RNO Roundtable: Should ‘American Idol’ Have an Age Limit?by RealityNewsOnline Staff -- 01/28/2003
You may have recently heard about a lawsuit filed against American Idol producers for age discrimination. Drew Cummings, a lecturer at a Florida community college who is 50 years old, says the show’s rules against people above the age of 24 violate federal age discrimination laws. He said age should play no role in becoming the American Idol and even cited statistics to show that a majority of record sales and concert revenues come from artists over the age of 40.
A debate on the merits of his lawsuit – and the age limit in general – ensued in the RealityNewsOnline writers’ lounge. After all the thrown chairs were put back and a new coffee maker had been ordered to replace the one that was broken (we won’t go into the gory details), we decided that perhaps a better way to settle this question was a new RNO Roundtable.
So that’s what we did. Below you will find responses from several different RealityNewsOnline writers (David Bloomberg, C. Brian Devinney, Brian James, and Peggy Keller – in alphabetical order) addressing the following questions:
Does this guy's argument hold merit at all? And should there be age restrictions on people to participate in American Idol?
Let’s cut to the chase. Does this guy’s argument have any merit? No. It’s their show, they should be able to do what they want. He doesn’t like it? Fine. Don’t watch. Boycott the advertisers. Throw a hissy fit. But don’t freaking file a frivolous lawsuit like this. Don’t the courts have enough real work to do? Second, should there be age limits? In a perfect world, no. But then in a perfect world singers would be judged on their singing, not on how well they bop around the stage in a skin-tight outfit that they are almost wearing.
Just to be clear – the above two statements are not contradictory. Just because I don’t happen to agree with somebody doesn’t mean I think they should be sued about it. I was annoyed last season when Simon booted out one woman just because she was overweight. I am hoping he will not make the same mistake again this year. But if he does continue to have that particular blind spot, do I think he should be sued? Again, no. It’s their show, their choice. I’m free to change the channel.
Let’s dig a little deeper. First, let’s point out that American Idol is not the only show that has a maximum age and also offers a prize. How many 50-year-olds have we seen on Road Rules? Are they forbidden from applying or just weeded out early? Does it really matter either way? Are we going to say that MTV has to start casting people completely outside their demographic? That would be ridiculous. But that’s the same thing that applies here.
So what about those demographic arguments? What about Cummings’ claims regarding how many albums are sold by older artists and the like? To that I simply say: Who cares?
Yes, who cares? It's not up to him to determine who American Idol’s target audience should be. If the producers want to alienate a segment of their audience, that's their decision. But I can tell you that if my e-mail is any indication, everybody from teenagers (and below) to grandmothers watched the first American Idol, even with the age restrictions.
Let me provide some examples that have nothing to do with show business. Before anti-smoking regulations took hold in many restaurants (and even now in restaurants that consider one table without an ashtray to be a “non-smoking section”), I dealt with the problem in a simple way. If an establishment allowed smoking in a way that I didn’t like, I didn’t go there. Wow. What a concept. I didn’t sue them or demand that they cater to me. I just didn’t go. They were the ones losing business. The same is true of a local business owned by a guy who has had multiple drunk driving offenses, but kept getting off somehow. I didn’t want to support somebody like that. So what do I do about it? I don’t eat there. Furthermore, I tell other people why I don’t eat there. The same is true of businesses with owners who hold political positions I don’t like or those that have hiring procedures I don’t agree with. It really is quite simple, and it doesn’t clog up the court system.
So if I really felt that American Idol was being discriminatory in their process, I wouldn’t watch. Furthermore, I wouldn’t cover the show – except perhaps to rip on them for being that way.
If this guy has any legal footing whatsoever, I have to wonder what’s next. Will the Miss America pageant (and other similar ones) be sued because they only accept women of a certain age and marital status – not to mention gender? Will Bob Hope sue because he can’t get a role as a five-year-old in a movie? Maybe I should sue because they actually base American Idol on talent and I consider myself to be singing-impaired (I guarantee a jury would agree with that).
The lawsuit is frivolous and should be thrown out with prejudice. Cummings should be made to pay the producers’ legal bills as well, to discourage this type of thing in the future.
C. Brian Devinney:
Should there be an age limit to be a contestant on American Idol – no. However, are the odds stacked against someone of more advanced years being on the program – yes.
American Idol is one of the only reality programs on TV that offers a prize but has a maximum age restriction. The belief the producers of the show are working under is that only singers between the ages of 16 to 24 are worthy to compete to be considered an “American Idol.” Does this mean that performers who are past the age of 24 are over the hill and should quit performing? Should this person (or band for that matter) just hang it up because there is no chance in the world of them breaking through into the music business at their advanced age?
The answer is no. Many performers have burst onto the spotlight at what some may consider an advanced age – Bonnie Raitt, the B-52s, and Santana had their emergence (or re-emergence in the case of Santana) past their 35th birthdays. However, would it be harder for them to break through in the business – absolutely.
One of my fellow writers countered that the man filing the lawsuit should go on Star Search if he was unhappy with not being allowed to apply for American Idol. Star Search, in its heyday, was called “America’s Greatest Talent Competition” and crowned “grand champions” in categories ranging from male and female vocalist to dance to acting to spokesmodel. But did the show’s winners go on to attain great recognition?
Of those who attained “grand champion status” during the show’s extensive run, only four grand champions (three from the first season) attained any major recognition – Brad Garrett, the first comedy champion, won an Emmy for Everybody Loves Raymond; Sawyer Brown, the first band champion, has sold numerous gold and platinum albums; spokesmodel champion Tracy Ross now appears on the soap opera Passions; and third season comedy challenger Jenny Jones hosts her own talk show. Oddly enough those who have lost on the show had gone on to great prominence – Rosie O’Donnell was a comedy semi-finalist in the second season along with eventual runner-up Sinbad; teen pop sensation Tiffany was a failed junior vocalist; several acting contestants have found themselves performing on the afternoon dramas.
Of the actual vocalists who have won grand championships, several have gone on to record forgettable albums and a few have gone on to appear on Broadway. However, none of them have attained the recognition and prominence that Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini, and the gang received in one season of American Idol.
But is this age discrimination? Well, it all depends on what the federal courts call the prize – is it a job with Simon Cowell’s label to record an album and with Simon Fuller’s company to promote the show? If so, the answer is yes. It is job discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifty years old or twenty-six (only two years past their maximum age limit) – it could be considered discrimination.
The argument was made that the winner is an independent contractor. I asked around to a few friends in Human Resources and got their opinion. Of the five people asked, three said that they believed age discrimination laws applied to the hiring of independent contractors as well as “normal” employees while the other two were uncertain and stated that they would err on the side of caution and say yes as well.
The bottom line, in my opinion at least, is as follows – no one expects a fifty-year-old to win a contest like American Idol. But at least they should be given the chance to try. No one expected Kurt Warner to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory when he was bagging groceries a few years earlier. Everyone is entitled to a chance and to a dream. There are so many talented people out there that deserve that one chance. Let the chips fall where they may but until they open their mouth to sing why shut them out?
Let's face it: American Idol is not about finding the most unique, original, dynamic singer in America. It's about finding a safe, nonthreateningly appealing young guy or girl with some degree of talent and charisma that can be molded into a "teen idol" to sing bland processed pop pablum. Image is far more key than talent. It's a lot like that episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg became Johnny Bravo because he "fit the suit." In essence, it's more of a casting call for the part of "teen idol" than anything else.
As an actor myself, casting calls tend to be quite specific. A typical casting notice I might respond to would read something like "Blah Blah Productions is seeking caucasian male, mid-twenties, for the role of 'Colin' in their upcoming production of Bleah Bleah." This means they're only interested in caucasian males who look like they're in their mid-twenties. (Of course, there's plenty of parts that are open to "all ethnicities," but I'm just trying to show how specific they can be.) I read this, think I sound like I could fit the part, and show up at the audition. I'm not going to bother to show up at a casting call for "African-American male, fifties," or "girls, 6-10," because no matter how much talent I may have, no one is ever going to buy me in those parts! Or, to look at it another way, just because I can do a decent version of "Another Suitcase In Another Hall" at a piano bar (which is true, actually) doesn't mean I'd ever be cast as "The Mistress" in Evita.
American Idol isn't being anywhere near that specific; all that matters is that you're 16 to 24. While most casting calls are more geared toward how old someone appears rather than chronological age (I'd be turned away from most 30-year-old parts because I still look 23-26), in this case the age requirements are ironclad. The way I see it, it's largely to avoid headaches: they only have about 5000 audition spots open in each city. I say "only," but this is still a huge group of people to deal with, and this ensures that everyone taking up one of those spots meets the preliminary requirements so the production assistants aren't forced to waste time being qualification policemen right off the bat and can concentrate on making the process run smoothly. I also think, to some degree, it's because people in that age range would probably be more malleable and less likely to challenge the producers on creative direction. (For a similar reason, I think The Real World imposes an 18-24 age limit because to be honest, they seem to be seeking immature people whose worldview isn't fully formed and who will make asses of themselves on national television in the process; if you went with more mature, grounded people, where's the drama and conflict?) Furthermore, as an insightful friend pointed out to me when we were discussing this issue, the primary target audience demographic is likely around 16-24 as well, and having people be in that age group ensures the show has a relatable, "that could be me" quality for them.
The show also proved last season they're quite serious about enforcing the age restriction when Delano got tossed when it was revealed he was really 29. He still looked 16-24, but if the show had allowed him to continue, they wouldn't have been able to enforce the age restriction against anyone else in the future.
The cold hard fact is, no matter how talented they may be, a fifty-year-old just does NOT fit the part of a "teen idol." In fact, I'll take it further: in pop and rock music in general, if you haven't achieved at least some degree of national success and recognition by 35 (and I'm being extremely generous here), you can pretty much forget it. This may sound harsh, but it's true. It's also nothing new; it's been that way at least since the dawn of the rock era in the fifties. It's true that people like David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Cher, Sting, and Elton John are still selling plenty of albums and concert tickets well into their forties, fifties, and even sixties, but they all first became successful when they were right around the American Idol age bracket, and most of their fan bases are people who have remained devoted to their careers ever since.
Therefore, not only do I find Drew Cummings' lawsuit ludicrous, but I'm wondering what he's even thinking. Has he even seen the show? Has he seen how they treat the "bad" auditioners? Why would he want to go on something where not only is he going to be eliminated right off the bat, but he's going to be portrayed as a novelty or human punchline in the process? And even if by some miracle he did win, is it really his goal to sing formulaic melodramatic dreck like "A Moment Like This"? I mean, I love Kelly Clarkson and think she's amazingly talented, but when I heard the crap they were going to force the "winner" to sing, I seriously considered throwing my votes to Justin – and I'd be willing to bet that more people bought the CD single in support of Kelly than because they actually liked the songs. (I'm just hoping that when she's free of this contract she'll pull an Alanis Morissette or Pink and release better material that really speaks to her.)
The only logical conclusion I can draw: he's just seeking attention and possible money from a settlement. And I refuse to support negative attention seeking, especially from someone whom one would think is educated and, yes, old enough to know better.
Furthermore, I don't think he has a legal leg to stand on. This isn't a case of him applying for a job at a company that's bound by equal opportunity employment laws. As I said, this is more of a casting call. Kelly Clarkson may have won a contract with the producers, but that doesn't make her an employee of their company. At best, she'd be considered an independent contractor, and even that may be stretching it. To carry this to a ridiculous extreme, if he wins this lawsuit, a 75-year-old guy could conceivably sue for not being allowed to try out for the title role of Annie.
Please don't misunderstand me: I'm certainly not saying that you have to be 16-24 to be interesting or talented. One of my all-time favorite singers is Deborah Harry of Blondie, who turns 58 in July. In fact, most of my favorite musicians wouldn't fall into that age bracket – off the top of my head, the only ones I can think of are the Donnas. But if American Idol wants to find the next "teen idol," then I think that's their right, just like it's your right not to watch if that's not what appeals to you. But to throw, in essence, a glorified temper tantrum because you're past the age limit? There's so many more productive ways one can use one's time.
Does age have anything to do with the “IT” factor? Ozzy is over 50, Jagger is over 50. Bowie, Elton John, etc. Age has nothing to do with coolness. Now I know that those guys started out young, but they remain cool. I think AI should say OK, fine, whoever wants to apply can apply, obviously a 50-year-old might not have the "IT" factor, so they don't even make the first round, but if the prize is an employment contract and actual employment, then legally they must let everyone apply.
Everyone should be able to apply, regardless of their age. If American Idol started banning homosexuals, African-Americans, and women people would understandably be upset. So someone who is told, “We won't even listen to you because you’re over xx age,” has the right to be upset.
Legally, the question is: Is Kelly Clarkson employed by Simon's record company? If she compensated with money for time and effort put forth, if the answer is YES, then she is an employee and she is protected by the age discrimination rules. If she is an employee then everyone trying out for the job is a potential employee and falls under the same laws. But if she is just a prize winner, then the law may not apply here.
So the bottom line on this is this: Does the winner of American Idol get employment with an American company over 20 employees? If yes, then they will probably be found guilty of age discrimination. Would it be so bad if American Idol opened the contest up to whoever wanted to try out?
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