Hit reality skein stirs net rivalry

Viewers and media critics tonight will be able to judge whether ABC’s much buzzed-about investigation into Fox’s “American Idol” is a harsh blow against the integrity of TV’s No. 1 show — or an example of sweeps-month hype gone overboard.

Until Tuesday, ABC News had remained mostly mum about the contents of tonight’s one-hour special edition of “Primetime Live,” dubbed “Fallen Idol.” Net wouldn’t even officially confirm its existence when first asked about it last month (Daily Variety, April 21), though a statement a few days later acknowledged that such a story was in the works.

Then, late Tuesday afternoon, net issued a press release outlining what has long been suspected: The main focus of the report is a charge by ousted contestant Corey Clark that he had a sexual relationship with “Idol” judge Paula Abdul and that she helped guide him through the competition.

Some media and network insiders have been speculating the ABC expose would go further than the Clark allegations, since the network is devoting an entire hour to the report.

ABC’s release Tuesday, however, focused solely on the alleged Abdul-Clark relationship. An ABC News spokesman declined to say whether the “Primetime” investigation would contain other allegations of wrongdoing against the “Idol” judges or producers, instead saying only that “Good Morning America” would have further excerpts from the report Wednesday morning.

One insider from a network not associated with either “Idol” or “Primetime” said ABC News will open itself up to criticism if the “Primetime” report doesn’t have substantial evidence backing up Clark’s allegations.

“Based on how aggressive they’ve been in publicizing it and in the promotion, if they don’t have something with serious teeth in it, they’ve somewhat checked their credibility at the door. Then it would be fair to say they used another network property for their own gain,” the veteran exec said. “But if they have some substantial evidence that suggests wrongdoing in how the show’s produced, or that the outcome is manipulated, that’s a legitimate news piece.”

One thing’s clear: ABC didn’t rush its report to air.

Word that “Primetime” was investigating “Idol” first surfaced in early March. The newsmag contacted Fox, saying it wanted to do a story about the show’s judges.

Alphabet continued its investigation through March and April, even after the New York Post’s Cindy Adams reported details of Clark’s book proposal. Still, the net didn’t feel ready to air the report.

On April 21, Daily Variety reported that ABC was planning a special report on “Idol,” the same day the Globe hit newsstands with its story about Clark and Abdul. Rather than get the news story on the air as soon as possible, ABC held off, allowing time for a full-scale on- and off-air promo blitz.

An ABC News spokesman declined to explain why the report was held so long, saying only that “Primetime” will “continue to report this story right up to airtime.”

While it seems highly unlikely ABC Entertainment execs played any role in instigating the report or the timing of its airing, it’s also not impossible to imagine ABC News wanting to get a large viewership for the report. Indeed, “Primetime” normally airs on Thursday nights; airing the special on a Wednesday gives the skein a chance to capture some of the viewers who’ll be tuning in to the “Idol” results show a half-hour earlier.

Newsmags regularly time investigative reports and celeb profiles to come out at opportune times. This week’s “20/20″ is skedded to have a long story on ABC’s “Lost” — just two days after the show returns from a long hiatus.

It doesn’t hurt that ABC Entertainment and ABC corporate execs will soon be deciding whether to bring back “Primetime Live” next season as a weekly series. Newmag’s ratings have been lackluster in the very difficult 10 p.m. Thursday time period.

Abdul issued a statement last week blasting Clark’s “false” allegations, but Fox and the show’s producers have maintained relative silence about the matter. The two outlets finally spoke up Tuesday in a statement released to both ABC News and the general media.

Statement noted Clark was removed from the show because he failed to disclose his arrest history and said that Clark has never contacted the network or production companies.

“We will, of course, look into any evidence of improper conduct that we receive,” the statement continued. “In the meantime, we recommend that the public carefully examine Mr. Clark’s motives, given his apparent desire to exploit his prior involvement with ‘American Idol’ for profit and publicity.”

One industry vet wondered why Fox hasn’t issued a stronger rebuttal of the Clark charges, noting that “if an organization knows it’s been wronged, it usually strikes back aggressively.”

Others, however, say potential litigation related to Clark’s charges may be making Fox and the show’s producers more cautious.

Overall, Fox insiders describe the mood of network execs as a mix of aggravation, anger and even resentment that ABC could generate huge ratings during sweeps off the strength of a Fox hit. There’s also a feeling of disbelief that ABC may devote an hour to Clark’s “tabloid” allegations.

An ABC News spokesman noted, however, that “Primetime” has “been reporting on ‘American Idol’ since it hit the air. A number of magazine pieces have aired over the years that have been flattering to that broadcast.”

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