American Idol Anniversary: A Trip Down Memory Lane

Written by: Sandy Bennett

(Former General Manager)

Employee Voices


Early in 2002 Telescope told AT&T that American Idol, based on the successful UK format Pop Idol, would be huge when it started airing in June.  We told them, based on our considerable experience in the UK, that the demand for public voting would be huge, even though a show where the public decides the outcome via home voting had never aired in the US before.  AT&T nodded, smiled and said they would engineer the toll-free phone voting systems’ capacity accordingly.  And then the first night of voting happened.  We got 3.3M votes in the 2 hours after the show.  Which sounds impressive, but we also got a whole lot of busy signals and nearly broke the North American Telephone Network in the process.  Because America liked American Idol.  A lot.  And America liked voting for its’ favorite contestants.  A lot.

We acted fast, and by the following week, AT&T had re-engineered how calls flowed through the network to dramatically increase capacity.  By the finale between Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson (you know, *that* Kelly Clarkson….the multi-award winning, still a Really-Big-Deal Kelly Clarkson) we were able to process a World Record-breaking 15.5M votes.  Which also sounds impressive, until you hear that the season 11 finale got 132M votes.  People couldn’t get enough of American Idol and the demand for voting grew and grew, along with the ratings.

 GIF of ryan seacrest saying game changer

We did a lot of learning, that first season.  We learned how to run a fair and accurate vote while under intense scrutiny from the press and public who assumed it was all rigged (to be clear…it’s not!).  We learned how to analyze the vote patterns and data in minute detail to ensure every result announced was the right one. We learned how to monitor and account for people trying to abuse the system (‘power dialing’ sounds so quaint now!).  And we learned how a feel-good reality competition could change how people watch and interact with a TV show and its contestants.  And I learned I was in no rush to move back to England at the end of the first season, so decided to stay in Los Angeles.  Because American Idol, and interactive TV in general, was only just getting started.  And because of the sunshine.

 Ryan Seacrest holding out a phone

While we never stopped learning, because every season brought with it new challenges, during the second season we started to teach and shape the way viewers use technology.  In season 2 we taught America how to send an SMS, with Ryan Seacrest doing step by step demonstrations each week of how to ‘text the word vote to 5701’.  Idol was the first to embrace SMS technology for voting, viewer engagement, and fan loyalty, and it turned America into a nation of texters.  Idol shaped how other shows utilized voting and interactivity, and it has continued to pioneer the use of new technology – from the secure online voting of the Idol Supervote to second screen interactivity and social engagement, it’s award-winning digital and social strategy across a multitude of platforms continues to set it apart and show it’s the best of the best.

Happy Anniversary, American Idol.  Thanks for the memories of the 15 seasons where I ran the voting – from double and triple checking vote stats at 3 am, to defending controversial results to the press – American Idol has changed many lives over the years, especially mine.  #Proud #TeamTelescope #IdolFamily

 Kelly Clarkson Singing