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On Thursday, 10 former contestants on American Idol sued over alleged discrimination on the long-running reality singing competition show. If you want to read the complaint, it’ll likely take you longer than the amount of screen time that 99.9 percent of would-be Idols get on the Fox program.
Clocking in at 429 pages — the contestants’ lawyer James H. Freeman is the same guy who earlier this year filed a 219-page lawsuit against Lionsgate for $500 million — the complaint is, at very least, ambitious in scope. Besides filing a supersized lawsuit, the plaintiffs are not just suing Fox Broadcasting, Fremantle and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe; they are also suing many of Idol‘s corporate sponsors including Ford Motors, Coca-Cola and AT&T. In fact, the $250 million lawsuit comes amid a proposed class action on behalf of “Black Golden Ticket Holders” (2002-12, males only) that puts the defendants into four groups — “Production,” “Network,” “Overseer” and “Sponsor.”
Here are some more highlights from the massive lawsuit:
Interestingly, unlike The Bachelor discrimination lawsuit from a year ago, the lawsuit isn’t based on an aspect of civil rights law that prohibits whites from refusing to contract with African-Americans because of their race. Instead of challenging whom producers put into key roles, or focusing on successful outcomes, the Idol lawsuit seems more concerned with the disqualifications, or unsuccessful outcomes, and what comes next:
“Rather than allow them to compete for the valuable prizes on the basis of their individual merit as artists, the program’s top senior executives, British showrunners Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick ran interference on them, sabotaging their promising careers as recording artists and gutting them of the opportunity they rightfully earned to become the next American Idol. Why? Because the Plaintiffs’ identities could be used to scandal-monger Nielsen ratings while reinforcing the age-old stereotype of the ‘black criminal.'”
The lawsuit, which begins with a quote from the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, attempts to make a statistical case that there’s something nefarious happening.
“A staggering thirty-one percent (31%) of every American Idol Semi-Finalist contestant [Top 24, Top 36-40] who happened to be a young Black male was disqualified from the singing competition for reasons wholly unrelated to their singing talent. Even though there were three (3) times as many White (or non-black) contestants featured on American Idol over the course of ten years, there has never been a single White (or non-black) contestant disqualified from American Idol – not ever.”
One of the core aspects of this case — and something that largely distinguishes it from past discrimination cases in the entertainment industry — is the alleged way that producers have obtained, disseminated and exploited the criminal background of the show’s black contestants. The lawsuit objects to the way that producers are leveraging criminal arrest information and says that it’s how the defendants used the “rap sheets” of its contestants in “conducting what purports to be a bona fide contest that provides the basis for this Civil Rights action.”
That said, the lawsuit does factor in some other alleged discrimination. For example, white contestants on the show are said to be able to “choose whatever song they preferred” while black contestants are “pigeon-holed … into selecting songs … as ‘genre-appropriate.'”
To be clear, the 429-page lawsuit attempts to be more than a legal action about a few contestants that were deprived of the opportunity for fame and fortune by winning a reality TV show. It’s some sort of sociological statement that includes a whole civil rights chapter that’s devoted to concepts like “prejudicial judgments,” “false correlation” and “unequal justice,” with various crime statistics thrown in. The Idol lawsuit contains passages like this:
“The American criminal justice system has historically served as a focal point of much of societal racism. A long legacy of practices such as the convict leasing system, extrajudicial lynchings, and police brutality have shaped the history of African-Americans and the criminal justice system.”
The lawsuit figures to have numerous obstacles ahead. One of the first challenges likely to come could be whether a New York federal court has jurisdiction over the matter. As a condition for appearing on the show, the contestants signed various agreements. It’s probable that within these agreements there were clauses to go to arbitration with any disputes. On an initial matter, a judge might have to address this question before all else.
The plaintiffs make the case that the contracts should be rescinded as “highly oppressive, unconscionable Willy Wonka contracts.” Entertainingly, the lawsuit uses that famous book and film as an analogy:
“Plaintiffs herein seek rescission of the American Idol CONTESTANT AGREEMENT, an illusory device that carries on the theme of the ‘Golden Ticket’ and the ominous, illegible contract presented to the children at the gateway of the ‘Willy Wonka’ chocolate factory. Like the fantasical [sic] depiction of the visually warped contractual language in the famed 1971 movie, the American Idol CONTESTANT AGREEMENT strains all levels of comprehension in its mindbending labyrinth of non-sensical provisions.”
If the plaintiffs manage to survive the first round, they’ll also have to show why the First Amendment doesn’t bar their claims. In October 2012, a judge dismissed the Bachelor discrimination lawsuit on the grounds that casting decisions are a component of an entertainment show’s creative process and indisputably protected as free speech.
Anticipating that challenge, the plaintiffs have an answer for it. American Idol isn’t about “casting.” It’s a “contest” with different rules and regulations:
“Applying the definition of ‘casting’ to the matter here, the only segment of the American Idol season that could possibly be described as a ‘casting’ would be the Open Audition rounds where various sorts of decidedly meritless singers are used for comic effect. Such performers have been ‘cast’ because the Overseer Defendants already know they are not getting a Golden Ticket. But once a Golden Ticket has been awarded to a prospective contestant, they have been deemed qualified to compete in American Idol by the Panel of Expert Judges and, therefore, they have become actual (rather than prospective) contestants. At that point, the contest has begun.”
There will be more challenges along the way including showing the judge why a class should be certified, and if it gets so far, proving the allegations of discrimination, fraud and interference. If they get to trial, the plaintiffs want lots of money, of course, but also various injunctive relief including prohibiting defendants from ascribing the “criminal” label to African-American performers, adopting and publishing clearly worded contest rules and using an “objective, job-related and racially-neutral standard to make disqualification decisions.”
This weekend’s beach read is below.
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