasons seven through eleven, the title has been given to a seemingly good-looking white boy who plays the guitar – a trend that Idol pundits call the “white guy with guitar” or “WGWG” factor. This has led viewers and critics accusing American Idol of having gender and ethnic biases, with some complaining about the predictability of the likely winner. Just hours before the season eleven finale, where Phillip Phillips was named the winner, Richard Rushfield, author of the book American Idol: The Untold Story, said, “You have this alliance between young girls and grandmas and they see it, not necessarily as a contest to create a pop star competing on the contemporary radio, but as…who’s the nicest guy in a popularity contest,” he says, “And that has led to this dynasty of four, and possibly now five, consecutive, affable, very nice, good-looking white boys.”
Season twelve Angie Miller vote-off
Angie Miller's elimination drew considerable criticisms. Miller was considered a fan-favorite, often placing in the voting's top ranks and becoming the season's sole contestant to not land in the bottom group until her elimination in the Top 3. The elimination was described by journalists as "shocking" and "surprising".
A wanted poster of Dave Della Terza has been posted on Vote for the Girls, Vote for the Worst's rival that has since lead to Ava Zinn, creator of Vote for the Girls, to reportedly buy Vote for the Worst.
American Idol had come under fire for maintaining what some claim to be total control of the careers of the contestants that sign with their company, 19 Entertainment. The contract the contestants are required to sign gives Simon Fuller's company the right to oversee not just the recording deal for "American Idol" stars, but also control any merchandising, touring, sponsorship and movie deals. It also gives the producer the right to "record any and all behavior of the contestant "in and in connection with the series" and use the contestant's likeness, voice and any or all biographical material, whether true or false, any way they want to", and forbade the contestants to reveal anything about the show where any breaches of confidentiality can result in damages assumed to be in excess of $5 million.
According to National Geographic Channel investigator and journalist Eric Olsen, 'Branding' is what Fuller is all about. Lucian Grainge, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music U.K. was quoted as saying:
He redefines the role of manager for the 21st century. He treats pop acts as brands, to be exploited over different media, rather than human performers who make money selling records and playing concerts. He is a genius — he makes everyone else look like complete amateurs.
In his article, Olsen was critical of Fuller for the contract that his contestants must sign, where the finalists become essentially "forever and throughout the universe" properties of 19 Management.
On July 29, 2009, Lyndsey Parker at Yahoo's "Reality Rocks" headlined "Ex-Idol Contestant Says Show Is Rigged," reported that Ju'Not Joyner charged that, "It's a fixed thing if I ever saw one," and that, after initial competitions, when winners reach a serious stage, a bad contract is offered, a "slavetract." Joyner claimed that he was cut out of further competition at this late stage, because, "I have a son to feed. I HAD to ask questions and know what I was signing. Plus I write my own songs and I needed to know details" of what rights he'd be giving up. He charged that he was told, essentially, "Just shut up and sign," or else he'd lose the next round. He speculated that perhaps the reason Kris Allen had beaten runner-up Adam Lambert was that the producers weren't satisfied with what Lambert had accepted.
Delano Cagnolatti, a contestant who successfully made it through to the semi-finals later revealed that he lied about his age to escape the cutoff date set in the rules. He was quickly disqualified and replaced by Ejay Day, thus becoming the first American Idol contestant to be disqualified.
Jim Verraros was the first openly gay contestant on the show. He was told by FOX to remove all gay comments from his online journal. Verraros later explained, "It wasn't because I was gay. It was because they thought I was trying to gain more votes and have that little extra edge."
Corey Clark was disqualified just nine hours after it was revealed in The Smoking Gun that he had undisclosed pending criminal charges. Later in 2005, first in Globe magazine, then in an hour-long ABC's Primetime special, as well as a book They Told Me to Tell the Truth, So ... (The Sex, Lies, and Paulatics of One of America's Idols), he claimed to have had an affair with Paula Abdul. He played a voicemail message from someone sounding like Abdul in which she said "if the press are trying to talk to you, say absolutely nothing." He also claimed that Abdul helped him with his look and song selection so he can move further in the competition. He further claimed that he was disqualified not for his criminal past, but rather for "making waves" by getting other contestants to insist on their own lawyer before they would sign their contract, a move which he asserted he had done following Abdul's advice. An investigation by external counsel later found that claims by Corey Clark "have not been substantiated by any corroborating evidence or witnesses, including those provided by Mr. Clark," and cleared Paula Abdul. Following the investigation, Idol enhanced its non-fraternization policy in their rules in order to prevent further controversies between contestants and those affiliated with the show.
Semi-finalist Jaered Andrews was also disqualified. It was later revealed that he was arrested on an assault charge, a charge he had previously disclosed to Idol, and which he was later acquitted of.
Semi-finalist Frenchie Davis was removed from the competition when topless photos of her surfaced on an adult website purportedly featuring underage content.
Terrell and Derrell Brittenum were twins who were featured prominently on the auditions and successfully made it past the Hollywood rounds in Season 5 but were subsequently arrested for identity theft and disqualified.
Mandisa was voted off following her performance of 'Any Man of Mine' that she prefaced with a statement about being free from certain addiction and lifestyle that some interpreted as anti-gay. It was revealed she supported Beth Moore who espoused the Ex-gay movement. Mandisa denied that her statement has anything to do with gay lifestyle, rather it was about her lifestyle of addiction to food.
There was controversy surrounding the judges' comments over the audition of a Special Olympics participant named Jonathan Jayne. American Idol producer Ken Warwick responded saying that "It's not a conscious decision, It's just that the further we go in the series, there are less and less good singers, so the numbers are made up by more bad ones." Warwick said that he thinks everyone has the right to audition, and added that in some instances when there are singers with certain disabilities who just want to meet the judges, the producers will "turn the cameras off and bring them in. We give them a good experience."
A website featured salacious pictures of season six contestant Antonella Barba. These pictures have received mainstream attention including a full segment concerning the controversy on the February 26, 2007 edition of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor and also on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, both of which showed screenshots from Vote for the Worst pages featuring these images. It was later proven that the more explicit images, depicting sexual acts were not of Barba, but of an unnamed woman with a resemblance to Barba.
Season seven contestant Carly Smithson stirred up controversy due to a prior major label record deal she had with MCA Records. It was reported that MCA spent over 2 million dollars promoting Smithson's previous album Ultimate High, which she made under the name Carly Hennessy. The album was claimed to have sold only 378 copies, but has since been made available on iTunes. Randy Jackson also worked for MCA as the senior vice president of A&R during the same period of time that Smithson was signed. It has led to suggestions by some that she was placed there by the producers, perhaps to avoid having another Sanjaya Malakar, or to ensure a more professional and marketable artist wins. According to a poll conducted by AOL Television, 63 percent of those polled believed that contestants who have already had record deals should not be contestants on American Idol.
David Hernandez, one of the top 12 in Season 7, was revealed by Vote for the Worst to have worked as a male stripper in Phoenix, Arizona. According to the owner of Dick's Cabaret, Hernandez's job included a routine featuring full nudity and performing lap dances for male clientele.
Season 8 semifinalist Joanna Pacitti raised a lot of parallels to Carly Smithson when it was revealed that Pacitti had a prior record deal with A&M Records. She allegedly had recorded a song used in the film Legally Blonde, "Out from Under"; a song that was featured on the soundtrack of the film Bratz, which was later re-recorded by Britney Spears; and a 2006 record deal after she changed to Geffen Records and released This Crazy Life. She made the semifinals for season eight, however, after it was alleged by Star Magazine that she may have connection with two executives of 19 Entertainment, Pacitti was disqualified from the show. She was then replaced by Felicia Barton, who did not make the Top 13.
Chris Golightly, who had originally been selected for the top 24, was disqualified on February 15, 2010 for being in a recording contract at the time of his original audition. Golightly later provided documentation indicating that his recording contract was no longer binding at the time of his original audition, however, this was disputed by his management who claimed he signed a new 2-year contract two months before his audition. He was replaced by Tim Urban.
Todrick Hall, a top 16 finalist who used to be a children's play director, came under fire on February 20, 2010 for charging several parents a $50 fee for auditioning for a musical called "Oz, the Musical". The musical got cancelled, but money charged for the auditions was never refunded. Hall however denied that he, being the director rather than the producer, was ever involved in the financial aspect of the production. Hall was ultimately eliminated before the top 12.
Jermaine Jones, one of the top 12 of season 11, was disqualified on March 13, 2012, for failing to disclose past criminal charges to the Idol producers. Jones was charged with two crimes in 2011, one involving violence, and had 4 outstanding warrants since his arrests. Jones, however, denied that he had concealed his previous arrests, as he had admitted his arrests when he signed up for Idol. A police official in a New Jersey town where he is the target of two arrest warrants said that "the case wasn't big enough to merit going after him", and that for the show "to expose, embarrass and interrogate a young man without an attorney in front of 40 million viewers was an outrage". Critics suggested that the show may have staged the disqualification to boost ratings.
During the season six and season seven finales, the show went over its scheduled 2-hour time limit and ended at 10:09 PM EST. Many DVR users claimed the recording ended before the new winners (Jordin Sparks and David Cook) were announced shortly after 10 PM. FOX executives apologized, and during the season eight Top 2 performance show, host Ryan Seacrest warned viewers that the finale would run overtime.
On the April 7, 2009 performance episode of season eight, the show ended nearly eight minutes past its set ending time. This caused viewers who recorded the program to completely miss the show's final performance, Adam Lambert's performance of "Mad World" by Tears for Fears, which received a standing ovation from judge Simon Cowell.
On the April 21, 2010 Idol Gives Back special, the show went over its scheduled 2-hour slot to 10:24 PM EST. Ryan Seacrest did warn viewers at the end of the previous night's performance show that the episode would run overtime. This became the first Idol Gives Back special to run overtime. Due to the show running overtime, Tim Urban, the contestant that was eliminated that night, did not get to sing his final song.
Kelly Clarkson at 9/11 commemoration
Immediately after winning American Idol on September 4, 2002, Kelly Clarkson, was arranged to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" by her then management company, 19 Entertainment, at a special commemoration the following week for the first anniversary of September 11 attacks at the Lincoln Memorial. It drew criticisms that the producers of American Idol were turning a somber occasion of national mourning into a "giant promotional opportunity". Clarkson considered withdrawing from the commemoration, saying that "I think it is a bad idea ... If anybody thinks I'm trying to market anything, well, that's awful" and added, "I am not going to do it." However, she was unable to withdraw from the event.
Ruben Studdard's Flava Jersey
During the course of Season 2, Ruben Studdard became known for wearing 205 Flava jerseys representing his area code. Shortly after the end of the contest Studdard sued 205 Flava, Inc for $2 million for using his image for promotional purposes. Flava responded by alleging that Studdard had accepted over $10,000 in return for wearing 205 shirts, and produced eight cashed checks to validate their claim. The allegations, if true, were a clear violation of the American Idol rules. The lawsuit was later settled out of court.
Virginia Tech massacre
On April 17, 2007, a day after the Virginia Tech Massacre, after the critique of his performance, contestant Chris Richardson and Ryan Seacrest were discussing the Massacre, when the camera switched over to Simon Cowell, who appeared to be rolling his eyes either at the tragedy or Richardson's invoking of it. Cowell claims he was actually speaking to Paula Abdul and did not hear Richardson mention the tragedy. The next day, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe issued a statement about what really happened on the show, and on the results show that night, Cowell stated that he would never disrespect any of the victims. A screen clip was then shown depicting Cowell and Abdul talking with an inset of Richardson and Seacrest talking. The clip demonstrated that Cowell and Abdul did have a brief exchange as the contestant began his statement. However, neither Abdul nor Cowell were speaking at the mention of the words Virginia Tech and Cowell looked directly at Richardson as he completed his statement of support for the students.
Ryan Seacrest's results show spoiler
Prior to the March 17, 2010 results episode of the ninth season delayed airing on the west coast, Ryan Seacrest tweeted the outcome of the episode, which angered some fans. That episode of the show then suffered "the smallest audience among 18–49 year-olds for a regularly scheduled in-season episode in Idol history."
Paula Abdul judges song before it's sung
For the season 7 Top 5 episode, originally aired April 29, 2008, the judging was modified in order to fit two songs per contestant into the show. Rather than judging each performance, the judges waited until each contestant had sung once, then were to give a quick critique of each contestants' first song. When the judging came to Paula, she commented on Jason Castro's first song, then proceeded to critique his second song which he had not yet sung.
Judges' critique in season ten
During the tenth season online critics from major news sources like Brian Mansfield of USA Today, Craig Berman of MSNBC, Dalton Ross of Entertainment Weekly, Andrea Reiher of Zap2it, and Tom Gliatto of People Magazine criticized the judges for being too nice, not being honest enough, offering hardly any constructive criticism towards the contestants, and for not giving any guidance and direction for the viewers/voters in terms of why they should or should not be voting for someone. Executive producer Ken Warwick responded to these criticisms and said, "The truth of the matter is these kids are very good and I wouldn't influence the judges to say anything they don't absolutely believe ... They are trying to keep things on the straight and narrow. What they feel are genuine feelings, that's all I can ask them to do."Nigel Lythgoe, another executive producer, also responded to these criticisms on his Twitter that "IT IS NOT ABOUT THE JUDGES OPINION IT'S ABOUT YOURS!! U R NOT SHEEP!"
Season ten Lee DeWyze finale involvement
Many fans of season nine winner, Lee DeWyze, were upset that he did not take part in the season ten finale like he was rumored to. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe responded on his Twitter that he asked DeWyze to take part in the finale, but he declined, "I was so upset Lee DeWyze wouldn’t present the winners trophy to Scotty," he wrote. "Especially as he’d been on the show this Season. I guess he was shy.” However, DeWyze said that he was actually not asked to take part in the finale. “Just for the record... I was not asked to be involved in the Finale. It wasn’t until about 2 minutes before they announced that Nigel had approached me and asked if he could “borrow” me for a second. I didn't feel a last second jump on stage was appropriate. It was Scotty’s moment. I appreciate American Idol, and the opportunity it has given me. And the people who have made that show possible. I am not angry, or bitter etc. It was an amazing Finale, and I would have loved to be a part of it. I just wasn't asked.” DeWyze was seen in the audience towards the end of the show.
Season eleven Jennifer Lopez music video
The music video of Jennifer Lopez's song, "Dance Again", which aired on the program, was criticized as inappropriate for younger viewers. Dan Gainor of the Culture and Media Institute wrote, "Even the supposedly family-friendly TV shows like American Idol are never safe in the hands of Hollywood," and went as far as saying her "skanky new video shows how desperate she is to retain her fame despite her fading relevance. Such sexualized videos aren't appropriate for any children to watch, including Lopez's own twins." Jenna Hally Rubenstein from MTV Buzzworthy also commented about the video's content not being appropriate for a family show, "we thought "Idol" was a family show? This video is less "sit on the couch and chill with dad" and more "call your boyfriend over immediately." Ed Masley from AZ central.com said that the video was on the verge of being too "steamy" for the show.