The dirty ballad of AT&T and American Idol

As you may have heard, Kris Allen won American Idol last week. This week, the nail-biting continues, as a major American corporation is taking heat for facilitating some irregular voting that may have gotten him the throne.

For the entire season, Adam Lambert was the preferred candidate by the judges and the guest acts alike (Bono gave special permission for him to perform his song, and Katy Perry had his name stitched on her cape). Fans loved him too: Lambert led the contestant pack in terms of song sales and souvenirs on eBay -- by a factor of eight.
But come verdict time, he got the silver. Last week, almost as soon as the final, abominable strains of Kara DioGuardi's "No Boundaries" had faded away, the conspiracy theories began. A TV station in Little Rock reported that AT&T told it that 38% of the 100 million votes cast for the new Idol came from Arkansas.

The station later retracted the report, but curiously, AT&T didn't actually deny it. Its statement merely read: "AT&T does not divulge or confirm how many votes were cast in any state."

Whether or not so many Arkansas residents had that much time on their hands (if it's true, it would work out to 13 votes for every man, woman, and child in the state), it's certainly true that AT&T is being accused of allowing Arkansas residents to stuff the ballot box for Kris Allen.

The New York Times reports that AT&T helped arrange two parties in Arkansas that permitted "power texting," which is the ability to send 10 texts at a time. Basically, AT&T arranged for two mass gatherings of Allen fans to increase their votes exponentially -- ten times as many, as a matter of fact -- as everyone else in America.

AT&T didn't arrange any such parties for Lambert, who hails from California.

The company doesn't deny the charges that it enabled irregular voting. "
A few local employees brought a small number of demo phones with them and provided texting tutorials to those who were interested," a rep admitted.

Incidentally, the small print at the end of American Idol's broadcasts notify viewers that text voting is only open to AT&T subscribers and subject to normal rates -- two stipulations violated by the "power texting" parties.

There was certainly something funny going on. It's starting to sound as if American Idol's vote tabulation takes place in a Louisiana parish or in a smoke-filled suite at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago.

A few media observers have wryly observed another statistical oddity: All of the Idol winners so far, and there are eight, have hailed from "red" states that voted for George W. Bush: Alabama, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, two from North Carolina, and now Arkansas. Some commentary is ludicrous ("
the media salivated over a Lambert win, and had everything prepped to use that win to take a shot at Republicans," optimistically opined one agitating blog).

But the conservative-state trend is unmistakable. No blue-stater has ever won American Idol. And because Lambert, who by every available sales measure was poised to be the first, was euphemistically (and patronizingly) referred to as "flamboyant" and "theatrical" in the press, there are more than a few Americans who chalked his loss up to our cultural divide.

Lambert may indeed be a casualty of the culture war. But before his fans gather their pitchforks and go to war with their brothers, blue versus red, let's consider that his loss could actually
be the fault of a big corporation. Someone from a mobile phone company may have turned the show -- and all the cultural symbolism lurking beneath it -- into a vapid marketing opportunity. In the act of that greed, it possibly torpedoed the result with power textings and set some Americans against each other.

Update: One Arkansas paper reported that a single Allen fan was able to vote 10,840 times at one of AT&T's "power texting" parties.

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