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First, Do No Harm

Any attempt to improve the AI voting system must keep the Prime Directive in mind.

Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.  Mark Twain?  Actually, that line was coined by Twain's good friend and sometimes collaborator, Charles Dudley Warner, in 1883.  Twain is often mistakenly credited with it because he happened to repeat the joke in a later lecture.  Many people apparently didn't hear the host that night, Hyman J. Seacrest, when he stood in the mosh pit in front of the podium and announced that Twain would be quoting Warner.  Even back then, there were attribution controversies.

These days, everybody complains about the American Idol voting system too, but in this case almost everyone has an idea on how to fix it.  Ever since the surprise boots of Michael Johns and Carly Smithson this season, a huge chunk of the Idolsphere has been walking around with blowtorches and sledgehammers in hand.  We don't want to discourage any of these well-meaning folks, particularly as the thought of Randy, Paula, and Simon being chased down an L.A. street by a mob of sledgehammer-wielding Idol fans is, frankly, way more entertaining to us than ten Mariah Carey Nights.

Unfortunately, most of the proposed fixes out there have zero chance of being adopted by the Idol Machine.  Some are impractical; others make no business sense, and the most commonly-heard suggestion of all would, astoundingly, only make matters worse.  As we promised in our last editorial, this week we're going to take an in-depth look at the plusses and minuses of the current system, and we'll suggest a few tweaks that might actually satisfy the conficting objectives of the producers and the show's long-suffering fans.  So, put down your sledgehammer and take a breather – we promise to make it worth your time, and besides, the judges are kind of old so they deserve a head start.

The Prime Directive

Before we get to specific ideas, let's review the lay of the land and discuss the ground rules for any changes.

Ask any American Idol fan and he'll tell you he wants a voting system that accurately reflects how well each contestant performs over the course of the competition, with strong singers advancing from week to week and weak ones eliminated.  But, that's not entirely honest.  If you injected him with truth serum, he'd probably tell you that he wants a system whereby the contestant he hates the most is sent home every week, preferably while dodging tomatoes.  And, if you pumped even more sodium pentathol into his veins, to the point where he begins to lose consciousness and his organs teeter on the verge of collapse, he'd tell you that you look beautiful tonight and that he can hear the colors in your voice.  Get him to a hospital, pronto.

The Idol producers, meanwhile, have quite a different agenda.  Yes, they'd prefer a system in which broadly popular contestants survive for as long as practical (it makes for better TV ratings), but that's not their first objective.  As Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick, the judges, former contestants, industry analysts, and the studio janitors will tell you in unison: identifying the person who can sell the most CDs and singles is Priority One.  If the words "recurring revenue" don't make your heart palpitate, you're not cut out for the entertainment industry.

Everything about the show is crafted with the Prime Directive in mind, from the heart-tugging backstories to the judges' carefully metered praise and criticism of the contestants.  For four-plus months every year, we AI viewers basically serve as the world's largest (unpaid) industry focus group.  The producers aren't trying to measure a contestant's breadth of support nearly as much as their depth of support.  The music industry is full of ups and downs and twists and turns, and so 19E wants artists whose fans are in it for the long haul.

The voting system is a reflection of this: a simple ladder-elimination format via unlimited phone calls and text messages, so that fans of a contestant can express their undying love for up to two solid hours every Tuesday.  Is it perfect?  Of course not.  Is it a strong indicator of who will sell the most records?  Not particularly, but to be honest it's not awful either, not to mention the producers get to burp AT&T Wireless for a few pennies of advertising on every call.  Plus, it offers 19E something of value beyond determining who stays and who goes.  When a popular contestant like David Archuleta delivers a strong performance like an Imagine or a Smoky Mountain Memories, the producers are happy to learn how many people he motivates to pick up their phones.  When he delivers a We Can Work It Out, they're positively thrilled to learn how many of his terrified fans come riding to his rescue via the Mighty Mouse Syndrome.  No doubt they believe that if gathering this invaluable market intelligence means that a Smithson or a Johns has to be sacrificed earlier than they (and most viewers) would prefer, so be it.

Thus, Requirement #1 comes straight from Hippocrates: first, do no harm to the producers' objectives or their obscenely lucrative bottom line.  Any serious attempt to "fix" the current voting system must take the Prime Directive into account.  It's their show and their money, after all.  Otherwise, they're just going to take their bat and ball and go back home to England, even if no one there knows what the heck a baseball is.

The Usual Suspects

Before we get to a couple of ideas that might work, let's dispatch a few that won't.

Limited Votes Per Phone Line

The Idea:  Put a limit on the number of votes that can be cast by one phone line, a la Dancing With The Stars.  This would reduce the disproportional impact on the outcome by rabid, power-dialing fan blocs.

Why It Won't Work:  If the limit were set relatively low (say, a maximum of 10 votes per phone), it would lead to a better measure of a contestant's breadth of popularity ... but remember, that's not what the producers are trying to identify.  To satisfy the Prime Directive, the limit would have to be very high – something approaching triple digits, we'd guess.  That would defeat the purpose of giving the typical non-rabid viewer more say.

The Verdict:  Even if a compromise limit could be found, this idea is DOA to the producers.  They'll never accept any change that severely lessens the number of calls they receive.  Not only would it restrict their ability to gauge the depth of a contestant's support, it would also take a big bite out of their wallets.  But there may still be a way to make both camps happy, which we'll get to a little later.

Vote For Elimination

The Idea:  Instead of voting for which contestants should advance, vote instead for who should leave.  In our travels, this is the most frequent suggestion that we see bandied about the Idolsphere, and it would allow viewers to specify clearly which Idol they most want off their TV screens.

Why It Won't Work:  Where to begin?  It violates the Prime Directive in about fourteen different ways.  It would completely alter the fabric of the competition, leaving Idol with inoffensive, middle-of-the-road winners.  It would chillingly discourage risk-taking by innovative contestants (e.g., based on our data, there's an excellent chance that Blake Lewis would've gone home the week he performed You Give Love A Bad Name.)  At least three of the six winners thus far would've been bounced well before the Finale: Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood (yes, really!), and Taylor Hicks.  It opens the door to all sorts of The Weakest Link-style abuses:  e.g., this week, fans of the other three remaining contestants would surely gang up on David Cook.  It's totally at odds with how the music industry works: people purchase CDs and attend concerts by artists they love, not by ones they fail to hate.  And so on, and so forth....

The Verdict: Simon might call this a dreadful, karaoke, amateurish idea he'd expect to hear in a cabaret show on a theme park cruise to Portugal.  As usual, he's right.

Judges' Choice

The idea:  Viewers vote as usual to determine the Bottom Three or Bottom Two.  From this group, the final decision is left up to the judges.  Drawn from So You Think You Can Dance, this system offers the side benefit of a "Sing For Your Life" segment that would add some much-needed drama and action to The Worst Hour In The History Of Television, also known as the AI Results Show.

Why It Won't Work:  Because Randy, Paula, and Simon already wield quite enough influence as it is.  To give them what amounts to a veto power is one step removed from throwing out the voters' opinions entirely.  Besides, this idea wouldn't do enough to combat the Sesame Street Effect, which has resulted in many of the most unjust eliminations, because when there are two train wrecks on the same night, very often both perpetrators avoid the Bottom Three.  In addition to obvious fumbles like the AI3 Final Seven and the AI7 Final Six, consider for a moment the AI2 Final Five.  Whom would you have dismissed that night?  If the judges had sent home Trenyce, there would've been fury and outrage because the superior singer on that particular episode was given the boot.  But if they'd sent home Ruben Studdard instead, they might not have gotten out of the studio alive.

The Verdict: We think there's something to be said for involving the judges in the voting process, but definitely not to this degree.  Whatever the eventual solution, the voters must retain the final call.

Two Ideas We Like

Given that the producers' Prime Directive must be satisfied, and given that the viewers' modest goal is to see contestants finish in a reasonably deserving order, what can be done?  We like the following two ideas quite a lot.  We'll state up front that we definitely didn't think of the first one ourselves, it's been floating around the Idolsphere for several years.  As for the second, it's simply a variation on the Judges' Choice concept above, and we'd be surprised if nobody out there thought of it before we did.  If you can prove that you originated either idea, drop us a line and we'll give you proper credit on the website.

Diminishing Returns

The Idea: Count the second and subsequent votes by the same voter for the same contestant a little bit less than the one that immediately preceded it.

Calls
Made
n =
0.995
n =
0.990
n =
0.985
n =
0.980
1 1 1 1 1
10 10 10 9 9
50 44 39 35 32
100 79 63 52 43
200 127 87 63 49
300 156 95 66 50
votes are rounded to the nearest integer

How It Works:  Currently, at least as far as we know, every vote for a contestant counts equally, whether it's a person's first and only vote of the night or a über-fan's 200th.  We understand that the producers have a vested interest in favoring contestants with passionate fanbases, but this ratio seems ridiculous.  It rewards depth of support to the virtual exclusion of breadth.  To correct for this while still allowing fans to vote as much as they choose, apply a "decay factor", n, to repeated votes for one contestant from a single phone line.  The table at right shows how the vote count would be adjusted for various values of n.  (Remember, the decay factor would apply on a contestant-by-contestant basis.  If you dialed 50 times for Archuleta and 50 times for Cook, and we're using an n of 0.990, they'd still get 39 "votes" apiece added to their total.)

Why we like it:  It's reasonably simple, easy to implement, and, unlike a hard per-line limit, it won't affect the total vote count much at all.  Voters remain free to vote as often as they'd like.  The idea makes so much sense that it's quite possible the producers are already doing this in one form or another while keeping mum about it (so as to prevent truly fanatical power-dialers from switching phone lines every 100 votes or so.)

Judges' Immunities

The Idea:  At the end of each performance show, the judges decide which contestants turned in the best performances of the night.  Those Idols are automatically advanced to the next round.  Everyone else has to take their chances with the voters as usual.

How It Works:  Exactly as described above, with a few details to be worked out.  First, this wouldn't apply to Top 16 Week (on which the Final 12 is decided), nor in the Final 5 or later: in those cases, there would be no automatic advancements and the voters' opinions would rule.  Second, the exact number of immunities would vary depending on the total number of performances each week.  (We'd suggest up to three immunities on shows with 11 or 12 contestants, two if there are 8 to 10, and just one if there are 6 or 7.)  Third, the producers might elect to put a hard limit on the number of immunities that a contestant may be granted over the course of the competition; this would prevent, say, a Melinda Doolittle from never having to face the voters.

Why we like it:  We know from compiling approval ratings each week that the largest voting bloc by far are the Free Agents.  These are people who cast most or all of their votes for whomever they believe sang the best that night.  There's no point in wasting their votes on contestants who have no business going home anyway.  By removing the cream of the crop from the ballot each week, the Free Agents' votes are directed towards the contestants where their opinions might make a difference.  Among other benefits, we believe this idea would take an enormous bite out of the Sesame Street Effect, which has no practical benefit to anybody: producers, contestants, and viewers alike.  (It's the vermiform appendix of the American Idol body, if you will.)  Plus, the drama as we await the judges' decision each week, and the mild controversies that would occasionally ensue, would make for good TV.

Are there any downsides?  We see two.  First is that this system probably will result in a somewhat lower vote count each week, because the Immunes' fanbases won't dial as much as if their boy's or girl's fate was on the line.  Still, it would be nowhere near the plummet that would result from a fixed limit of votes per phone line, and it might be small enough that the producers can cope with it.  Second, it requires Randy, Paula, and Simon to make good decisions under time pressure, and that's always a dicey proposition.  Frankly, after the nuclear meltdown on Neil Diamond Week, we're not sure we'd trust those three with anything more complex than preparing microwave popcorn, and even then we'd want to be safely in the next room.  But against that, the trio has nearly 100 combined years of first-class experience in the music industry, and they earn a combined salary approaching eight digits.  Surely it's not asking too much of them to identify the best three performances on any given night, or at least to get three of the top four correct.  Surely?

What are the chances that some sort of worthwhile fix is in the offing?  Normally we wouldn't be optimistic, but we draw hope from two facts.  One, the producers did make a good-faith effort to improve the product this season, with the early focus on talent and the introduction of instruments.  (Yes, the ill-conceived series of primordial theme weeks have undone a lot of that good work, but at least they tried.)  Two, no matter how hard the upper-level execs whistle past the graveyard in interviews, the decline in TV ratings has surely gotten their attention.  While their focus will remain on identifying long-term recording talent, they'll surely be looking for ways this summer to better satisfy their broader viewership, too.

We're open to hearing feedback and alternatives from our readers, but remember: any idea that severely violates the Prime Directive really isn't worth the time to discuss.  In the meantime, thanks for reading, now pick up your sledgehammer and resume the chase.  They went that-a-way.

- The WNTS.com Team

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