From roughly the ages of 17 to 20, I was an active participant in an online forum called Vote for the Worst. This website was dedicated to weekly communal viewings of American Idol that, as its name might suggest, culminated with the forum-goers casting as many votes as possible for the contestant collectively decided to be the worst on the show at that time.
These practices were incited largely by what the forum audience perceived to be American Idol’s blatant interest in promoting certain contestants over others, promotion that was (and still is) often divorced from legitimate concerns of merit. The supposed participatory crux of the show – a promise that each season’s American Idol is appointed through a publicly considered process of democracy-by-telephone – is often manipulated in ways that might guide the viewing public toward an outcome that might best suit the network’s commercial needs. For instance, the show is notorious for using uncharacteristically close-up filled camera work and dramatic lighting to glorify the final performer of the night, who was often slotted in this position to send the viewer out of the program with a residual notion of said performer’s perceived value or popularity. This was referred to on VFTW as “being put in the pimp spot.”
The site went down in 2013, so nowadays it's hard to speak to a more specific mission statement, but deliberate abuse of a system meant to encourage spectator participation raises some interesting questions when put into dialogue with Stuart Hall's encoding-decoding model of audience reception. On one hand, these practices could be said to arise from a negotiated reading of the televisual text, because the viewer/VFTW poster "inflects his interpretation on the basis of a particular social experience."(1) It is hard to imagine someone watching the show on their own and making the decision to deliberately vote for the worst performer in confidence that their efforts will change the outcome of the show; an element of community, however, encourages viewers to channel their feelings of futility toward an action that engenders a unique and unsanctioned appreciation of an otherwise frustrating program. In this way, the act of calling in and throwing a vote to someone talentless is its own performance, gleefully divulged to a message board full of Internet strangers to broadcast and make participatory the act of spectatorship in a way not unlike Marc Andrejevic's analysis of online communities would suggest.(2) ("I voted for Sanjaya four hundred times!") On the other, unabashed efforts to subvert the system and fight against a dominant ideology of rewarding what is presented by American Idol as incontrovertible merit has an oppositional quality to it as well. Vote for the Worst sought to wrest the rewards of fame and capital (and, by association, the vicarious pleasures associated with viewers who may fantasize about claiming these rewards) from what is perceived to be a corrupt distributor and place them in the hands of a contestant who, by the rubric of the dominant ideology, is not thought to deserve them.
Pound for pound, the site was always playing a losing game, although it caught a tremendous amount of online hatred by people who felt their newly-booted favorites were robbed by VFTW's pick. Series producer Nigel Lythgoe called the site a "fly buzzing around a cow,"(3) and though there were rumblings of potential legal action from FOX, no suits ever materialized. But I know that as someone who watched American Idol unironically for several seasons, the site was a perfect place to express my gradual disenchantment with the show, a platform for me to recuperate my enjoyment of the show by thinking critically about it with other like-minded viewers.
(1) Seiter, Ellen. "Qualitative Research Data."
(2) Andrejevic, Marc. "Watching Television Without Pity."
(3) Ryan, Maureen."The Founder of Vote for the Worst Talks About Sanjaya Malakar and American Idol." The Chicago Tribune. 2007. http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/entertainment_tv/2007/04/the_founder_of_.html