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'American Idol': Gives back, the Cowell view

April 23, 2007 |  1:38 pm

SimonkidsAfter five and a half seasons, the "American Idol" juggernaut has, like a devourer of planets,  reshaped a battered television landscape in its image.  The show has taken the oldest of talent competition saws – the singing contest – and turned it into a national obsession. 

This week, "American Idol" takes reality TV into its most foreign and unlikely terrain yet – charity.  For two straight nights, it will turn its stage over to messages of hope and compassion as it attempts to turbo-charge its run-of-the-mill extravaganza proportions in the name of helping the poor and suffering of the world for a two night event called "Idol Gives Back."

But fear not that the epic competition is about to scale itself back into a PBS-pledge drive - earnest pleas  before the volunteer phone ban cutting to heart-rending video of children with distended bellies delievered in amateurish zero-production value segments.  This, after all, is American Idol and charity will come to it, not vice versa.

"I think our main thing," said Idol cornerstone, Judge Simon Cowell in a telephone interview, "is to make sure that for anybody who is a fan of American Idol, that they don’t feel too uncomfortable and most importantly they enjoy the event as an entertainment show. That is the number one priority because if we fail on that, this has all been a waste of time."

Not strictly a telethon, per se, Tuesday night’s IGB will attempt to harness "Idol’s" enormous voting machine (over 38 million cast on last week’s show) as a trigger for sponsored giving.  As explained on the show’s website, after Tuesday’s performance show, “Each time you call, sponsors will make a donation to Charity Projects Entertainment Fund to help children and young people in the USA and Africa.”  Wednesday night will combine Idol’s standard results show with performances from guest stars, with pleas for donations to the fund.  The hope is that by creating a spectacle beyond even the normal absurdly spectacular Idol standards, the show might lure in the handful of Americans who do not already watch and entice them to charity no less. Committed performers include Sacha Baron Cohen,  Gwen Stefani, Pink, Josh Grobin, Michael Buble, Annie Lennox and Bono and the return to the Idol stage of the original winner Kelly Clarkson. In addition, the show is hyping a secret mystery duet as the highlight of the night.

Cowell, agreed that for a show built around a brutal Darwinian race to the top of the entertainment pyramid, charity and compassion might be an awkward pairing, “That’s a very good question. We’ll find out whether it does fit. I think the most important thing for anybody watching the show over the two days is that they will be seeing a much, much bigger entertainment show than they would normally be watching in that particular week.”

Cowell’s involvement with the show began with a conversation with British writer (Blackadder, Mr. Bean), director (“Love Actually”) and impresario Richard Curtis. “He was behind Live Aid and he does a massive charity thing in the UK called Comic Relief.” Cowell recalls “I mean, they’ve generated hundreds of millions of dollars. And he’s been looking to see how he could launch the charity in the United States and thought American Idol would be an obvious way of doing it. My only proviso was that if we were going to do it, that we were going to have to give at least 50 percent of the money to American charities.”

Signing on for a charity event, Cowell soon learned, was a responsibility with strings attached.  In some of the unlikeliest moments of this season, Idol has promoted the Gives Back event with footage of a trip to Africa Cowell took with host Ryan Seacrest.

“It was surreal to be honest with you. We’re probably the last people on earth you’d expect to see there. But Richard said to me, ‘Look, if you’re going to do something like this, you’ve actually got to meet the people who are going to benefit, otherwise it doesn’t make sense.’ Which I completely agreed with. So he asked if I’d go to Africa and I said on one condition, that Ryan comes as well.”

The pair’s two day visit to Kenya included a stops “what I believe is the largest slum on Earth”, malaria centers and “I spent some time with a bunch of kids who essentially work on a rubbish pit.”

Cowell says of the trip, “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life and I’m glad I saw it because, you know, pictures on a TV screen, they never really show you quite how bad things are. It just gives you a sense of awareness which you didn’t have before.”

Perhaps the hardest part of the night to picture is how the producers will managed to wrap a charity event around the standard performance/results rubric that will persist through the event.  Cowell, however, claims not to be concerned by that challenge. “Richard Curtis has done that successfully over the years. He’s made comedy and charity work in the UK very, very successfully. I think that’s a much harder thing to do. I mean, listen, you can equate a song and a lyric much more easily to charity than you can in a comedy sketch.”

To that end, the contestants will sing songs on the theme of hope in Tuesday’s show.  And as this remains a competition, and this week does count, surviving in this turbo-charged, emotional environment filled with heart-wrenching appeals on the behalf of the world’s poorest people, will certainly present a new challenge for the contestants. “On a night like this,” Cowell says. “It’s going to be about the emotion as well and how you emote the song.

“A lot of these, our results shows, they do seem a bit long sometimes before you get to the actual end part. I think that just overall it’s going to feel like a much more spectacular entertainment night. Reminding people why we’re doing this, in terms of the charities, but not forgetting the fact that it’s still a competition and it’s going to end with who goes home. I just think the stakes are much higher this week.”

And so perhaps, just as Idol has perhaps saved network television, the recording industry, is in the midst of saving live theater by sending a steady parade of stars to Broadway, so perhaps can American Idol show the way to that other dying medium – the telethon.  Perhaps a healthy dose of Darwinian deathmatch is what these events need.  If the Jerry Lewis telethon voted someone off at the end, whom would not be more likely to watch that?

And check back tomorrow for more on my conversation with Simon - including his thoughts on where the season goes from here.

(Photo courtesy Fox)