Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

April 30, 2007

American Idol blew it

American Idol did good, but it could have done a lot better.

“Idol Gives Back,” the three-hour celebrity extravaganza that aired April 24 and 25, raised over $60 million for poor children in Africa and the U.S.

How big a deal is that?

The Jerry Lewis Telethon, a dinosaur compared to American Idol’s high-tech glitz and celebrity star-power, last year raised even more, just over $61 million, with a fraction of Idol’s self-promoting hype.

And as The New York Times reports, with a 30-second commercial on Idol costing $745,000 according to Forbes magazine, Idol parent News Corp.’s $5 million donation amounted to less than five minutes of advertising time.

American Idol says a record-high 70 million votes were cast for its contestants after the April 24 show.

If it had asked viewers to donate just $1 for every vote they cast, Idol would have raised $70 million from viewers alone.

But because the more than $60 million it did raise includes donations from American Idol sponsors and its parent News Corp., Idol Gives Back actually generated much less than $1 for every vote cast.

The average U.S. household gives $1,620 a year to charity, or nearly $4.50 a day.

How much did the average viewer give to Idol Gives Back?

We don’t know because, while it was anything but shy about plugging its own generosity and that of its sponsors, Idol has been downright mute about how much its viewers and sponsors actually gave.

In addition to the dollars it raised, American Idol also raised a lot of awareness about the plight of poor children, and about some of the charitable agencies working to address their needs.

That’s all good.

But American Idol and its parents, Fox Broadcasting and News Corp., could have done a lot more to promote the cause they were supporting, explain how much viewers and sponsors actually contributed, and disclose how much it cost to raise all that money.

Instead, sticking to the show-biz formula that has made it the most successful show on television, American Idol used its 180 minutes of prime time last week to shamelessly promote itself, its cast of judges and its “generous” sponsors without providing any details about how its philanthropy actually works.

If Idol had invested more time and effort to raising as much money as it could through Idol Gives Back, it might have made more effective use of its sponsors’ donations.

It could have asked its sponsors, for example, to pledge to give a specific amount of money for each vote cast for contestants or for each dollar contributed by viewers who voted, or both.

Idol also has failed to disclose details about the cost of raising the more than $60 million it says Idol Gives Back generated.

While Idol says over 70 million votes were cast, for example, Fox has not explained how much money was charged for each wireless or text-message vote.

Throughout its two-night broadcast, Fox continually touted the generosity of its sponsors, including AT&T, Ford and Coca-Cola, but it never has disclosed how much each sponsor contributed.

While the two-night show featured frequent video clips of host Ryan Seacrest and judges Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul visiting poor kids in Africa and the U.S. and waxing emotional over their plight, Idol has not said how much their stars’ trips or the production of those clips cost.

The roughly 1 million charities in the U.S. work hard to raise money, and a key metric by which they are judged involves their cost of fundraising.

But Idol has disclosed no metrics by which to assess the efficiency of its fundraising.

Fox and News Corp. constitute a mega-brand and franchise, and while Idol Gives Back did some good for poor children, the main cause it championed was American Idol.

If American Idol truly cares about philanthropy, it will need to be a lot more up-front and open about the cost of practicing its charity and how much its sponsors actually gave.


  • At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I feel that you are being a teeny bit unfair towards the American Idol TV show. At least they tried and succeeded in raising some funds for charity whereas vey few, perhaps no other, 'regular' tv shows have done so.

    Where are the fundraisers from "ER", "CSI" or other successful entertainment TV shows? And the 5 minute $5 million advertising comment represents gross, not net sums, so the network's $5 million donation could very well been a hugh portion of the show's profits.

    I do agree that A.I. should have been more informing on where the money would go, how much was spent on fundraising expenses, was any compensation given to the celebrities speakers, etc.

    Tom - [a CNBC viewer; NOT an A.I. watcher.]

  • At 8:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    American Idol should just post the gross amount earned vs the net amount.

    They truly could do more.

    Instead of donating $100 tonight to this cause - I will donate it to a cause that returns most of the money to the causes

  • At 8:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I think American Idol should be open and honest with the amount they collect vs what they distribute.

    I would much rather know that my $100 donation is mostly going to the cause rather than entertainers -SORRY


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