American Idle: Waiting For A Seat At The Famed Singing Competition

Despite falling ratings, hordes still turn out for a chance to sit in the show’s audience. A day with the superfans.

Fox, Frank Micelotta / AP

The corner of Beverly Boulevard and Genesee Avenue in Hollywood makes your average strip mall seem like Times Square. Next to the bead store is Orthopedic Shoes by Roberto (he also does repairs). Then there’s the gas station, where a gallon of regular unleaded will run you $4.17. And if that isn’t enough excitement, there’s the Rodeway Inn, a lovely discount motel that provides customers complimentary coffee every morning and free local calls.

But across the street from all this revelry, hundreds gather on a Wednesday morning in mid-March. They’ll voluntarily stand out there for hours. And a new group will do it on Thursday. Still more will line up on each Wednesday and Thursday for the next two months. For what, you ask? These folks seek the chance — just a chance — to be on American Idol…as an audience member. I am among them.

As a bit of background, American Idol films at a sound stage at CBS Television City. It’s home to such programs as The Price Is Right, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and whatever soap operas the Tiffany Network hasn’t canceled yet. The audience for American Idol is typically filled with sponsors, VIPs, friends, and family of the contestants, winners of radio giveaways, and the like. But they don’t always use all the seats. Knowing this, hundreds of people line up for hours hoping to get a Golden Leftover Ticket.

Getting a seat as an audience member for American Idol is a multi-stage process. The first step is to log onto AmericanIdol.com and click “Join the Waitlist.” Then, depending on availability, you’ll receive an email notification with a voucher that allows you to wait in line for extra seating. This process can take weeks or even months. After that, you’ll need to stand in line and hope you’ve gotten there early enough to make the cut. Keep in mind, the whole process is a marathon, not a sprint.

This might sound like the chance of a lifetime. It might also sound more boring than reading the U.S. tax code. But here’s what the experience was like on March 20, 2013.

11:58 a.m.
Armed with a lounge chair, sunscreen, and a notepad, I take my spot in line. I’m not the first one here. Not by a long shot. More than 40 other people had the same idea; they were just willing to get out of bed earlier than I was. The whole scene is a bit reminiscent of the times I used to wait out for concert tickets back in the late 1980s. The only difference this time is there’s no haze of smoke that reeks of barbecue and pot (not necessarily in that order). This is a much more well-mannered crowd too. They simply have bottles of water, carryout from the Chipotle a couple blocks away, and a dedication to the most popular singing competition on TV.

12:13 p.m.
A micro-economy has sprouted up along Beverly Blvd. Recognizing that not everyone in line is willing to endure the pain of sitting on the sidewalk or standing for hours, an enterprising young man who looks like an X Games refugee begins renting canvas lounge chairs at $5 a piece. He is also sells water for $1 a bottle. No activity yet, but the day is young.

12:23 p.m.
Tony Hawk’s distant cousin appears to understand the concept of a captive audience. He quickly finds seven customers to rent his chairs. Certainly more will follow. Any chance he reports this on his taxes? Or even has a vendor’s license?

12:42 p.m.
Let the handicapping begin. With only nine contestants remaining, the “Side Walkers” (a name I’ve coined for people of my ilk) start identifying their favorites. The prevailing wisdom among the devotees is this season a woman will break the five-year run the guys have on the title. This matches up pretty well with what Vegas oddsmakers say. According to Johnny Avello at the Wynn, Angie Miller is the favorite at 7:2, Kree Harrison comes in at 4:1, and Candace Glover is at 6:1.

12:58 p.m.
I check the American Idol app that I smartly downloaded to my cell phone in preparation for this day. I’m comforted to learn it’s only 4 hours, 2 minutes and 15, 14, 13 seconds remaining until the show hits the air. I then spend a few moments perusing the app for other useful features (I find none), because it’s going to be a long day.

1:15 p.m.
Boredom is settling in. How else can one explain the need to discuss Ryan Seacrest’s recent breakup with his longtime girlfriend Julianne Hough? Debbie and Lynne, twin sisters from Orange County in line next to me, find the celebrity split a “shocker.” That said, they’re happy the relationship is now kaput as they think Hough, who is 14 years younger than Seacrest, should sow her wild oats before settling down. Or at least that’s what I think they said, as I zoned out midway through the conversation. The only thing less interesting than standing in a line that doesn’t move is talking about Ryan Seacrest’s love life while you don’t move.

1:24 p.m.
A CBS security staffer walks by with what is likely a bomb-sniffing or drug-sniffing dog. I have neither bombs nor drugs, nor do any of the assembled masses that now totals at least 200.

1:27 p.m.
An older woman with a fanny pack stops to ask me what this line of people is waiting for. I politely respond American Idol. I wish I’d said Saturday Night Live.

1:34 p.m.
An Idol crew member walks intently past the crowd. Strangely, she’s looking straight at the ground. While at first no one can make sense of her actions, soon her intentions become apparent. It’s “shoe inspection” time. Open-toed shoes are strictly verboten among audience members for a reason that is still unclear and illogical. Two women are quickly booted (no pun intended) from the line for bad footwear.

1:41 p.m.
I realize I should have brought a lunch.

1:55 p.m.
A low murmur begins to overtake the line. Some action is happening at the front and it appears to be heading in my direction. A show staffer is giving everyone a number that corresponds to their place in line. I am number 44.

1:58 p.m.
We are told that, for many of us, phase one of our wait is nearly complete. This will be followed by, not surprisingly, phase two. This is when we will be escorted into the CBS parking lot, where we will stand for another couple of hours. Audience wranglers lead a line of the first 43 people onto the lot. I am left standing inches from where I want to be.

At the same time, an additional line of latecomers who apparently have some vague connection to the show forms next to the main line. These people have priority over us, thus rendering my early arrival all but meaningless. It’s looking shaky as to whether I’ll make the cut.

2:14 p.m.
Micro-economy update: The chair renter found 19 customers for seating and sold 11 bottles of water. Total take for two hours of work: $106. He begins to pack up and call it a day.

2:39 p.m.
I begin to think of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

2:55 p.m.
I’m starting to wonder whether this wait will be all for naught as the only people who have been let in during the past hour are from this sub-VIP crowd. I fear I will be left with nothing to show for my outing other than a nice base tan. It could be worse, however. Three women behind me flew out from Denver on the off chance they’d get seats. If they don’t, it’s an awfully expensive trip to stare at gas station for a few hours.

3:15 p.m.
A breakthrough! I, along with the women from Denver and about 30 others, am let into the holding area. We’ve been given tickets that…wait… They don’t guarantee admission?! Well, at least we didn’t get sent home.

3:29 p.m.
The mood regarding our prospects of entry has switched from mild concern to one of relative optimism. No one has been sent home yet, this despite the warning on the ticket. So it’s looking like we’re as good as in. The staffers have instructed us as to the location of the American Idol kiosk, where we can purchase AI-branded coffee cups, hats, and T-shirts. Awesome.

3:52 p.m.
As the prospect of impending entry (and air-conditioning) consumes the crowd, fans begin to discuss their thoughts on the overhauled panel of judges. Debbie and Lynne seem generally pleased that Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj have joined longtime Idol cast member Randy Jackson. That said, they have little love for the high-priced Mariah Carey. Debbie explains, “She’s kind of boring…and her boobs are everywhere.”

4:00 p.m.
SUCCESS! After our four hours of waiting, shoe inspection, drug-sniffing dogs, discussions of Ryan Seacrest’s love life, and staring blankly into traffic, a CBS page wearing an unfortunate red blazer announces that we’ve been let into television’s holy land. It is here we will take our seats and await the final nine contestants as they perform karaoke to some of The Beatles’ greatest hits. Only three more hours until we can leave.

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