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Call Waiting

Phone lines can't handle millions of ''Idol'' votes. Voters who get through use power dialers, text messaging, or live in Hawaii -- anything but try to place a conventional phone call

Jasmine Trias fans notwithstanding, the controversy over ''American Idol'' voting continues with a report in the current issue of Broadcasting & Cable, which says that millions of potential ''Idol'' votes aren't getting through each week. The problem, according to the trade publication, is that analog phone lines simply can't handle the volume of Tuesday night calls. Unfair advantages go to those who use power-dialing software that allows individual callers to vote hundreds of times, phone users who've paid for text messaging (which, because it's digital, always gets through eventually), and callers in the West -- like those in Trias' home state of Hawaii -- who can call later, when the lines are less busy.

B&C cites as an example last year's finale, in which ''Idol'' producers counted 24 million votes and awarded the grand prize to Ruben Studdard over Clay Aiken, with a margin of just 134,000 votes deciding the entire contest. According to the report, carriers Verizon and SBC each logged about 115 million calls more than usual that night, which means that at least 230 million calls didn't get through on the overloaded analog phone lines.

After last week's shocker that saw La Toya London eliminated, Fox addressed the issue with a statement, saying: ''The producers and network have gone to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the voting process on 'American Idol.' America votes, an independent company calculates the tally, and the show reports those results.'' During the show's first season in 2002, ''Idol'' bigwigs acknowledged the presence of power dialers but insisted that they were not significantly skewing the results of the vote. On Sunday, Fox told the Associated Press that systems were in place to identify calls made by power dialers that keep such votes from ''unfairly influencing the outcome of the voting.''

Even still, Fox may not be doing all it can to stop rule-bending voters. As the Honolulu Advertiser reported last week, some Hawaiian fans of Trias have acknowledged that they have been able to obtain her voting code from sources on the mainland and have successfully cast numerous votes for her well before the two-hour window for calling that follows the show's local broadcast. In its Sunday statement, the network insisted that no voters had an unfair advantage. ''While acknowledging that dedicated fans may be unhappy with the outcome,'' Fox said, ''the system only reports the decision of the voting public.''

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Originally posted May 17, 2004