More than 30 million viewers tuned in to see Fantasia Barrino become Fox TV's newest American Idol
in a finale that drew a smaller audience than last year—and more complaints about voting.
Fox's last-minute changes to the American Idol
voting system may have eased phone congestion, but it didn't eliminate it. Telephone traffic data and interviews with frustrated Idol
fans indicate that millions of votes continued to get lost in the phone system on the show's crucial final performance night.
Fox reported that soulful 19-year-old Barrino won over Diana DeGarmo by 1.3 million of 65 million votes cast. That's triple the number that got through in past weeks. Still, many fans say their attempts to vote were met repeatedly by busy signals, leaving questions over the results.
Wendy Manasco, a Jacksonville, Fla., mother of two, estimates that she called the lines tallying votes for DeGarmo about 200 times and didn't get through once. Manasco says she and her pals are souring on the show. "If we watch the finale, knowing what we know," she says, "then we feel something is wrong, and we won't watch next season."
The problem is that fans are overwhelming the phone system [B&C, 5/17 and 5/24]. One phone company alone, BellSouth, reports that it carried 95 million more calls than average during the four-hour voting window—30 million calls more
that the Idol
team says it counted, and that volume is only from nine Southern states.
Other telephone companies wouldn't disclose numbers but express annoyance at Fox's repeated claim that the networks' AT&T phone system "works perfectly" and the problem lies with local phone companies. "How much is AT&T's long-distance system dropping when we try to hand it off?" asks an executive at another major telco.
Problems with the voting system may be affecting Idol's ratings. The May 25 finale at 31.4 million total viewers was off from last year's finale at 38.1 million. While Idol
remains a monster hit, viewing by the key 18-49 demo dropped 17% in the show's final hour.
Despite the decline, Fox rang up an estimated $40 million in ad sales on the finale, averaging $1 million per 30-second spot.
Fox execs blame the decline, in part, on the scheduling of the finale a week later than last year, when overall TV viewing is lower.
As for the voting, Fox President of Entertainment Gail Berman defends the system. "When you have a show this big, you are going to hear from some people that are not satisfied with whatever you do," she says. "But the bulk of public who are participating in the show are very satisfied with it."
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below