Howard Stern Tries to Kill ‘American Idol’ With Kindness for a Weak Link
LOS ANGELES, March 30 — For the last few years, three-quarters of the network television executives in Hollywood have tried to figure out how to derail “American Idol,” the Fox juggernaut that dominates the prime-time ratings.
Now Howard Stern, of all people, says he has found the way.
For the last two weeks, Mr. Stern has been promoting a Web site created by a 24-year-old “American Idol” fan that encourages people to support the worst performer on the popular talent show. Their candidate has been Sanjaya Malakar, the off-key, lyric-fumbling, elaborately coiffed teenager who is perhaps the most talked-about “Idol” contestant ever.
“We’re corrupting the entire thing,” Mr. Stern said on his Sirius Satellite Radio show Thursday, the day after Mr. Malakar secured a place in the top nine finalists. “All of us are routing ‘American Idol.’ It’s so great. The No. 1 show in television and it’s getting ruined.”
By promoting Mr. Malakar, Mr. Stern says, he hopes to turn the talent competition into a farce and destroy its popularity.
The stakes of the battle are not insignificant, either for Fox or for the contestants. In its sixth season, “American Idol” has drawn an average of 32 million viewers each week, nearly 50 percent more than the next highest-rated show and better than the show has measured in any previous season.
Some past winners of the competition have gone on to produce chart-topping singles and albums, including Kelly Clarkson, who won the first season, and Carrie Underwood, who won the fourth. Jennifer Hudson, who was eliminated in a late round during the show’s third season, went on to win an Oscar for her performance in “Dreamgirls.”
Mr. Malakar, who at 17 looks like a 1970s pop star of the David Cassidy/Bobby Sherman/Andy Gibb variety, had been among the lowest two or three vote-getters in the first weeks of the season. But after Dave Della Terza, the founder of a Web site called votefortheworst.com, first appeared on Mr. Stern’s radio show on March 20, Mr. Malakar has not been among the lowest vote-getters. (“Idol” does not release total vote tallies, but each week reveals which performers are in the bottom slots.)
A number of those voting for Mr. Malakar may be genuine fans, many of them in the pre- and early-teenage brackets, to judge from posts on a number of Internet bulletin boards dedicated to the show.
But the fans also include older women and Indian-Americans, and Mr. Malakar’s progress is being tracked voraciously by Indian newspapers in both the United States and India. And they probably include executives at Fox, the television network that is riding “American Idol” to the top of the ratings.
Mr. Malakar, who is from Federal Way, Wash., also has some prominent detractors, not least some of the show’s judges. (Although the judges eliminate contestants in early rounds, results at the current stage of the show are determined solely by viewer votes.)
Simon Cowell, the acid-tongued British judge who is one of the show’s biggest draws, threatened to quit the show if Mr. Malakar wins. “I won’t be back if he does,” Mr. Cowell recently told the television show “Extra.”
Randy Jackson, another of the three “Idol” judges, responded to Mr. Malakar’s recent performance of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” this way: “That song was almost unlistenable for me, man.”
A Fox spokeswoman declined to comment on Mr. Cowell’s comment, but the network said in a statement that efforts like Mr. Stern’s do not affect the results. “With 30 million votes every week, and hundreds of millions of votes over the season, the power of true fans of ‘American Idol’ dwarfs any attempt of people trying to gain notoriety,” the statement said. “Despite the press coverage, these campaigns don’t affect who moves forward in the competition.”
Mr. Stern, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Unlike Mr. Stern, Mr. Della Terza, a community college teacher near Chicago, said he did not want to destroy “Idol.”
“We’re not out to take the show down,” Mr. Della Terza said in a telephone interview. “We like the show. We want to keep around the guy we think is funny and corny.” His aim, he said, was simply to spice up the show by toying with the results, keeping what he calls the “cheesiest” contestants on for as long as possible.
In a recent interview on Mr. Stern’s radio show, Mr. Della Terza said he understood that his efforts might be affecting contestants who are better singers. “Everyone tries to say we’re crushing dreams with what we’re doing, but we’re trying to help Sanjaya’s dreams,” he said. “He wants to be the American Idol too.”
Ms. Hudson, coincidentally, was the first contestant to be recommended for support on votefortheworst.com, something that is not lost on Mr. Della Terza.
“We picked her the first week because of her crazy outfits and over-the-top singing,” he recalled. But she improved, and the site switched its recommendation to another contestant. Last year the site also picked Taylor Hicks, the eventual winner, as the worst performer when five competitors were left.
“If we had not recommended him, maybe he wouldn’t have won,” Mr. Della Terza said.
It is unclear how many voters have been influenced either by Mr. Stern or the Web site. Sirius has six million subscribers but does not release listener figures for its individual shows. According to Mr. Della Terza, votefortheworst.com had been receiving a million or so hits per “Idol” show this season; that number jumped to more than three million after his first appearance on Mr. Stern’s show.
Now, Mr. Della Terza said, the site will stay with Mr. Malakar for the duration, even though he thinks there is no chance he will win. (The bookmakers at bodog.com have placed 25-to-1 odds on Mr. Malakar’s winning the competition; the favorite, Melinda Doolittle, is listed at 4-to-5.)
“Even if by some miracle we get him to the final two,” Mr. Della Terza said, “I think the rest of America will be so outraged by the possibility of him winning that they will vote against him.”