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American Idol Voting May Be Skewedby Susan Schechter & David Bloomberg -- 08/18/2002
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One of the most popular features of the Fox hit show American Idol is that, like the first season of Big Brother, viewers pick who stays and who goes. After all, who is a better judge of who the next "Idol" should be besides those who would "idolize" him or her? But are viewers really picking which contestant stays or goes? Can the votes be skewed?
According to an article appearing on the Associated Press Newswire, yes. Producers of the hit show told the Associated Press that the talent contest is being slammed by "power dialers" trying to influence results by making as many as 10,000 votes a night from a single phone line.
They have acknowledged that about 100 "phone phreaks" with computer autodialing software are casting thousands of votes with the touch of a button. "They're all over the country and they tend to be slamming the system at all ends," said Michael Eaton, vice president of home entertainment for FreemantleMedia, the show's London-based producer.
So far, these calls have had a "statistically insignificant" impact on the outcome, Eaton said, but he wouldn't release any data on individual contestants and their vote totals. Hmm. Now let's see. They have not released the vote totals, we have about 100 people making 10,000 calls each. Doing a little quick math, that comes to up to one million votes. A million votes is statistically insignificant? Out of a total of 14 million or so at its highest, last week? Not according to any statistics handbook.
In fact, when Ryan was voted off, the hosts noted that Justin just squeaked by. So if the autodialers were working for Justin (which I suspect they were not), they may have changed the results. If they had been working for Ryan, they might have changed the results such that Justin would have been gone. It is the height of arrogance that we are supposed to simply accept the producers' word that these autodialers have not had any effect when they continue to avoid providing us with actual vote totals or other related information.
This doesn't even take into account the fact that an individual viewer who lacks this technology doesn't stand a chance at matching the influence of the power dialers. Redialing manually maxes out at a few hundred calls per evening, Eaton told the AP. Most of us probably do not call more than a dozen times, tops.
How can the producers of Idol fix this so someone with an autodialer cannot get through?
The show's producers could have frustrated efforts to skew the results by imposing stricter ground rules or insisting that each voter punch in a code or number during the call, said Dave Hoch, an expert on telephone systems in an interview with the AP. "There's different levels of security. This is no security. What it is, is a very dumb system which is great for generating call volumes, but does nothing for security," said Hoch.
Fox and American Idol had been promoting the calling volume as "a sign of the show's success" - indeed, the results shows on Wednesday often begin with the hosts trumpeting yet another new record in total vote count. According to the Nielsen Media Research company, vote totals have gone from 9.2 million votes on July 30 to 14.5 million this past Tuesday (August 13). The show has been in the top 10 in the ratings, according to Nielsen.
"We're actually thrilled that America is so obsessed with the show that they're willing to log in this many phone calls," said Fox spokeswoman Michelle Hooper, who insisted to the AP that the system is fair.
To make things even fairer, viewers in every U.S. time zone have a two-hour window of opportunity to vote after each Tuesday night show, which airs live on the East Coast and is tape delayed to other time zones. To prevent any overlapping calls, AT&T blocks calls from regions of the country where the show has not been seen.
Regarding the power dialing volume skewing votes towards one of the four remaining contestants, Eaton said they "may contact the people responsible and ask them to stop." He added, "We know who these people are and we're tracking them, and if it gets to a point where they're starting to support a specific person over another then there are steps that we have discussed that we may take at that time," Eaton warned. What steps would those be? They didn't say.
The vote skewing could get much worse, and fans of the remaining contestants are already unhappy. One fan of Ryan Starr told AP that power dialing is unfair. He had cast 1,000 votes in two hours of fast manual redialing. Well, he was voting for Ryan, so maybe we shouldn't consider his opinion quite so valid. But still, it makes you wonder. What are the vote totals? How close have they been? Why isn't Fox and the American Idol producers being more forthcoming about this entire situation?
This is not something that should be swept under the rug. If viewers are truly to pick the next American Idol, then it should be exactly that - viewers. And if the producers and Fox are not forthcoming, they will never be able to convince viewers that the right person actually won. Already, people are speculating that this may be the explanation for Nikki getting so far. The initial reaction by many is doubtful, but since we have absolutely no evidence to go on other than the "100 callers" and "10,000 votes" from a single phone line, simple math tells us that maybe that really is the reason.
Many viewers are already skeptical of the entire voting procedure because Christina was voted off before RJ and just happened to be in the hospital that evening. This incident is only going to make things worse. Fox, as a media outlet, should know that keeping facts hidden only makes things worse when they come out. Scandal after scandal has shown us this in the past. They should come clean now and let us know what is being done about this situation.
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