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Choosing our idols in showbiz and politics

January 5, 2007 2:47pm
Besides skill and talent, political muscle and machinery can tilt the balance in favor of an underdog vying for popular support.

This is what 26-year-old Maureen Marcelo, the nation’s first “Philippine idol," must have realized towards the tail-end of a competition that pitted her against equally talented but more financially endowed candidates.

Edging out her closest rival by only 1.42 percent and garnering 35.26 percent of thousands of votes cast through SMS, Marcelo slithered to victory after a hard-fought battle that began six months ago and culminated with an extravaganza at the Big Dome on December 11, Sunday.

For two nights, her supporters came in droves, clad in yellow T-shirts, carrying streamers and yellow balloons, some of them bused by politicians from her city of Lucena in Quezon.

Lit by klieg lights, adorned by dancers and a comedienne, and showered with confetti, the stage was set on Saturday night for what was going to be the political equivalent of a climactic miting de avance.

The supporters of the contestants came in full regalia—shirts and balloons, pom-poms in blue and silver for “the hunky idol" Jan Nieto, and orange equivalents for “livewire idol" Gian Carlo Magdangal. Marcelo’s supporters had the same paraphernalia plus yellow hankies, on top of streamers and posters.

Saturday’s performance night was a night of entertainment and campaigning. A few days before, Marcelo traveled to Quezon and heeded the advice of a supporter who told her it might be a good idea to come home and thank her followers for their help.

She went around town in a motorcade and approached local officials, seeking their support. “Kulang pa rin pala ang ginagawa nilang pagboto…may nag-text brigade para sa akin…. Nag-usap sila na kailangan mas marami pa silang mahakot na supporters ko para ma-sure na marami talaga every week," Marcelo says, recalling how alarmed her supporters were during the times she almost got eliminated.

(Their voting was insufficient…. Some resorted to text brigades…. They talked among themselves and agreed that they had to mobilize more supporters to make sure we really had the numbers every week.)

FINANCIAL SUPPORT

In a contest where singing talent must be aided by popularity (measured by text votes for a contestant) to clinch the position of “first Philippine idol," the odds can never be overestimated. Marcelo says she sought financial help to provide supporters with prepaid cards that they could use to vote for her.

She approached the governor, vice governor, and mayor of Lucena, Congressman Rafael Nantes of the first district, and even the mayor of Sariaya, Concepcion Doromal, who offered to contact the 40 or so other town mayors of the province from whom she solicited a minimum of P5,000 each.

“Pride ito ng Quezon, kailangan nating tulungan para sa grand finals, so pahinging P5,000," was the usual pitch. (She is the pride of Quezon so we should help her for the grand finals.) Others responded generously, offering double the amount being solicited.

Another well-off supporter from Quezon, a lawyer, approached Marcelo during one of the performance nights at SM Megamall to offer his help.

He had been supporting her, he told Marcelo, spending from P15,000 to as much as P40,000 a week to see her through the next competition round.

Each night, like a dutiful campaign manager, he would distribute the prepaid cards to Marcelo’s supporters who would gather in one table just to text their votes within the prescribed two-hour period.

Clearly the underdog among the Top 3, Marcelo had to diet, losing at least 11 pounds since she embarked on a South Beach diet that her lawyer-supporter also paid for.

Much later, two well-meaning supporters, Manuel Miñena and Gio Flores, also approached her. Miñena offered to fix how she looked, from hair to make-up to gown to even the way she moved on stage.

“Di na ako mukhang sofa (I no longer look like a sofa)," she says, recalling the time that she jokingly told the judges she was lucky no one mistook her outfit for furniture upholstery.

PACKAGING and MORE

Nieto couldn’t agree more that packaging is crucial to winning. He himself had to lose pounds he loaded up through the years—trimming down to an impressive 165 from his original 210. Voters look at the total package, he says, from looks to voice to performance on stage.

sHis family and close friends, however, knew that packaging was not enough. They set up a network of supporters, mobilizing Nieto’s friends and contacts from the Ateneo where he graduated from, and from Unilever where he worked for a few years.

From the looks of their turnout during the crucial last performance night and judgment night itself, Nieto’s camp was the most organized.

They strategically positioned themselves Saturday night around the stage and came out in full force, armed with their cheers and ready to do the wave on cue.

The other camps saw through the strategy and did their bit the following night, crowding out certain portions of the gallery. Like his rivals, Nieto would give the judges’ say some weight—perhaps 50-50—as against giving exclusive weight to text votes.

After all, it is a singing competition. But he concedes that this might take away the novelty of “Philippine Idol." At the very least, he says, he probably would not have changed the rules mid-stream as the organizers did.

Whereas texters were previously allowed to vote first, within one week, then within 24 hours, after the official start of the voting period, this was abruptly reduced in the middle of the competition to just two hours, depriving those who failed to catch the announcement of the opportunity to vote. Supporters felt they were no different from disenfranchised voters.

Just like in politics, the best singer or the smartest and most capable political candidate does not automatically win, says Nieto.

It boils down to popularity, packaging, or the support base. Critics of the contest say it inordinately gives an advantage to wealthy candidates or contestants who have the means to spend on prepaid cards and organization.

Some contestants were said to have supporters spending as much as P100,000 a week and beginning to set up headquarters for voting and mobilization.

Magdangal was completely uncomfortable with how the contest was evolving. He told family members who admonished him it was important to “know the beast" to win, that he would rather not know about what they were up to.

All he did was engage in his own personal campaign, urging friends via text, to vote for him. The rest, he left to his family.

Very much the sentimental idealist, he says he would rather get votes because of his singing instead of his campaigning. In the American setting, voting is more democratized because, according to Magdangal, there is vast buying power.

Thus, “no one can overbuy the votes of people." In the Philippines where economic disparities are wide, however, voting can be concentrated among the wealthy and those who can afford to “buy" them.

THE VOTER

On the night that “Philippine Idol" debuted six months ago, as many as 300,000 text votes were registered, says Percival Intalan, ABC-5’s vice president for entertainment. It’s one indication that Filipinos prefer to vote their own candidates or idols.

The Top 3 never found out, however, how many votes they received, prompting speculations that the numbers could have been manipulated.

These are dismissed by Intalan, who explains that the tabulation of the text votes was done by an independent Indian company, Mobile2Win, which, in turn, released its tallies to ABC-5’s interactive group for cross-checking.

“Voting is not controlled by production," Intalan says, adding that final tallies are received at the start of the “results show." In other words, “dagdag-bawas" or point-shaving cannot happen. Contestants, however, still wish the process were more transparent.

Disgruntled supporters of other contestants who were eliminated early on were said to have withdrawn their interest in the show, contributing to the drop in the network’s “Philippine Idol" ratings from double-digit at the start to an average of about 7 percent. This rose to over 10 percent during the grand night.

Ultimately, it becomes a matter of trust in the system. Viewers vote because they believe in the integrity of the system.

If the experience of Philippine democracy is in anyway instructive, it shows that alienated voters are difficult to win back, and continuing attempts to decipher how voters will behave can become a hit-or-miss affair. - Newsbreak