American Idol gives back $5 million of its $2.5 billion

Last night’s special episode of American Idol 6 was pre-taped, not live, as Access Hollywood revealed. That change in schedule apparently caught Ryan Seacrest off-guard, as he didn’t bother to shave for the occasion. He introduced the first half of Idol Gives Back–the special event producers teased for months–by saying that the episode featured “one huge difference: the calls you make will not only save your favorite contestants, they will also save lives.”

In other words, we didn’t have to move our asses from the couch to help out. “Tonight, all you have to do is watch and vote as usual, although your toll-free calls are going to make a much bigger difference. News Corp. is going to donate 10 cents for each call for the first 50 million calls. That’s $5 million. So, make sure you vote often,” Seacrest said, later adding, “This could be the most important call you ever make.”

I think it’s terrific that the show is using its clout to bring awareness to poverty and hunger in Africa; poverty, homelessness, and illiteracy in the United States; and the continuing suffering of Hurricane Katrina victims. Even though producers went for melodrama by setting one of the segments to Coldplay’s “Trouble,” the footage of poverty in Africa was moving. “Oh, this is just intolerable. This is terrible conditions,” Simon said, looking truly upset. “It’s just unbelievable. It’s just wrong. This is quite literally hell on earth. I have never seen anything like this in my life.”

But $5 million? Let’s be honest: It’s a generous donation, but is not that much relative to how much cash the show is pulling in. Fortune estimated that each Tuesday performance show makes an average of $16.39 million in advertising, and each results episode pulls $14.19 million. So, that’s $30.58 million per week. Even if those averages are generous or overestimate the actual revenue (since many ads are from show sponsors such as Ford and Cingular), $5 million is nice but not exactly bank-breaking–especially considering that the entire Idol franchise is worth more than $2.5 billion.

Other sponsors are supposedly donating, too, but Seacrest didn’t give details. And tonight, we’ll apparently be asked to actually sacrifice, rather than just doing the same thing we always do. Why not change the numbers to 900-numbers for tonight, charging for calls? Perhaps because viewers wouldn’t call?

Folding the charity into a regular episode was also an interesting choice. Having performances and critiques sandwiched between footage from Africa and elsewhere was odd, especially when Simon seems compassionate one moment and then the next screams “will you shut up?” to the audience, which happened after he critiqued LaKisha. I guess that was their attempt to keep us entertained despite the sadness.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.