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Distorted 'American Idol' voting due to an overtaxed American phone grid?


By Wade Paulsen, 05/18/2004 

After the shocking ousters of favored contestants LaToya London and Jennifer Hudson, leaving three less-talented teenagers in pursuit of victory in Fox's American Idol 3, a review of Idol's voting system was probably to be expected. What wasn't expected was the degree of chaos and error present in the system as currently constituted -- and the fact that the Idol producers have been aware of the problems for a long time but seem instead to have embraced the windfall that the chaos creates for one of Idol's sponsors.

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The major controversy in the ouster of LaToya revolved around the fact that Jasmine Trias, the 17-year-old Hawaiian who gave two dismal performances during the show's "Disco Night," wasn't even in the bottom two. On Thursday of last week, Verizon (the legacy phone carrier cobbled together from the merger of the former NYNEX, Bell Atlantic and GTE networks) reported that Hawaii, with its 1.2 million residents, cast more Idol votes, 1.3 million, than any other state within Verizon's coverage area except for California and New York -- two states that dwarf Hawaii's population. By contrast, New Jersey, with a population of 8.6 million (over seven times Hawaii's size), cast only 1.2 million votes.

The first reactions to Verizon's information were discussions about Hawaiian pride in Jasmine (as in this E! Online article), which seems to be the result that Verizon, which is planning to sell its Hawaiian grid, intended. On second look, however, these numbers reveal a deep problem that runs to the roots of Idol -- the ability of a small number of "power voters" to distort the weekly results, making the show less appealing to the majority of viewers.

Verizon also reported that Hawaiians tried to cast 5 million votes, meaning that 3.8 million calls (presumably overwhelmingly for Jasmine) failed to get through -- or, looking at it from the other side, only 24% of the calls placed by potential Hawaiian voters resulted in votes being cast. The high volume of calls placed (over 4 per resident -- and we doubt that everybody in Hawaii is voting) and the high number of incomplete calls raises questions about WHY Idol has opted for such a voting system.

Broadcasting & Cable Magazine reports that phone industry sources say that the chaos resulting from the number of phone calls placed to Idol is simply inevitable in an overtaxed voice system. Who benefits? The cellular phone company that provides Idol's text messaging services: AT&T Wireless.

As we previously reported, the Idol 2 finale vote between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard produced 230 million calls -- of which only 21.5 million, or 9.3%, got through. However, in text messaging calls, for which AT&T Wireless charges 10 cents a pop, 2.5 million got through -- representing every call that was placed.

Of course, text messaging takes up much less bandwidth than voice telephony. Nevertheless, because Fox has not taken any public action to discourage "power dialers," it has permitted the creation of a logjam in the voice phone system, seemingly in hopes of pushing voters to text phones.

A year ago, Idol producers acknowledged that about 100 "phreaks" using autodialer systems were attempting to cast thousands of votes for their favorite candidates. Although the producers claimed that they reserved the right to remove all the votes cast by anyone who tried to cast significantly more than 500 voted (a claim that producer Ken Warwick recently repeated to MTV), the fact remains that "power dialers" can tie up the voice network and make sure that everyone else trying to call gets busy signals -- and even humans trying to place 500-600 votes in two hours are expressing a degree of fanatacism that makes the votes of most show viewers irrelevant to the outcome.

In addition, Broadcast & Cable reports that a well-known tech expert "laughed" when he heard Idol producers say that there were only 100 or so "phreaks" attempting to influence the voting. Instead, he claimed that there were "thousands upon thousands of moderately tech-savvy fans who really get emotionally compelled to do something about who they want to win. It could be anybody with a computer, a modem, and a phone line." So much for simple fixes.

So why does Idol permit such a blatant distortion in the vote totals? Why not use the Internet, as CBS did with its recent Survivor $1 million prize? Warwick defends not using the Web by telling MTV that "people generally have to leave their television sets to vote on the Internet, [and since that means they're] not watching the rest of the contestants, therefore, it's not fair" -- ignoring the obvious facts that (1) at least for East Coast and Central viewers, who see the show live, the poll can be timed to not appear on the Web until after Idol ends, and (2) the "millions of voters" that he claims try to cast phone votes during the show's live airing aren't watching it either. We presume that this statement shouldn't be taken as a reflection of Warwick's intelligence, just as an indication of his lack of skill at prevarication.

A simple alternative would be to limit the number of votes cast per person -- but that would make AT&T's text messaging franchise fairly worthless. Indeed, we wonder if the consequence of an article like this one isn't just to encourage the people who really, really care about the outcome to turn to text messaging, increasing AT&T's windfall. However, the consequence of this problem for Fox may be that people who care but don't really, really care decide to turn the show off instead.

Maybe now we know why NBC has decided to directly target American Idol 4 with its upcoming series The Contender.


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