HOLLYWOOD -- For at least three weeks, fans of American Idol have been pondering a deep philosophical mystery: How in the world has charisma-challenged R&B; balladeer Scott Savol managed to survive this competition, jumping ahead of magnetic Nadia Turner, soulful Anwar Robinson and total-package Constantine Maroulis?
A group of wireless rogues thinks the answer lies with a little social experiment they began last year, one that, were it not for judge Paula Abdul's personal woes, would have qualified as this season's wildest controversy: a call for viewers to vote for the least-talented contestants, in the hopes that American Idol producers will get stuck with marketing a lemon at the end of the season.
After noticing that his favorites kept getting voted off last year, Dave Della Terza, 22, and a group of buddies took matters into their own hands. They created their online campaign, votefortheworst.com, to throw the competition off course. (American Idol votes are supposed to be cast in favor of contestants who fans want to keep each Tuesday. Fans can call or text message as many times as they want in a two-hour period.)
"The show is less of a contest for who America picks and more of who the show's producers will influence to win," said Della Terza of Santa Clarita, a suburb of Los Angeles. "The producers and the judges tend to say, 'We like this person' ... 'This person is going to win' -- and then America just tends to vote along with them. This season it's been Carrie [Underwood] and Bo [Bice]. So we know it's going to be between Carrie and Bo. Whatever. So, we were like, 'Wouldn't it be funny if ... we pick somebody else and vote for the one [who has been told by the judges], 'You're going home, you're terrible.'"
To date, that person has been Savol, 28, who has drawn the ire of Simon Cowell week after week, and who last Tuesday inspired the cranky judge to tell him to pack his suitcase because of his rendition of "Dance With My Father." But on Wednesday, Savol had earned enough votes to land in the top three, sending one of the show's most popular contestants, Constantine, home to pack his bags.
"I couldn't believe it. I was floored when a friend in Oklahoma called to tell me Scott was in the top three and Constantine went home," Della Terza said.
A statement issued by Fox and the producers of the show, 19 Television and Freemantle Media North America, dismissed the group's impact: "While it is unfortunate that a small group of people are so caustic that they believe it would be humorous to negatively sway the voting on American Idol, the number of purported visits to the Web site would have no impact on voting."
But that doesn't address the increasing support for a contestant who obviously has turned off many fans with his back-talking and what comes across to many as a cold personality, not to mention the revelation of a previous domestic violence arrest. On Internet message boards and blogs, American Idol fans have not been shy about posting their dislike of Savol.
Della Terza, who estimates that he called in between 100 to 150 votes himself last week, added a visitor counter to his site last Monday. By Sunday afternoon, 323,000-plus hits had been registered at voteforthe worst.com, the majority from people who pledged to keep the Savol cause alive.
"Out of principle," Della Terza said, "I have to see how far we can ride this now."
It's not just big, it's sadistic, say some people who have left messages at the site, using terms such as "idiot" and "Charles Manson" to describe the site's creator. Parents have blamed Della Terza for their children crying themselves to sleep when their favorites have lost. Others accuse the Web site of "shattering dreams."
Fox and the American Idol producers agree.
"Each week millions of votes are received for each contestant, and based on the tiny number of visitors this site has allegedly received, their hateful campaign will have no effect on the selection of the next American Idol," they said in the statement. "Millions of fans of American Idol have voted for their favorites so far this season, and that success speaks far louder than any vicious and mean-spirited Web site."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.