Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Idolizing Cruelty on "American Idol"

It’s time to blow the ethics whistle on “American Idol,” Fox’s top rated combination of “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour” and “The Gong Show.”

For four years it has been one of the most popular shows on television, renewing “judge” Paula Abdul’s career (such as it was) and making hyper-critical British judge Simon Cowell a media icon. It has also actually uncovered some passable and marketable singing talent, like Kelly Clarkson, so it has a better claim to a justifiable existence than most of what’s on the boob tube. Now its integrity is being attacked by ABC’s investigative reporting show “Primetime” which prepared a segment (yet to be broadcast as this is written) claiming that favoritism, judge-contestant affairs and backstage manipulation slant the competition.

That’s not what the Ethics Scoreboard is concerned about right now, except to say that when a network uses one of its journalism shows to attempt to bring down a rival network’s most popular product, the most obvious ethical issues involve the investigators rather than the investigated. It appears that “unbiased reporting” is not high on ABC’s list of values, but then we knew that already, didn’t we?

No, The Ethics Scoreboard is calling an ethics foul on “Idol” because of the gratuitous cruelty to its contestants it employs to tell them whether they have moved on to the next round or been rejected. There is, quite simply, no excuse for it.

The show’s modus operandi was first displayed this season on the sadistic segment in which all the contestants who had progressed beyond their auditions were forced to wait in four small hotel rooms, knowing that everyone in their particular room would either be sent home or allowed to continue competing. The camera recorded the mounting anxiety of the contestants as they waited, some weeping, some joking, some just freaking out. Then Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, the two non-snarky judges, visited each room to announce the fate of its occupants.

Each room that contained successful contestants was addressed as if it was a den of losers, culminating with Abdul saying, “Believe me, we think you are all terrific, and we really… hate… to have to say… goodbye to you (interminable pause as Paula sniffs and stifles the urge to cry)…SO WE WON’T!!! YOU MADE IT!!!” The losers, meanwhile, received the opposite form of torture, as a beaming Paula told them how wonderful they were, building up their hopes, and then delivered the hammer.

In more recent weeks, “Idol” M.C. Ryan Secrest has made this emotional bait and switch into an art form, as he alternately turns sadly to one of the two or three lowest vote-getters among the aspiring singers to tell him or her that “YOU’RE SAFE!!!” or turns triumphantly to another and smilingly screams that all dreams of pop stardom have turned to dust.

The fact that the “American Idol” producers and writers have lost sight of is that these contestants are human beings, and deserve consideration and respect. The argument that they agreed to be treated like this carries no weight. For all of them, “American Idol” is a once in a lifetime opportunity to grab the brass ring, and they would agree to anything for the chance. For the producers to exploit their life’s dreams for cheap and not really entertaining “suspense” is nothing short of despicable. It not only degrades the show, but coarsens its audience: to the extent that anyone is amused by the efforts of Secrest and his cohorts to raise and dash hopes like a yo-yo, they are learning to enjoy other people’s emotional pain.

Other TV shows could do this, you know, but they have the good taste not to, even the ones that show little taste otherwise. On “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump resists the urge to turn to the hopeful corporate bootlicker he’s been berating, point to him or her and say, “Listen… you’re a disaster, and you’re (long dramatic pause) NOT FIRED, BECAUSE THE BOZO NEXT TO YOU IS GETTING FIRED INSTEAD!” Producer Dick Wolf doesn’t have the jury foremen on his “Law and Order” stand solemnly and deliver their verdict like this:

“We the jury find the defendant Not (interminable pause) ONLY GUILTY, BUT GUILTY AS HELL!!!!”

The FBI missing persons agents on “Without a Trace” could really build suspense by sitting down with the distraught mother of a missing teenager and say, with big smiles, “Great news! We found your daughter! And (interminable pause) SHE’S DEAD!!!”

But they don’t. The TV audience wouldn’t stand for such cruel treatment of fictional characters, and it should stop tolerating similar treatment of real people. Simon Cowell is widely derided as being “mean” to contestants because he simply tells them, honestly and directly, what he thinks of their performances, information that has value, no matter how harsh it may be. He, however, is only guilty of honesty. “American Idol,” however, is guilty of mistaking cruelty for entertainment, and of intentionally inflicting emotional damage for no justifiable reason. Fans of the show should apply a simple ethical test and consider how they would feel if their hopes and dreams were exploited in this way. Then they should shoot of an e-mail to Paula, Randy, Simon, Ryan, and show producer Simon Fuller, and tell them to knock it off.



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