On American Idol, the so-called golden ticket is a singer's passport to the Hollywood round, and possibly beyond.
Except when it's not.
A 23-year-old Texas man seen receiving one of those yellow-hued pieces of paper on last week's San Antonio audition episode says he was disinvited from the competition days before leaving for Hollywood and Idol's next round.
Or as Akron Watson's MySpace page puts it: "A golden ticket, but no plane ticket!!!"
According to one Idol expert, Watson is one of a handful of pop-star hopefuls who get cut from the top-rated show each season, usually between the first and second rounds, for reasons the show and typically the hopeful don't talk about.
"Mostly they don't show them on the show," says Joe "Reality" Blackmon, editor in chief of the Website Reality TV Magazine. "You [just] hear the chatter of them going to alternate status."
And then they disappear.
Or, if they were never featured on the show in the early audition shows, they simply never appear at all.
Watson is an exception.
For one thing, Watson and his vocally challenged cousin, William Green, were featured prominently on last Tuesday's Idol. For another, Watson has gone public with his dismissal.
"Two days before I was scheduled to leave for Hollywood, I receive[d] a call from Idol saying I'm being cut for 'unknown reasons,' " reads a post on Watson's MySpace page and lobbying headquarters, Bring Ak Back. "I don't know about you, but that seems jacked up to me."
Watson did not respond to a phone and email request for comment.
But in a Jan. 31 interview with Pegasus News, a Dallas-based Website that first reported Watson's story, the singer said Idol producers quizzed him about his past after his initial audition success.
"We talked about everything," Watson told Pegasus News.
Everything, the publication said, included a marijuana bust.
According to criminal records posted by Pegasus News, a 23-year-old Texas man named Akron Watson was arrested in 2003 for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The man pleaded no contest to the charge, and was fined $200.
Watson can't say for sure that his record led to his dismissal. But he can't for sure that it didn't.
"If it was my background, check out these 'criminal' finalist[s]," Watson's Website says in introducing a series of links about other former Idol players with police histories.
As Idol followers know, criminal records and contestants occasionally go together. Websites like the Smoking Gun have made an industry of exposing the pasts of singers such as Bo Bice (felony cocaine possession arrest), Corey Clark (battery charges) and Trenyce (felony theft arrest).
But Idol followers also know a mug shot isn't necessarily a picture of doom. Bice and Trenyce, for instance, both stayed on the show as long as viewers would have them.
Clark wasn't as fortunate. The season-two finalist, who later became notorious for alleging an affair with judge Paula Abdul, was cut by producers after the Smoking Gun smoked out his record.
All this makes the matter of who gets bounced and who gets a pass an inexact science. And not just where Idol is concerned.
Veteran reality-TV producer Matt Kunitz (Fear Factor, Dog Eat Dog) says a show often doesn't have final say over who does and doesn't make the cut.
"It's generally not the production," Kunitz says. "It's usually the network that's going to have the problem."
The problems tend to crop up at the time of a contestant's background check.
"It really depends on the network and their standards and practices," Kunitz says.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says happened to Watson's golden ticket: Fox wanted it back.
"So, Fox got on with this, along with this private security firm, and after that I can't give you any other information, because I don't want to know," Lythgoe told reporters last week, per Zap2It.
Lythgoe didn't address the specific issue or issues that Fox had with Watson.
For some shows, Kunitz says, a drug bust, even a minor one, can be a big deal. For other shows, something as apparently minor as a batch of unpaid parking tickets can be a bigger deal.
On Fear Factor, for instance, Kunitz explains, parking-ticket scofflaws facing arrest warrants would be problem contestants, because they could end up in jail when they're supposed to be shooting.
But on The Real World, which Kunitz also produced, Puck Rainey's season-three bust on an outstanding warrant not only worked, it "made for great drama."
The one red flag that Kunitz sees as a red flag, no matter the reality series, is a felony conviction.
"I can't imagine any felon on a show, whether it's violent or not," Kunitz says.
The thing that distinguishes Idol from most other reality shows is that its selection process is played out in prime time, week after week.
"With a show like Survivor, they recruit a lot of people, and [then] they do the background checks, and if they cut somebody nobody finds out," Blackmon says.
Idol is also different in that there are records, other than criminal records, that help determine eligibility.
When a singer gets cut, Blackmon reminds, "it could be [because] they have a record contract, or signed with an agent somewhere."
Or, in the case of season-two standout Frenchie Davis, who was cut after the Hollywood auditions, it could be a matter of a past job—i.e., modeling for an adult Website—that doesn't jibe with a future job involving a breakfast-pastry-sponsored concert tour.
Fox, as a rule, doesn't comment on Idol contestants, and, sticking to its rule, wouldn't comment on Watson, either.
In a rare statement in 2003, the network announced it was extracting Clark from the competition because he didn't tell producers about his arrest prior to his casting.
Fox didn't say Clark would have been spared if he'd come clean. And it didn't say Clark would have been cut if he'd fessed up. Rather, the network said, the disclosure "might have affected" his participation.
If that's unclear enough, consider this: While Watson says he confessed to a marijuana bust, Tommy Daniels, an apparent Hollywood-bound singer featured in this season's Seattle auditions, says he confessed to arrests, plural, including a 2004 drunken-driving conviction.
The DUI was wiped from Daniels' record following the completion of a diversion program. (Bice's and Trenyce's records were similarly cleared long before they sang on Idol.) But there's no word on whether a later Daniels arrest has been resolved.
So, why did Daniels' Idol ticket apparently stay golden, while Watson's got revoked? And why did the show feature Watson getting his golden ticket in the first place if it was going to take it back in the second place?
Fox won't answer the first question. Lythgoe essentially handled the second question.
"I cannot show you 174 people's stories," Lythgoe said, per Zap2It. "As far as I'm concerned, investing in that boy at that point was what I'd like you to do."
Blackmon agrees the segment with Watson and his cousin made for great TV. And, at the end of the day, Idol is a TV show.
"Maybe," Blackmon says, "they thought that nobody would pick up on it."