American Idol: Do Phone Lines Skew Results?

Adam or Kris? Kris or Adam? Millions more out there in TV land could like one American Idol contestant over another, but you’d never know it. Wednesday night, Ryan Seacrest might call it “the closest result in Idol history” or use some other superlative to draw the audience closer to the edge of its seat, but in fact, it might not be very close at all.

Such is the argument from Peter Daboll, CEO of Bunchball, which does statistical research. In an article for GigaOm, Daboll writes that it all comes down to how many calls the American Idol phone lines can accept in the few hours they are open after the show. If you were one of the more than 80 million people who called in last week, you almost certainly got a couple of busy signals before you got through. Daboll writes that the contest really is more about how many times callers can get through, rather than who’s actually trying to vote. He compares it to a funnel full of jelly beans, where only a certain number can get through a hole in the bottom.

Daboll calls the system “mathematically biased,” almost certainly making the vote close, whether it really is or not. One contestant could have 10 times as many people trying to call in for him, but could end up with almost the same number of votes as his competitor. He thinks an online-based approach to voting would be more accurate, but maybe that’s not what Idol wants. I mean, what drama is there in someone getting three-quarters of the vote?

So remember, when Ryan pulls you in with that dramatic “this-vote-was-so-close” line, you might not be getting the whole story.

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