‘Idol’ opens its heart

Show transfers votes to charity dollars

For the first time, “American Idol” will parlay its monster ratings into a massive charity event, staging the two-night “Idol Gives Back.”

In between the usual dose of Simon’s acerbic bites, Randy’s “dawg” barks and Paula’s eccentric stands, “Idol” will attempt to raise awareness for groups that help poverty-stricken children in the U.S. and in Africa. Event is set to air as part of “Idol’s” April 24 and 25 episodes.

As part of the campaign, “Idol” sponsors Coca-Cola and AT&T (along with other corporations) will donate money to a variety of charities for every vote cast by viewers. Ford will also donate via its weekly musicvideo, and the TV aud will be pointed to a toll-free line to make donations as well.

“American Idol” exec producer Simon Fuller, judge Simon Cowell and screenwriter-humanitarian Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill”) — who helped organized the Live 8 concerts with Bob Geldof and Bono — are behind “Idol Gives Back.”

“We felt it was a natural fit,” said News Corp. prexy-chief operating officer Peter Chernin. “For the past five seasons, viewers have fulfilled the dreams of the contestants. Now they have the chance to help us change the lives of children and young people in need and at risk, here in the U.S. as well as in Africa.”

During the two-night event, the six remaining “Idol” contestants will sing songs on the Tuesday episode that are considered uplifting “life anthems,” focused on “compassion and hope.”

The Wednesday night two-hour results show will feature artists and celebs including Gwen Stefani, Josh Groban, Pink, Annie Lennox and Sasha Baron Cohen (in character as Borat). Insiders say Stefani, Groban, Pink and Lennox will likely perform onstage.

Also potentially visiting the “Idol” stage that night: Bono himself.

“We’ll see worlds collide when Africa appears on America’s most-watched TV show,” Bono said in a statement. “This is a big deal. I wouldn’t underestimate the reach of this show or the impact its audience can have.”

Charities set to benefit from the event include the U.S. Fund for UNICEF; the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund; the Global Fight to Fund AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Save the Children; Nothing But Nets; and Malaria No More.

“Idol” exec producer Simon Fuller said he was approached by Curtis to launch a televised charity effort in the U.S. on par with Curtis’ BBC-backed “Red Nose Day” event, which has raised $820 million.

Red Nose Day was launched in the mid-1980s by the U.K. charity Comic Relief and is held every other year to raise money, culminating with a special on the BBC. Fund-raising includes the sale of specialty foam red noses at shops around the country. This year, Red Nose Day will be held on March 16.

“After lengthy discussions, it occurred to me that we should use ‘American Idol’ as an existing platform to premiere this idea,” Fuller said. “Red Nose Day is an extraordinary institution, and I am hoping that ‘Idol Gives Back’ is an enormous success, raising awareness and huge amounts of money for all these wonderfully deserving causes, and allowing us to continue to make these important, world-changing shows for many years to come.”

The two-day special will also include footage of a recent trip that Cowell and “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest took to Africa, as well as a visit by Cowell, Seacrest, Abdul and Jackson to portions of Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

“Having witnessed some of the appalling conditions in Africa first hand, I’m especially proud that our show is offering Americans the chance to help those most in need,” Cowell said. “Ensuring that American charities will equally benefit from these efforts was one of my priorities.”

The show has also partnered with Scholastic to develop a companion Web site for teachers and students.

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