I read a similar article in the Raleigh News and Observer this morning. I could see this definitely becoming a problem now that they're down to only four contestants. Of course, it may have already had its impact. I doubt CBS is going to publish the vote totals for each contestant, but 250,000 votes (which could be made by a single caller with the proper equipment and access to unused phone lines) represents 2% of the voting totals for a single week. This could be the difference between staying and going.
'Power dialers' bombarding 'American Idol' voting system
By RON HARRIS, ASSOCIATED PRESS
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Producers of the hit Fox show "American Idol" say the talent contest is being slammed by "power dialers" trying to influence the results by making as many as 10,000 votes a night from a single phone line.
With fast Internet connections and powerful computer autodialing software, about 100 "phone phreaks" are casting thousands of votes with the touch of a button, producers acknowledged this week in response to questions from The Associated Press.
"They're all over the country and they tend to be slamming the system at all ends," said Michael Eaton, vice president of home entertainment for FreemantleMedia, the show's London-based producer.
So far, these calls have had a "statistically insignificant" impact on the outcome, Eaton said, but he wouldn't release any data on individual contestants and their vote totals.
Still, an individual viewer who lacks this technology doesn't stand a chance at matching the influence of the power dialers. Redialing manually maxes out at a few hundred calls per evening, Eaton said.
He also said that 95 percent of all calls are getting through to the toll-free numbers representing each competitor. The calls then are tabulated to determine each week's survivors and loser.
The show's producers could have frustrated efforts to skew the results by imposing stricter ground rules or insisting that each voter punch in a code or number during the call, said Dave Hoch, an expert on telephone systems.
"There's different levels of security. This is no security. What it is, is a very dumb system which is great for generating call volumes, but does nothing for security," said Hoch.
Instead, Fox Broadcasting Co. has been promoting the calling volume as a sign of the show's success. Vote totals have grown during the show from 9.2 million on July 30 to 14.5 million Tuesday, and the show has been among the top 10 in the ratings, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"We're actually thrilled that America is so obsessed with the show that they're willing to log in this many phone calls," said Fox spokeswoman Michelle Hooper, who insisted the system is fair.
Viewers in each time zone have a two-hour window of opportunity to vote after each Tuesday night show, which airs live in the East and is tape-delayed elsewhere. To prevent voting overlap, AT&T blocks calls from regions of the country where the show has not yet aired.
Week after week, the field of performers is narrowed as the lowest vote-getter is cut. The last singer standing on Sept. 4 wins a recording contract with BMG, one of the world's largest music labels.
If the power-dialing volume skews votes toward one of the four remaining contestants, Eaton said they may contact the people responsible and ask them to stop.
"We know who these people are and we're tracking them, and if it gets to a point where they're starting to support a specific person over another then there are steps that we have discussed that we may take at that time," Eaton warned.
The vote skew could get much worse, said Hoch, president of Technology Arts, which makes a speed-dialing device used by concert ticket resellers and golfers trying to secure coveted tee times.
Hoch's device pales in comparison to the technology people are using to slam "American Idol." Based on the volume of power-dialing Eaton confirmed, Hoch said they are likely using broadband connections and powerful software that can generate thousands of calls simultaneously.
Determined fans with access to a broadband network of unused phones or numbers - such as in a business office after closing time - easily could generate 250,000 calls in about two hours, Hoch said.
Some fans of the recently booted "American Idol" beauty Ryan Starr think power dialing is unfair because not everyone has access to the technology.
"If I could have had that knowledge, I would have done that for Ryan Starr in an L.A. second!" said Brian Perfetto, 44, of Palmdale, Calif.
Perfetto said he cast a mere 1,000 votes in two hours in a furious feat of manual redialing.
"I woke up the next morning and my thumb and index finger were still jerking back and forth. I thought I had injured myself," Perfetto said.
Aaron Pinto, 24, of Wichita, Kan., runs a Web site dedicated to the perky performer who saw her luck run out on July 31. He figures a few geeks smitten with Nikki McKibbin could be to blame for keeping what he considers a less-talented contestant in the game.
"I think Nikki might cater more to the computer nerd group," Pinto said. "A lot of these computer nerds, they're kind of like closet anarchists."
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