Idol Worship

The making of a sweeps-week promo.

Cleveland's version of Justin Guarini and Kelly - Clarkson; Fox 8's version of ratings success. - Walter  Novak
Cleveland's version of Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson; Fox 8's version of ratings success.

It was a bad cliché that actually delivered good television: two kids with a dream and only one ticket out of the Rust Belt.

Ryan Thompson, 19, and Jackie Bell, 21, both grew up singing and dancing their way through high school plays. He was an elfin blond with a boy band smile and Rod Stewart hair; she, a diva in training, with a voice that could make steelworkers blubber into their Pabst Blue Ribbon. On opposite sides of town, they practiced and performed and waited for the biggest cliché of all: The Big Break.

But there was only one break to be had, and it came thanks to the glorified karaoke competition that riveted the nation last summer. American Idol drew 22.8 million viewers in its final night and launched a single that topped the charts, despite its utter banality. Advertisers went nuts, marketers drooled, and the format entered a cycle of sequelization and duplication.

But despite knockoffs by everyone from the Today show to KISS-FM, revulsion hasn't hit yet. So Fox 8 News, lord of the celebrity puff piece and the "Housewives Turn to Stripping" exposé, hauled out a version of its own -- "Cleveland Idol" -- just in time for sweeps week.

It was nothing revolutionary. Kids sang. Viewers voted. But the stakes were higher than most. Not only could producers promise the winner a check for $1,000, local airtime, and the chance to open a Clear Channel-promoted concert, but they also boasted a trip to Los Angeles and a guaranteed audition for American Idol -- a significant prize, given that hopefuls for that show fill the Rose Bowl for auditions.

Every cocktail waitress who ever fancied herself Kelly Clarkson knew it. By the time judges arrived at the Odeon six weeks ago for the first 7 a.m. tryout, Fox Promotions Director Kevin Salyer counted 2,500 singers waiting outside, mostly girls boasting the requisite collection of Mariah-style gasps and Christina-inspired warbles, each convinced she was The One.

It could have been terrible, and at first, it almost was. A lottery winnowed the wannabes to 152, then the judges -- David Spero of the Rock Hall, Barry Gabel of Clear Channel, and radio talkers Jimmy Malone of WMJI, Rebecca Wilde of WQAL, and Kym Sellers of WZAK -- were supposed to cut that list to 32.

It wasn't always pretty. After a particularly egregious "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," several judges were near hysterics. At one point, Wilde gave a dishwater blonde in an undersized T-shirt the bad news: "Tasha, honey, I'm not sure I can ever listen to that song the same."

Admits Spero: "By the 23rd version of the National Anthem or the 34th Whitney Houston song, you kind of lose your perspective."

Longtime Fox entertainment reporter David "Mossman" Moss edited the hours of tryouts into a quartet of four-minute segments. It was Star Search minus the boring parts: Contestants nailed the high notes and wept in jubilation. Others missed, badly, and wept in defeat. Judges rolled their eyes, pretty girls posed, drama mounted.

In the end, after two judged rounds and viewer-voted semifinals -- all televised -- Cleveland was left with two contestants. Thompson, a Medina High senior, had instant teen idol cachet, thanks to his squeaky-clean enthusiasm, gelled hair, and a stage presence that makes Steven Tyler look subdued. He may have forgotten a few words or missed notes, but it hardly mattered; he had charisma to spare. When he was announced as a finalist, he reacted in fluent Junior High Schoolese: "I'm so excited, I'm going to pee my pants!"

Bell, a University of Akron student typically costumed in various combinations of black and black, seemed shy in her forced banter with host Moss. But she came alive in her ballads, managing to make "One Moment in Time" actually sound fresh.

The final show at the Odeon was surreal: part high school talent show, part 'N Sync concert, and part West Side Story. Relatives sported video cameras and pestered the unflappable Moss for posed snapshots. Bell's supporters held posterboards proclaiming their love, while Thompson's friends led cheers from the bar, Diet Cokes in hand. Whenever the singer emerged from backstage, he was mobbed by adoring girls, family members, and eight-year-olds from his church.

Thompson devoured the audience's energy, selling "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" like a car salesman short on commission. At times he improvised wildly, forgetting some words and adding others, bounding across the stage to toss off a wink here and a hip thrust there.

Meanwhile, Bell's rendition of Celine Dion's "The Power of Love" was note-for-note perfect. It had the Thompson faction worried. "She was goooood," one fretted.

Fox wasn't sure at first that the gimmick would work, admits Salyer. The station had pinned its sweeps bid on the competition, but the format depended on a huge variable: singers appealing enough to make viewers care.

Thompson and Bell delivered. The semifinals drew 77,000 callers. The finals, with phone lines open from just 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., topped 95,000, Salyer says.

In comparison, the semifinals for the Today show's American Idol rip-off, hosted by Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, drew 110,000 callers on a national telecast, according to Salyer. "It's unbelievable," he says.

When Moss pronounced Bell the winner, she choked up, her fingers waving away the emotion. She would be going to Los Angeles -- with a Fox 8 producer in tow. (On Monday, the station learned that Bell had made it past the first two rounds and would get face time with famed judges Simon and Paula.)

But there were no tears from Thompson. He just kept smiling that pop star grin. "He's going to be big, no matter what," pledged his friend, Kathryn Jablonowski.

The night before the final sing-off, Thompson starred in his own "pep rally" at Cool Beans coffee shop in Medina. He sang to a bevy of screaming teenage fans; when the show was over, they followed him to the parking lot for autographs.

"Girls were screaming and taking pictures of him," says his friend, Leanne Soldo. "And we were at Wal-Mart today, and people were coming up to him."

Thompson's aunt, Linda Eastwood, says her nephew found the adulation a little disconcerting. She offered a suggestion: "You'd better get used to it." After all, the only thing worse than overenthusiastic fans is no fans at all.

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