American Idol’s show-biz philanthropy
by Todd Cohen
Todd Cohen is editor & publisher of Philanthropy Journal, an online newspaper published by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation that supports the foundation’s mission & grantees.
Aiming to do some good with the fortune it is raking in and focus the attention of its estimated 26 million to 28 million weekly viewers on the impact of extreme poverty on children and young people in Africa and America, TV juggernaut American Idol is turning to philanthropy.
The philanthropic initiative, “Idol Gives Back,” aims to raise funds and awareness peaking in broadcasts April 24 and 25 during which celebrity artists will appear and the top six finalists this season will sing songs about compassion and hope.
So far, reflecting its roots in the breakthrough marketing prowess of the Fox reality-TV phenomenon, Idol Gives Back has been big on show-biz.
But sadly, reflecting the arrogance of much of organized philanthropy, the effort has been short on details or respect for the individual donors it is counting on.
During the show’s March 8 broadcast, host Ryan Seacrest announced plans for Idol Gives Back, and American Idol that day published a news blog on the charitable effort.
The blog said sponsors Coca-Cola and AT&T and other partners would donate money for every vote cast for contestants on the April 24 show, that Ford Motor Company also would contribute, and that viewers during the April 25 show would be able to make donations using toll-free lines and the Internet.
The Philanthropy Journal phoned Scott Grogin, senior vice president for corporate communications at Fox Broadcasting, to find out exactly how much money American Idol and Fox planned to give to the philanthropic effort, how much money its sponsors and partners would give for every vote cast, how much Ford would give, and how much American Idol expected the entire effort to raise.
Grogin said he could not answer the questions but that someone would get back to PJ, and that any communication would have to be by email.
The response came this week – a week-and-a-half later – from Andrea Lewis, who says she works for Richard Curtis, a movie director and writer who Lewis says is one of the driving forces behind Idol Gives Back.
So how much will American Idol and/or Fox contribute? Will those contributions also involve matches? And if so, how will they work?
“We are aiming to maximize the funds raised,” Lewis says. “No specific numbers are available to you at this stage.”
What is the aggregate contribution that American Idol, Fox and corporate sponsors together are likely to make?
“We expect corporate contributions in the double-digit millions,” Lewis says. “We are working together to maximize the contributions for Idol Gives Back and the overall contributions amount will be announced once it has been totaled after the event.”
What is likely to be the total of all contributions from Idol, Fox, sponsors and viewers?
“We are working to maximize the contributions both from sponsors, philanthropists and the general public,” Lewis says. “Every dollar raised has the capacity to change someone’s life so we will be happy with the final outcome, whatever it may be — clearly the more donated, the more lives we can help change and save so we’d like the total be as big as possible. Raising awareness of the issues is equally important.”
There you have it: Maximizing hype, minimizing substance.
American Idol, which has made an art form of reality TV and product placement, and transformed wannabe amateurs into entertainment superstars, surely will generate huge bucks and a lot of attention for the cause of helping impoverished children.
As multi-media entertainment guru Martha Stewart would say, that’s a good thing.
But American Idol could do much more: Instead of simply touting its philanthropy in advance, and treating its viewers like automated teller machines, American Idol could be engaging them for the long-term in philanthropy and the cause of addressing poverty.
American Idol has a loyal and enormous audience with which it could be sharing the details of how it plans to practice its philanthropy.
Each week until its big two-day philanthropic extravaganza, American Idol could be educating over 25 million viewers about the impact of poverty and the difference that individuals and organization can make by getting involved.
And to accomplish its stated goal of “maximizing” its philanthropy, American Idol should spell out exactly how much it and its sponsors plan to give, including the formula they will use for providing matching funds.
In letting viewers know exactly how much their participation will generate in matching funds, American Idol might generate even more support.
By treating its viewers like donors, cultivating them and engaging them with substantive information instead of shallow hype, American Idol not only could increase the impact of its inaugural philanthropic undertaking, but it also could transform an unprecedented show-biz phenomenon into breakthrough mass philanthropy — and create a model for other mass media.
That would be something worth idolizing.