VoteForTheWorst.com has American Idol's number

With a little help from Howard Stern, the Web site backs singers of whom the hit show's judges are not terribly fond.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
3 min read
It started as a joke on a reality television message board.

Now VoteForTheWorst.com draws upward of 6 million hits a day, gets plugs from shock jock Howard Stern and inspires legal threats from preteen American Idol fans who can't even spell the word "lawsuit."

Dave Della Terza started the site in 2004 to encourage the public to vote for contestants whom producers would hate to see win the popular Fox talent show. This year, thanks in part to a 17-year-old singer with a small voice and big hair, Internet rankings have placed VFTW as the second most popular American Idol Web site next to the official Web page.

"Part of it is Sanjaya, part of it is Howard Stern," the 24-year-old Della Terza told CNET News.com. "He has really embraced it and talks about it all the time."

Sanjaya Malakar, for anyone who has managed to avoid the relentless hype of America's most watched television show, is that ponyhawk-wearing Seattle-area teenager with the sweet smile who manages--possibly due to the efforts of VFTW--to advance week after week despite the wide perception that he's among the more talent-challenged of the remaining nine contestants. He's also VFTW's current pick.

Dave Della Terza poses with
former AI contestant Brenna Gethers.

"No one is as good as him right now," said Della Terza, who teaches media theory at a community college near Chicago when he's not running VFTW. "Good" that is, in a "Vote for the Worst" kind of way. Which means, he's willing to get up in front of millions and shake his unpredictably coiffed tresses in the face of the judges' consistently less-than-stellar feedback.

"Sanjaya is not a bad singer," stressed Della Terza. "It's the fact that he's so corny, over the top, silly, awkward...He's embracing his 'Vote-for-the-Worst-ness.' He understood that this is a cheesy karaoke talent show"--and one that some believe rejects true talent in favor of contestants who make for good TV.

Some of the more serious Idol devotees, of course, would clearly bristle at that assessment.

Among the many hostile e-mails Della Terza receives are letters threatening him with physical harm and, in essence, accusing him of messing with America's democracy.

"I hate youall![sic]" a site visitor named James wrote in this message published in its original unedited form. "I will personly call or write the presedent Gerorge w. bush about your site if you dont take it down right away. I also have a relitive who is a lawyer who i will call and tell him to sue you, as what you are doing is unamerican and illegal.... you are makin a joke of the show and the voting by americans."

"The hate mail is probably my favorite part of the entire site," Della Terza said, noting the preponderance of humorous misspellings in the average angry missive. But "we get a lot of appreciative mail, too. In recent weeks, we've been getting a lot more mail with people saying they love the site."

Idol honchos, not surprisingly, do not fall into that latter category. In a curious metaphor, producer Nigel Lythgoe has likened the site to "a fly buzzing around a cow" and Della Terza has received letters from the Idol juggernaut demanding the removal of all copyrighted material (Della Terza said he complied) and saying he'd be hearing from the show's lawyers.

"It's crazy," he said. "If American Idol had been around in the 1990s, this never could have happened. There are so many different things you can do on (the Internet) that were never possible before."

When Della Terza first posted the "wouldn't it be funny if?" message board comment that led to the birth of VFTW, he didn't even know HTML. Now, with the help of a "Web guy," he spends hours a day updating the site from his home. The site, which costs about $700 a month to run, Della Terza said, is adding an additional server, and regularly piles on bandwidth.

"It's a lot of work," Della Terza said. "I say it's like another full-time job for me. It's seven days a week...but it's fun, for now."