For many, her blog makes 'Idol' complete
BROOKLINE - Panic on a rainy Tuesday night: The "American Idol" performance show is about to begin, and MJ Santilli's website is crashing. Too many people are visiting mjsbigblog.com, trying to learn which songs the "Idol" contestants will sing on live TV a few minutes from now. She's set to blog the show as it airs, she can't get onto her site, and she knows that her fans - as many as 60,000 of them - are waiting.
"American Idol" - TV's top-rated show, which airs its final five-performance show tonight at 8 on Fox - has made fortunes, careers, and household names out of people like singer David Cook and judge Simon Cowell. But it also has created small-order impresarios like Santilli, 51, who manages her corner of the "Idol" universe out of her small and sparsely decorated Brookline apartment strewn with wires, modems, routers, and CDs.
Blogging "Idol" hasn't made Santilli rich, but it has certainly made her someone, with growing recognition among the most rabid "Idol" fans; one blogger last year declared hers "the #1 American Idol fansite."
For the past year or so, after leaving her job as a computer engineer, Santilli has been tending the website full-time with the intensity of an entrepreneur, providing show recaps, streaming video, news updates, and spoilers of every variety, working until the wee hours on the nights when the show airs. (Last Tuesday, she got her website running swiftly.)
With the recession's toll on online ad revenue, and no other source of income, she realizes she'll soon have to get another job. Meanwhile, "Idol" consumes increasing amounts of her life. She now writes regularly about the show for the New York Post and does a weekly post-"Idol" streaming audio chat with an MTV personality. She has become known for breaking news about the show, from big surprises - she beat the mainstream media this year when she reported that the show would have a top 36 instead of a top 24 - to the tiniest details, such as who will sing first or last.
"The performance order is very important to people," Santilli said as she sat barefoot at a cluttered kitchen table a few feet from her 27-inch TV. The last singing slot of the night, she said, usually translates into high vote totals. And viewers want to know who gets that slot ahead of time.
Spoilers, one of the mainstays of Internet-based fandom, are a way for viewers to gain some imagined control over a tight-lipped and mysterious television empire, said Henry Jenkins, an MIT professor and scholar of fan culture. And since "Idol" feeds on tantalizing people with information - find out who's leaving after the break! - the urge to beat the network can be visceral.
"That's a strong part of the appeal," Jenkins said. "Here's some place I can go, I can look at the information that I want [that host] Ryan Seacrest doesn't get to feed me."
Santilli has proved herself a spoiler of the first order, and she has sources; she broke the top 36 news this season by posting an internal Fox memo. She also relies on friends and relatives of the "Idol" singers and people who attend dress rehearsals. And she has steadily built a reputation.
"We all link to MJ," said Rickey Yaneza, who runs the effervescent "Idol" fan-blog Rickey.org and hosts Santilli's post-show streaming chat. He, too, has made a quasi-career out of "American Idol" fandom; his blog, known for posting videos and mp3s of "Idol" music, draws 150,000 visitors a day and enough ad revenue that he was able to quit his computer-tech job.
If Yaneza's role is to feed fan emotion, Santilli deals in cold, hard information. "I watch it like a horse race, the way some people watch political coverage," she said of "Idol," and watching with her is a little like sitting in Fenway Park with a baseball scout.
"Wow, they are so trying to ditch her," she said last week, after hearing the tenor of the judges' comments to singer Lil Rounds - who was indeed voted out the next day.
Santilli started her website in November 2005, before the show's fifth season. For an "Idol"-themed page - "I love this cheesy show" was her tagline - she started hunting down the names of contestants who made it through the lengthy cattle-call auditions that precede the live-TV contest. She broke the names of the top 24 contestants before they were announced on the air. Eventually, sources started to send song spoilers, which she'd post religiously, cementing her reputation.
Santilli says she has heard only once from the network's lawyers, when she posted behind-the-scenes gossip about a season six contestant the producers seemed to favor. The lawyers, she said, wanted to know her source. She ignored their calls and "cooled it a little bit," and everything blew over.
But she maintains that she didn't even know who the source was. "I guess I kind of had a hunch and went with it," she said. "This isn't journalism at all . . . That is the last thing that it is."
Fox, notoriously coy about "Idol" backstage machinations, declined to make an executive available for this story. But there have been signs that the network has tried to quelch some renegade fans. Yaneza says at one point the name of his site was redacted from official "Idol" message boards, even though the show's official site draws millions more readers.
Networks have long struggled with how much control to cede to consumers - whether through DVRs, offering streaming video, or parceling out information to homegrown blogs - said Brian Reich, the co-author of "Media Rules!", a book about using technology to reach audiences. But they've come to realize that Internet chatter helps them in the end.
They're "going to go through the motions and say, 'We don't believe in this kind of thing, grumble grumble grumble,' " Reich said. "But in reality they're going, 'Ha ha, this woman's driving a lot of attention in our direction.' "