As Ryan Seachrest anointed Taylor Hicks the new American Idol, I stood outside the Kodak Theater and braced for impact. I wasn’t alone. All around me, itchy lenslingers caressed their own ‘Record’ buttons, as visions of the previous evening’s melee ran through our collective consciousness. It was enough to give us all tunnel vision, a convenient enough condition when you’re trying to ignore a packed menagerie of drooling Idol fans, testy publicists and hysterical tourists. Shannon Smith didn’t have any trouble focusing. From across the courtyard I could see her standing in front of the live shot camera, calmly surveying the crowd as she prepared to lead off the ten o clock news back home. That live shot would be easy, a quick and narrated chunk of video, featuring the mostly famous faces we encountered earlier on the red carpet. No, the real challenge would come forty five minutes later, when our second live shot would demand the presence of a certain bald dude, a lanky good ole boy and a southern fried prom queen. I was weighing the real world possibilities of that on-camera coup when the crush of fans at my back went absolutely batshit.
One look up told why. Still dressed in their formal attire, the top ten America Idol finalists (minus Taylor and Katharine) poured out of the theater in a single file phalanx of newly appointed fame. Like gunfighters ready to draw, each of the hundred plus camera crews rotated around them. The rest, quite honestly, is a little fuzzy. Unable to hear over the roar of the crowd, I wormed my way around zoom lenses and hangers-on to grab the attention of the three North Carolina finalists, acutely aware the next few minutes would determine the success or failure of our whole trip, heck - our whole breathless season of Idol coverage. By the time I wiggled a position next to Rockingham’s favorite son, Shannon Smith was by my side.
“Bucky, we NEED you for a live shot at 10:45!” Shannon shouted over the din of excited civilians. Bucky nodded absentmindedly as he signed countless autographs, then looked up in befuddlement. “10:45?” he asked. Shannon thought about it for a split second, realized her mistake and half yelled over the crowd. “7:45! It’s for the 10:45 hit back home!” Realization washed over Bucky’s face, followed by the goofy grin Shannon and I have both grown to adore. As a group of frantic housewives screamed his name, he turned back to scribble his name on caps, posters and the occasional 8 by 10 glossy. Shannon and I retreated, knowing our righteous redneck friend would be there. Chris wouldn’t be so easy.
It’s not that he didn’t want to play ball. But with Taylor Hicks still inside, Chris was the biggest fish in a pond densely stocked with frenzied predators. Grinning reporters pulled him into their own live shots, young girls bounced uncontrollably as they thrust pictures and autograph books from behind the barricade and at least one old lady genuflected in his presence. Even the beefy bodyguard tasked with shadowing Chris seemed a little frazzled. He may not be the next American Idol, but the little bald dude who used to write up service orders at Crown Honda sparked the largest fervor outside the Kodak that evening. I was mulling over that improbable fact, when a handler grabbed Chris and pulled him to the farthest reaches of the courtyard. Realizing I was out of range, I settled for a twirling Kellie Pickler to my left, herself the object of incomprehensible adoration. Never one to question a good photo op, I horned in on someone else’s interview.
The next thirty minutes unfurled quickly. Caught up in the frenzy of lenses, I shot video of the manufactured madness while Shannon worked the edges of the crowd. When I saw her whispering into Chris’ ear across the way, I knew we’d done all we could do. Kellie proved even less accessible; a clutch of cameramen and fawning entertainment reporters had her in their clutches, guffawing on cue at her continued disdain for upscale seafood. About that time the crowd’s screams pitched even higher, as Mr. Soul Patrol himself entered the fray under heavy escort. Bedlam ensued, but it wasn’t of my concern. Taylor Hicks’ image was being splayed over the heavens and living rooms below. Our viewers wanted to hear from the North Carolinian contestants who’d captured the nation’s imagination, and I was prepared to use any tactic shy of bloodshed to make that happen.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that. When the clock struck quarter of eleven East Coast time, Shannon was positioned in front of the live shot camera with Bucky at her side. As our anchors back in the High Point studios read the lead-in, Chris shimmied next to Shannon and yelled my name just as the director took our shot. ‘Bingo’, I thought as Shannon, Bucky and Chris cut up for the camera. I noticed a certain red dress to my right. Kellie Pickler stood at attention for a neighboring crew’s live shot, aw-shucking on time at the reporter’s feigned admiration. If I could coerce Miss Pickler to join us, all would be complete and Shannon and I could go home heroes. But their was less than sixty seconds to do so, as our satellite window would slam shut regardless of who did or didn’t join us. It was with this thought that I edged closer to Kellie and prepared to yank her out of that live shot and into ours. Mercifully, she moved toward us on her own, joining Shannon and Bucky just as Chris’ publicist pulled him out of our frame and into another region’s living room.
As Kellie and Bucky laughed and joked with Shannon, I stood just off screen and for the first time in many days, breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a long nine months since Shannon and I began the 2006 Idol season with an unceremonious interview with then-unknown Chris Daughtry. Since then we’d jetted to Hollywood for three frenzied junkets, conducted countless interviews back home and spent endless hours in the edit suite whittling away at the resulting footage. Now, with the winner named and Kellie, Chris and Bucky giving him on-camera props, this most inherently weird season of freeze-fried adulation was almost completely behind us. ‘Maybe now I can blog about something else,’ I thought as Shannon began to wrap up the live shot. ‘Just as soon as I finish filling in my own fractured audience on the madness that was’.
And believe it or not, I'm not quite done yet...