American Idol: Welcome to the Machine?

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Former American Idol contestant Kimberly Caldwell, 24, was in Pasadena, Calif., last month to chat with TV journalists.

Kimberly Caldwell

She's now a program host on the TV Guide Channel, but it was her past experience touring with American Idols Live in 2003 that occupied one particular Q&A session.

The Texas native dished a bit about tour accommodations. Yes, the group spends more time on buses than it does on planes hopping from concert to concert. No, they don't have to double up on hotel rooms. Then somebody asked what an Idol contestant gets paid for touring.

"I don't want to talk about that," Caldwell said.

Caldwell might have been asserting old-fashioned manners. It's not polite to talk about money, after all.

But her reticence might have had another origin -- first-year Idol contestants signed contracts that threaten $5 million fines for revealing any information relating to the series.

Since 2002, when an entertainment lawyer posted online a copy of the company's first-season Idol contract, the question of compensation for these show biz newcomers has lingered. It's natural to be curious about famous people's paychecks, and some observers of the Idol phenomenon are wondering whether the contestants are exploited -- what they may have unknowingly signed away for a shot at fame.

"American Idol is one of those things where you have to realize that you're being used for entertainment," first-season runner-up Justin Guarini told Entertainment Weekly in 2004. "And you better use it back."

With American Idols Live on the road for a fifth year, it's easy to imagine the latest crop living large. Four of this year's finalists, winner Taylor Hicks included, have signed record deals.

Along with income from music, commercials and personal appearances, work in film, television and theater is a possibility. Third-season winner Fantasia Barrino plays herself in an upcoming cable movie, while her third-season runner-up Diana DeGarmo is making a name for herself in theater. Finalist Jennifer Hudson, also from Season Three, will co-star with Beyonce in the movie adaptation of the Broadway play "Dreamgirls."

Caldwell, a finalist in Season Two, will make her big-screen debut next year in a slasher sequel, Wrong Turn 2.

Given the opportunities, it doesn't sound difficult to agree to almost any conditions the show's producers see fit to set. But the terms of the leaked contract -- the one signed by contestants including the original Idol, Kelly Clarkson -- were criticized at the time as unusually severe.

Kenneth Freundlich, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney, said in 2002 that the Idol contract represented the worst rendition of the industry, though he later changed his tune, given the show's success at creating stars.

One rumor circulating online put a performer's fee somewhere between $1,000 and $5,000 per concert. But their road income as a percentage of the tour's overall revenues would be comparatively small. Arena-scale performers who cut their own deals, for example, command six- and sometimes seven-figure guarantees for a night's work.

But then again, the Idol contestants are not typical performers. They are amateur or semi-professional singers made famous by a TV show that never runs out of replacement parts.

Simon Fuller, the British talent manager who created American Idol and runs 19 Entertainment, has made clear that he's comfortable with the balance of power between himself and contestants. Where most talent managers keep 15-20 percent of their clients' earnings, Fuller keeps 25-50 percent.

He has called that a fair share, given his ability to turn former unknowns into bankable stars.

"My deals are the best in the world," he was quoted as saying in 2003.

Barrino, at the television press tour to talk about her Lifetime movie, rejected any description of the Idol contract as exploitive.

"It's not like that at all. Even after you win, you choose to stay, or you choose to go. And, you know, I choose to stay because they take good care of me... They'll say, 'If you want to do it, then it's here for you. If not, we can take it, and we will move on,'" she said.

But some contestants have chafed at the arrangements.

Clay Aiken, the Season Two runner-up, got a lawyer to free him from his contract. The same lawyer went on to represent Mario Vazquez, a teenager who abruptly quit in the middle of Season Four. Vazquez cited "family reasons," but fans suspected finances and contracts were behind his abrupt decision to remove himself from the competition.

Auditions for Season 6 begin this week at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and will move from there to six more cities. Welcome to the machine.

Matt Richenthal is the Editor in Chief of TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and on Google+.