On Thursday June 25, ten African-American plaintiffs, all of whom were once contestants on American Idol, filed a 429-page lawsuit alleging massive racial discrimination on the part of not only Fox, but executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, Fremantle Media, and various corporate sponsors of the long-running singing competition series. The contestants’ lawyer, James H. Freeman, is no stranger to this kind of massive lawsuit, having filed a $500 million suit against Lionsgate earlier this year. Needless to say, he’s also taking a very different approach than a similar lawsuit that was filed, and dismissed, alleging racial discrimination regarding the casting of female suitors on The Bachelor. Here’s how the Idol lawsuit breaks down:
1. It’s about Disqualifications, Not Advancement
The Bachelor lawsuit emphasized that African-American women were routinely failing to make the cut of contenders for that much-coveted rose. The problem there was that they weren’t getting on TV at all. With Idol, the problem isn’t that black artists don’t make it on-camera, it’s that they are subsequently disqualified for previous criminal records at an alarming rate. The suit claims “31% of every American Idol Semi-Finalist contestant [Top 24, Top 36-40] who happened to be a young Black male was disqualified from the competition for reasons wholly unrelated to their singing talent.” Usually, these disqualifications were because of criminal records, which the suit alleges Fox played up to “scandal-monger Nielsen ratings while reinforcing the age-old stereotype of the ‘black criminal.'” Never once has a white contestant been disqualified for a non-singing-related matter.
2. Unlike The Bachelor, Idol is a Contest
A court ruled that The Bachelor case had no merit because the selection of suitors was in essence “casting,” something that falls under the 1st Amendment right of a TV show for free expression. The Idol suit alleges that American Idol by contrast is a “contest,” and that “casting” only occurs during the initial round when producers deliberately choose to air footage of the very worst contenders, who they know already have no chance of advancing. After that initial round, it’s a contest, and Fox and Fremantle’s 1st Amendment right does not extend to the disqualification of contestants for non-singing-related matters.
3. African-American Artists Are Allegedly “Pigeon-Holed”
The suit claims that while white artists are allowed to perform whatever songs they want, black artists are steered by producers toward “genre-appropriate” songs — presumably Motown, soul, R&B.
4. American Idol Contestant Contracts Should Be Thrown Out
Contestants sign contracts that basically prevent them having any kind of legal maneuverability against Idol and usually, if not always, mandate that disputes enter arbitration rather than a court of law. Freeman’s suit claims that these are “highly oppressive, unconscionable Willy Wonka contracts,” that offer contestants a spurious Golden Ticket and should not be considered legally binding.
Think that the lawsuit has merit?