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Raiders of the Lost Arc

Which contestants have improved...and regressed...the most during their Idol runs?

Familiarity, it's been said, breeds contempt.  Perhaps that's true when the subject is political candidates, obnoxious celebrities, or overly cloying Reality TV show judges.  But is it also the case for American Idol contestants?

On this spectacularly beautiful Mothers' Day (at least here on the U.S. East Coast), we've set out to ponder that question.  Ironically, the inspiration for this came from halfway around the world: namely, our friend The Idol Guy, who mused:

"Is there any sort of correlation between how far along we are in the Idol season and WNTS rankings? I've been half-wondering about any contestants who 'knew how to peak at the right time,' like Haley Reinhardt, but I'm not sure there is.

We'll go fearlessly out on a limb and reply: yes.  And, no.  And, uh, "maybe" too.  OK, so fearlessness isn't our thing.  Bear with us.

It's true that the typical contestant's approval rating tends to degrade somewhat over time.  Readers of our annual, whimsical summer feature Camp Should-A-Been already knew this, because when a singer survives at camp beyond his or her actual elimination date on the show, we have to calculate projected ratings for them from that point forward.  This "decay curve" invariably trends downwards, because that's what almost a decade of WNTS data indicates.  (The precise amount is adjusted pre-camp every June, but it's always been between 8% to 10% per performance.)

Does this mean the typical Idol tends to sing worse every time out?  Of course not.  It does, however, suggest that over the long AI slog, America will begin to tire of a contestant.  Sometimes it's by natural fatigue (this is particularly true for country singers, we'd opine), other times it's dissatisfaction over a perceived lack of growth arc, and occasionally it's a vocal minority of the web expressing louder and louder outrage that a contestant they dislike has survived for as long as he or she has.  Familiarity might not breed actual contempt on American Idol, though "Get the %^&*@ off my TV screen!" serves as a pretty close substitute.

Scatterplot of approval ratings for each (sequence of) episodes in the first ten seasons

Do not make the mistake of inferring that earlier episodes in a season are better-liked than later ones.  Precisely the opposite is true, as the nearby scatterplot shows.  In fact, while the average contestant's rating is sliding, the average episode rating is rising by a not-too-shabby 7/10ths of a point per week.  A moment's thought easily explains this: as weaker contestants are eliminated, the strength of the remaining pool increases, even if their individual ratings might be trending slightly downwards.

So let's go back to TIG's intriguing thoughts about Idol contestants peaking at the right time.  How many late bloomers have there been on the show; i.e., ones whose approval rating trendlines actually *increase* over the course of the season?  Is Reinhart one of them?  What contestant has shown the most improvement over his or her Idol run?  And, perhaps most importantly, do contestants whose "growth arc" trends upward have an advantage when it comes to making the Finale, or even winning?

To learn the answers, we ran a regression analysis on the series of performances by every American Idol contestant who performed at least five times.  There are 98 of them in all, and as usual, in the interests of science and good taste, we'll ignore reprise performances and anything eminating from a Finale episode.  We'll also spare you a massive, unreadable scatterplot of 98 criss-crossing arcs.  Instead, we'll just list each contestant by the slope of their linear trendline – a positive number indicates a long-term increase in approval ratings.  Let's see what that tells us.  (...Hmm...you know, the last time we undertook a project like this, about a month ago on song freshness, we were shocked and a little red-faced that none other than Kristy Lee Cook was the all-time Idol best.  But, heh-heh, why worry - what're the odds that lightning would strike twice in a row?)

"Arc"-ade Fire

Finalists by Approval Rating Arc
(Minimum of 5 performances)

Rank Ssn. Contestant Arc
1. AI7 Kristy Lee Cook +4.100
2. AI10 Haley Reinhart +4.087
3. AI9 Tim Urban +3.733
4. AI9 Katie Stevens +3.464
5. AI3 Jennifer Hudson +3.012
6. AI4 Constantine Maroulis +2.152
7. AI7 Chikezie +2.143
8. AI6 Sanjaya Malakar +1.750
9. AI7 Amanda Overmyer +1.500
10. AI6 Phil Stacey +1.282
11. AI1 Nikki McKibbin +1.212
12. AI1 Christina Christian +1.000
13. AI4 Anthony Fedorov +0.996
14. AI5 Bucky Covington +0.167
15. AI10 Lauren Alaina +0.147
16. AI9 Lee DeWyze Season champion +0.036
17. AI7 Syesha Mercado +0.005
18. AI9 Aaron Kelly 0.000
19. AI10 Scotty McCreery -0.052
20. AI5 Taylor Hicks Season champion -0.071
21. AI7 Michael Johns -0.095
22. AI4 Bo Bice Season runner-up -0.201
23. AI3 Diana DeGarmo Season runner-up -0.257
24. AI8 Adam Lambert Season runner-up -0.280
25. AI3 Fantasia Barrino Season champion -0.293
26. AI8 Allison Iraheta -0.418
27. AI8 Anoop Desai -0.467
28. AI3 Jon Peter Lewis -0.536
29. AI6 Gina Glocksen -0.607
30. AI5 Kevin Covais -0.700
31. AI9 Michael Lynche -0.813
32. AI5 Elliott Yamin -0.909
33. AI8 Kris Allen Season champion -0.912
34. AI1 Kelly Clarkson Season champion -1.000
35. AI7 David Cook Season champion -1.034
36. AI4 Scott Savol -1.094
37. AI2 Kimberley Locke -1.171
38. AI6 Haley Scarnato -1.202
39. AI2 Trenyce -1.327
40. AI2 Clay Aiken Season runner-up -1.354
41. AI5 Paris Bennett -1.364
42. AI4 Carrie Underwood Season champion -1.365
43. AI4 Vonzell Solomon -1.490
44. AI1 Justin Guarini Season runner-up -1.570
45. AI6 Melinda Doolittle -1.629
46. AI7 David Archuleta Season runner-up -1.706
47. AI8 Matt Giraud -1.788
48. AI6 Blake Lewis Season runner-up -1.834
49. AI4 Jessica Sierra -1.857
50. AI9 Crystal Bowersox Season runner-up -1.986
51. AI9 Casey James -2.039
52. AI6 Jordin Sparks Season champion -2.061
53. AI5 Katharine McPhee Season runner-up -2.074
54. AI2 Carmen Rasmusen -2.131
55. AI6 Chris Richardson -2.173
56. AI3 LaToya London -2.196
57. AI10 Pia Toscano -2.371
58. AI4 Nikko Smith -2.393
59. AI10 Casey Abrams -2.412
60. AI2 Ruben Studdard Season champion -2.454
61. AI1 RJ Helton -2.536
62. AI10 Stefano Langone -2.717
63. AI10 James Durbin -2.773
64. AI7 Carly Smithson -2.855
65. AI5 Kellie Pickler -3.048
66. AI2 Rickey Smith -3.057
67. AI5 Ace Young -3.267
68. AI2 Josh Gracin -3.276
69. AI5 Chris Daughtry -3.301
70. AI3 John Stevens -3.357
71. AI8 Danny Gokey -3.396
72. AI10 Paul McDonald -3.893
73. AI3 George Huff -3.900
74. AI9 Siobhan Magnus -4.000
75. AI3 Jasmine Trias -4.061
76. AI9 Andrew Garcia -4.143
77. AI7 Brooke White -4.210
78. AI9 Didi Benami -4.286
79. AI6 LaKisha Jones -4.390
80. AI7 Jason Castro -4.437
81. AI9 Paige Miles -4.500
82. AI10 Jacob Lusk -4.832
83. AI4 Nadia Turner -4.929
84. AI2 Kim Caldwell -5.333
85. AI1 Tamyra Gray -5.440
86. AI4 Anwar Robinson -5.567
87. AI10 Naima Adedapo -6.486
88. AI8 Scott Macintyre -6.686
89. AI5 Mandisa -7.464
90. AI8 Megan Joy -7.857
91. AI10 Thia Megia -8.100
92. AI8 Lil Rounds -8.357
93. AI7 Ramiele Malubay -8.536
94. AI3 Camile Velasco -9.500
95. AI4 Mikalah Gordon -9.800
96. AI6 Chris Sligh -10.857
97. AI6 Stephanie Edwards -11.900
98. AI5 Lisa Tucker -11.914

She's ba-a-a-a-a-ack.....!

It turns out that, at least according to our web approval ratings, Reinhart has plotted the second-greatest week-to-week growth arc in American Idol history.  On average, she improves by four points every performance.  That's better than 96 of her 97 fellow Idol travelers...but once again, a certain horse trainer from Oregon is unexpectedly leading the pack.  Okay, now we're really getting weirded out.

Actually, upon further reflection, KLC's +4.10 arc seems reasonable to us.  It's important to keep in mind that Cook was, ah, not terribly impressive in her first appearance under the Idol spotlight.  Or her second...or her third...dear God we don't even want to THINK about her fourth...or her fifth for that matter....  In fact, Cook kicked off her AI campaign by coming in below 50 on each of her first seven performances, a dubious feat exceeded by only one other contestant (and speaking of things we don't even want to think about....)  Still, after the first five misfires, her singing and confidence stabilized considerably.  By the time she was finally sent packing, she'd turned in four decent-to-good performances in a row according to web reviewers, many of whom were nonetheless still calling for her to depart their television displays posthaste, just more politely.

In short, as we noted and quoted in that earlier article, KLC's story arc originated in wretchedness and terminated in mediocrity.  All joking aside, that's nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, considering the enormous pack of Idols whose lines started and ended in wretchedness, we'd have to say it's a fairly impressive achievement.

Reinhart's arc is similar in slope to Cook's, but her starting baseline was considerably higher.  Thus, instead of pulling herself from cannon fodder to the midcard, Reinhart has pulled herself from the midcard to the Final 4 and is a surprise contender for the whole ball of wax.  That sets her apart from everyone else in the Hot Arc 10 list.  She is, in short, in uncharted territory, and there is no past Idol whom we can look to as a guide for what might happen next.  (If we at the WNTS Offices are being 100% honest with our readers, we've felt that Reinhart's been somewhat overrated by the Idolsphere from beginning to present.  We have no quarrel at all with her 4.09 slope, mind you – we'd just have set her baseline lower than most reviewers evidently did.)

As you see, only 17 of 98 five-time performers have managed to achieve a positive growth arc.  An eighteenth, Aaron Kelly, essentially treaded water for eleven weeks.  The other 80 contestants all backslid to some degree (and remember, we eliminated reprises and Original Winner's Songs™ from the mix, so for once they can't be blamed for fostering failure.)  This is consistent with what we've known for some time and with the formula we employ at Camp Should-A-Been.  When it comes to long-term approval ratings on American Idol, we'd venture to say that Fall Out Boy put it best.

Looking more closely at the top 18, it appears as though far more contestants followed the Cook career path – that is, from not-so-hot to decent – than the Reinhart one.  Only Jennifer Hudson seems to have a trendline lying entirely above Reinhart (though of course, your own opinion might differ.)  Note that Lauren Alaina's arc is also bending upward, but only barely.  Alaina has pretty well followed Kelly's lead, except she cleverly chose a baseline more than 20 points higher.

The bottom third of the chart has its own share of surprises awaiting us.  Plenty of contestants have thrown their Idol careers into reverse and floored it, but only three managed to hit double digits on the speedometer: Chris Sligh, Stephanie Edwards, and Lisa Tucker.  In each case, the singers in question started off with one or two very highly-rated performances, then regressed fairly consistently each week until America finally said, "Uncle!"

Much the same could be written about many others towards the end of the list, in fact.  From roughly #70 on down, you'll find virtually the entire rogues' gallery of contestants who attracted the most brickbats from viewers over the years.

Incidentally, take careful note of the contestants at positions number 56, 57, 64, 69, 74, 83 and 85.  If you were to ask an American Idol fan for the eight most shocking eliminations in the series' history, we'd wager that at least six and possibly all seven would be on the majority of ballots.  Note too that their growth arcs all fell in the bottom half of the list!  That can't be a coincidence, we'd venture to say.

The takeaway here is that it's exceedingly dangerous to post a growth arc much below -2.0.  And that in turn suggests that the most surprising winner in American Idol history wasn't Kris Allen or Taylor Hicks or even Lee DeWyze.  Rather, it was...Ruben Studdard??  Believe it.

Retreat and Reverse Into Victory

More significantly perhaps is this little tidbit: until last season, no contestant with a positive growth arc had ever been an Idol champion!  How scary is that?  In fact, none had made it as far as the Finale.  Even DeWyze, the S9 champ who finally (and barely) broke the trend and who was hailed by many for his improvement over the course of the season, actually more or less broke even.

DeWyze still outdid every other winner, however.  The majority of his peers (indicated by a gold crown) and runners-up (blue diamonds) can be found bunched between roughly 20th and 50th in the table.  Champions, it seems, tend to start strong – often very strong – and then grind out the win, working hard not to give back much ground in the months when contempt is breeding all around them.

Based on this, and barring any Dream On bombshells in the next couple of weeks, we'd cautiously predict the following.  The voters will very shortly make a choice between the two country teens remaining, Alaina and Scotty McCreery.  Two singers of the same genre have never made it to the Finale in the same year, and that trend will not be broken in 2011.  And, whoever survives that shakeout is likely to become the S10 champion, based on their overall consistency.

From the evidence so far, it appears that if you want to make it to the finish line on American Idol, it's de rigueur to get off the starting block quickly.  You don't have to be a pre-season favorite, as the most recent three winners can attest, but you do need to turn in a few strong performances early in your run.  Marathons are rarely won from far behind, and evidently the same holds true for AI.  We'll shortly see whether or not Reinhart can bend that trend.

- The WNTS.com Team

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