A Cingular Controversy Arises on American Idol

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MSNBC news talk show host Joe Scarborough has all but accused FOX and Cingular Wireless of fixing American Idol for a buck.

A recent segment of "Scarborough County" asked if the cell phone carrier played too much of a role in the show's voting outcome. Here's how that would happen:

The report said many callers can't get through when they attempt to phone in votes, making text messaging votes decisive. And Cingular's/AT&T's sponsorship deal with American Idol permits only that cell phone carrier's customers to text in votes.

This is nothing new. Taylor Hicks garnered 63.4 million votes - more than George W. Bush got in the 2004 presidential election. That kind of volume is understandably difficult for telephone infrastructure to handle.

In the three years Cingular has sponsored Idol, text message votes for the show have climbed from 7.5 million in 2004 to 13. 5 million in 2005 to 41.5 million last year.

Whatever impact texting has on the outcome of votes is likely to increase even further now that each Cingular text message vote for American Idol gives customers a chance to win a $1 million prize.

Nancy Ford, a spokeswoman for Cingular/AT&T, told The Free Lance-Star that Idol is such a driver for text messaging that the company has increased its capacity from 5,000 text messages per second to 15,000 messages a second for the show.

"We want to make sure those messages get through," she said. But she also said she doesn't believe Cingular customers have an undue amount of power in the voting or that there's anything unfair about the setup.

Ford said she has no idea how often phone votes for fail to get through. And Fox didn't respond to questions about the issue. Last year, American Idol Executive Producer Ken Warwick downplayed voting difficulties.

"There is never any congestion at national grid system level," he saod. "The only time there is any congestion is at local switchboard level, and that's going to happen - there's nothing I can do."

Still, it's something to consider as you cast a vote for Jordin Sparks or your favorite contestant tonight.

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