September 06, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

American Idol

TV Show
Reality TV
Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, Ryan Seacrest
Current Status
In Season

Talk about quick change: a week before Fox — and more than 15 million viewers — crowns the inaugural American Idol, RCA bumped up the release date for the winner’s single to Sept. 17, one week earlier than previously planned. And that’s not the only Idol gossip making the rounds.

On the heels of fan favorite Tamyra Gray’s Aug. 21 ouster, befuddled Idol watchers deluged Internet message boards, declaring that her surprise exit — which came just two weeks after fellow African American Christina Christian’s untimely farewell — was anything but a color-blind conclusion. ”I truly believe everything has been voted based upon the performances, and not the performers,” counters the show’s coexec producer Nigel Lythgoe. ”Tamyra was certainly, um, my favorite. But she was losing her voice, and she was tired.” He thinks the culprit may have been her strained performance of the 1985 Patti LaBelle screecher ”New Attitude.” At press time, EW was unable to reach Gray for comment. (In fairness, there was still some diversity among the final three: Heartthrob Justin Guarini’s father is black and his mother is Italian-American.)

Conspiracy theorists are also blaming surprise ousters on so-called ”power dialers,” who, Idol insiders revealed, are using speedy Internet connections and autodialing software to slam the show’s phone system with thousands of votes. Could they be responsible for Nikki McKibbin’s unlikely appearance in the final three? ”Not at all,” insists Michael Eaton, VP of FremantleMedia, Idol’s production firm. ”They’re statistically insignificant. They tend to vote for all of the contestants and they cancel each other out.” Adds Lythgoe: ”[Nikki] found her niche. As much as I hate to say it, it was fair.” But Eaton says the show is monitoring the power dialers’ actions (which aren’t illegal) in case they sway the final decision; if the problem persists, he says Idol could adopt vote-limiting software in its second season. Sounds tamper-proof…as long as it doesn’t involve any hanging chads.

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