Television: Just Don’t Call It a Telethon

4 minute read
Belinda Luscombe

Nothing makes a TV executive queasier than the word telethon. Jerry Lewis’ efforts have done wondrous things, no doubt, for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, but as entertainment, they’re must-flee TV. So when Simon Fuller, American Idol’s creator and sovereign, told Fox executives he wanted to give one week of his prime-time, never-fail, hitmaking show over to fund raising–to make it a sort of telethon–he knew what they were thinking, and it was a word you can’t say on TV.

At first blush, you can’t blame them. The idea sounds not a little corny. On Tuesday, April 24, Idol contestants will sing what Fuller calls “emotive, moving, aspirational, triumph-over-adversity songs.” In between renditions of, say, Bridge over Troubled Water and Man in the Mirror, there will be clips of Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest’s trip to Africa, Randy Jackson’s trip to Louisiana and Paula Abdul’s trip to Kentucky. When viewers call to vote for their favorites, sponsors will kick in some money for every vote cast.

The following night, as part of the results show, such acts as Gwen Stefani, Pink and Borat will perform and make appeals to the audience for money. There will be other films that sketch out what said money could do for those in need in America and Africa. Then the audience is expected to pony up.

The special is an interesting test of the real power of Idol–to see if viewers love it enough to vote with their wallets as well as their cell phones. But it’s a risk too, to mess with the formula, possibly endanger the brand. Idol’s virtues as TV are its simplicity and its almost hermetically sealed environment. When you watch Idol, there’s no world outside Idol; it makes for more drama that way. So why break the spell by introducing the complicated problems of the outside world?

It turns out that just as some countries have a different attitude toward Jerry Lewis, other countries have a different attitude toward using TV to raise money. In Britain, Red Nose Day, an evening of comic TV that is also a fund raiser, is a ratings winner that garnered $128 million in 2005. Dreamed up by screenwriter (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and director (Love Actually) Richard Curtis in 1988, it was an idea Fuller had been trying, not very successfully, to sell to network heads here. “Then I thought, actually, I control the biggest show in America,” he says. “And we have 30 million– plus people watching every week. Maybe I could just hand over Idol for one week, and that would give us what we want.”

Fuller’s aim is much more ambitious than making Idol a fund-raising juggernaut. He wants to launch a whole new TV genre, using America’s most popular show as his springboard. But he and Curtis do not seem daunted, either because they believe Idol is unsinkable or because they’re both pretty familiar with the whole putting-on-a-show concept. “These things can be fantastically innovative and dynamic and not just ploddy old telethons,” says Fuller. He admits Fox is not so sure. “But, hats off to them, they’re supporting us. How reluctantly, I don’t know.”

The challenge is to prove he’s right. To that end, the film clips about Africa and the poor in America will be only half as long as the ones shown on British TV. Surprise celebrity guests will pop up to keep people curious. There will be comedy–and not just of the early-bad-audition variety. “One of the tricks I’ve learned,” says Curtis, “is to let people do what they’re best at for us. Nobody wants to see Sacha Baron Cohen talking about farming issues.”

Actually, that might be worth paying for.

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