Lisa Newman’s frustrations with American Idol‘s voting system started several weeks ago, when she hit her phone’s redial almost 100 times and still couldn’t get through to vote for La Toya London. “I’ve actually tried to get through for the whole two hours and not been able to,” says the Union City, Ga., attorney. On May 13 she posted an online petition urging changes that would extend the two-hour voting window by an hour and limit votes to five per phone line. To date, over 3,200 Idol fans have signed.
FOX is feeling the heat. While a record 28 million votes were tallied one recent week, millions of Idol fans are not getting through. According to Verizon, for example, three of every four calls in Hawaii got a busy signal on May 11. Why? All calls to Idol’s toll-free 866 numbers must first go through local phone carriers that can’t handle the surge, resulting in jammed circuits on Tuesday nights. “If s like trying to take the L.A. freeway grid and push it through the New York subway system,” says Kevin Laverty, a spokesman for Verizon, the nation’s largest local carrier. So-called phone phreakers, who use computer programs to redial up to 1,200 times per hour, add to the congestion. But “we have sophisticated monitoring procedures,” says Sandy King of Telescope, which is paid by FOX to tabulate Idol’s votes. “Production reserves the rights to remove any votes cast using unfair means.”
Questions about voting for regularities first surfaced in season 1, when favorite Tamyra Gray didn’t make it to the final three. This season viewers gasped when John Stevens outlasted Jennifer Hudson. After London was booted instead of Jasmine Tries, notions of a Hawaii conspiracy—aided by a time-zone advantage and a grassroots movement—a filled Internet chat rooms. In fact only 1.2 million Hawaiian votes m were cast for her.
FOX says the voting for the May 25 finale will be extended to four hours. Beyond that, Idol has no plans to limit people to one vote or implement a fee-driven 900 service, says King: “We still have the biggest, best and fairest system available in North America.” That leaves just one recourse: Keep calling. “People say, ‘Oh, I loved her performance,’ ” says judge Paula Abdul, “but they forget that they’ve got to call in.”