Two would-be idols with arrest records, one of whom also is guilty of felony cockiness. Allegations of judicial activism -- in the bedroom. A phone voting gaffe. Or was it an "American Idol" conspirac

Two would-be idols with arrest records, one of whom also is guilty of felony cockiness. Allegations of judicial activism -- in the bedroom. A phone voting gaffe. Or was it a conspiracy?

If "American Idol" had a fourth-season theme song, it might be the long-ago hit "Anything Goes." As with the best reality shows, Fox's talent contest has a knack for holding viewer interest by being unpredictable.

But could the highly lucrative program be veering into crisis? Is "Idol" idolatry in danger?

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, doubts it. "I don't think most people think it's the '50s quiz show scandals, and I don't think it's the '50s scandals," he said.

Even Corey Clark's claim of an affair with judge Paula Abdul while he was a contestant on the show, if true, isn't enough to qualify. "I don't think that changes anything," Thompson said. "I think in a perverse sort of way it makes it more interesting."

Jason Rich, author of "American Idol 4: Official Behind-the-Scenes Fan Book," said he had free access to contestants and the production for the book and for a third-season guide. He defends the show's integrity. "Based on what I've seen this season and last, I have not seen any scandal worth an hour of a prime-time television expose. I haven't heard of anything, even if they wanted to grasp at straws," Rich said.

The hot gossip hasn't cooled the ratings. The series is averaging nearly 28 million weekly viewers for Tuesday's performance show and more than 25 million for Wednesday's results half-hour, bettering last season by several million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Boosted by a group of older, more accomplished contestants, the show's twice-weekly airings hold the No. 2 and 3 ratings spots for the season so far in households and the No. 1 and 3 spots in total viewers.

Such numbers add up to big rewards. The "American Idol" franchise, including all international versions of the show, record sales and other merchandising, has turned into a billion-dollar baby.

Diana DeGarmo, last season's runner-up to Fantasia Barrino, advises a little perspective. "It's a TV show before it's anything. I think sometimes people need to remember that," DeGarmo said. "They have to have something that gets them good ratings."

But as the May 24-25 finale approaches (the field pares down to four finalists this week) attention has become so fevered that a news program on another network is scrutinizing the Fox show.

ABC News' "Prime Time Live" is promising to examine "explosive" allegations tomorrow (May 4) about "American Idol," declining so far to provide hints of what will be covered.

The ABC compulsion for this particular type of investigative journalism during the crucial May ratings sweeps, a period used to set advertising rates, is as unsurprising as yet another Celine or Whitney song on "Idol." Luring curious fans of the Fox show would bolster ABC's own viewership numbers; whether "Prime Time Live" can deliver remains to be seen.

Fox declined to comment Monday on the ABC news program, which is expected the focus will be on Clark, who was bounced from the show in 2003 for failing to disclose a past arrest. In a tabloid interview, he said he is hawking a tell-all book and detailed allegations about Abdul.

Dancer-singer Abdul, known for her upbeat critiques of even the most hopeless contestants, punched back at him and ABC. Her lawyer sent a letter to the network threatening legal action if the special airs. "Mr. Clark is an admitted liar and opportunist who engages in unlawful activities. He is communicating lies about Paula Abdul in order to generate interest in a book deal," said a statement issued on her behalf.

The drip of bad news continued with last week's report that rocker Bo Bice, a finalist, had been arrested twice in the past four years on drug charges (dismissed after he completed a diversion program). Fox said it stood by Bice, who was candid about his past. The network also sniped at "various salacious gossip Web sites" that had dished about Bice.

It's understandable if the network and producers feel beleaguered; any "Idol" event is reason for suspicion.

When incorrect call-in numbers were displayed for three contestants in March, the network added an episode to repeat the vote — prompting mutterings that it was a nefarious bid for higher ratings. A producer dismissed such speculation as "rubbish."

It recalled controversies from years past, in which fans raged about clogged phone lines for voting and angrily speculated about conspiracies that allowed less talented contestants to hang on. In yet another odd incident this season, finalist Mario Vazquez abruptly quit and without explanation.

Some viewers, however, revel in the show's imperfections. The Web site encourages viewers to do exactly as its name says and has attracted more than 370,000 visitors so far.

"It's fun to make fun of the people who take it so seriously," said site founder Dave Della Terza, 22, of Los Angeles. Last year, the site stumped for Sinatra-style crooner John Stevens.

This year, Scott Savol is the pick. Credit lack of charisma and the kind of arrogance that should belong only to a genuine superstar, not a guy who's hit enough off-key notes to draw judge Simon Cowell's wrath.

Savol's background is another a factor, said Della Terza: He was arrested in 2001 on a felony domestic violence charge after a confrontation with his fiancee, ultimately pleading to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

"How do you promote the guy who threw a phone at his child's mother?" said Della Terza, savoring the plight of 19 Entertainment, which oversees recording and other deals for "American Idol" stars. (FremantleMedia is co-producer and co-licensor with 19 Entertainment for the entire format.)

Viewer Janina Perez doesn't appreciate the Web site gag. She swore off watching after handsome, talented Anwar Robinson was voted off and Savol -- "the guy seems rude," she grouses -- survived. But she tuned in again, only to see sexy, talented Constantine Maroulis dumped and Savol, inexplicably, hang on.

Perez reluctantly admits she can't help herself: "Now I want to watch just to see what happens to him."

DeGarmo is glad her season "went over with less craziness." The 17-year-old from Snellville, Ga., offers her wisdom on the pop culture gossip mill grinding on "American Idol": "It's just like high school: drama appears out of nowhere whether it's true or not. The more I'm in the business I'm like, 'Wow, I thought I was graduating to get out of this,' but I'm graduating to get back into it.

"It keeps things interesting, let's put it that way."

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