Thursday, April 19

Addressing Perception: American Idol

American Idol judge Simon Cowell demonstrated he understands something about negative publicity, even when such publicity stems from perception, speculation, and rumor. You address it.

That is precisely what Cowell did Wednesday night after social and mainstream media criticized him for an annoyed look he appeared to give contestant Chris Richardson, who is from Chesapeake, Va. The look came after Richardson followed his performance with a comment about the 32 innocent people killed at Virginia Tech.

Richardson had said: "My heart and prayers go out to Virginia Tech. I have a lot of friends over there. ... Be strong."

As the cameras cut to Cowell, he looked annoyed, rolled his eyes, and raised his eyebrows. But he wasn't rolling his eyes at the Virginia Tech comment. He was rolling his eyes at Richardson's earlier comment that nasally singing was somehow an accepted singing technique. More precisely, Cowell was still addressing the comment with Paula Abdul in a side conversation unrelated to what was happening on stage.

"I was saying to Paula, 'What does he mean, he sang nasally on purpose? I didn't understand what he was saying.' So I hadn't even heard what he did. Then my eyes rolled, given what I was saying to Paula," said Cowell.

American Idol producers went one step further by playing the video footage of Cowell's side conversation, which clearly and quickly proved the point. For some, it also demonstrated the power of perception over reality. Often, on video, what we see is dictated by camera angle and, in this case, which camera.

"I did want to clear this one up because, you know, this is a very very sensitive subject. The irony is that we did want to try and set the right tone on the show. And then something like this happens, and it just starts fanning the flames," Cowell said. "And people need to understand, there are families involved. It's not right."

Cowell went on to say that he might not be the nicest person in the world, but he sympathizes and appreciates what the contestants and affected families were going through. Well spoken, considering most celebrities and executives forget to keep their cool in order to keep the focus on corrections and clarifications. He did not apologize, because there was nothing to apologize for in a presentation that exemplified credibility and transparency.

"I would like to say, on a more serious note, just to pick up on what Ryan said, on behalf of the three of us, that we would also like to offer our best wishes and support to the families of this tragedy, as well," Cowell said, adding that it had been a tricky weekend for the contestants, some of whom were close to the families there.

In many ways, the show outperformed its critics who have taken to giving Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech gunman, a forum for his perceived grievances against rich people. Perhaps some networks might remember that while it is appropriate to report the news, the reporting of the news does not necessarily have to provide forums for killers. Sometimes there are not two sides to a story. And sometimes the best displays of empathy would be not to air a video that gives into one confused person's perception, at least not over and over again.

To make a point on communication, Cowell demonstrated how best to address misinterpretation. To address the misconception that "seeing is believing," it isn't (especially when what we see is spliced together with multiple camera angles). And to the tragedy, myself and everyone we work with echo the original words of Richardson…

"My hearts and prayers go out to Virginia Tech. I have a lot of friends over there. ... Be strong."



Rich on 4/24/07, 9:11 AM said...

Famous Words:

"This is a sad time for everyone, so it is especially disheartening that a quick camera cutaway could have been misinterpreted. We're sorry for any grief caused by this misunderstanding, but Simon was not reacting to Chris at that point. He had turned to speak to Paula and didn't actually hear Chris' final comments. Everyone at "American Idol" feels compassion for those affected by this tragedy. We opened the show with those thoughts and Simon later expressed sincere condolences on behalf of the judges, recognizing the challenges we all face in dealing with this horrible event." — Nigel Lythgoe, Executive Producer, American Idol


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