Effect of auditions exposure on American Idol, part 2

This is part 2 of 3 of the series. Part 1 describes how the data was collected and how total screen time influences how far a given contestant gets in the contest. Part 2 looks at how initial audition affects the contest. Part 3 looks at how pre-exposure influences voting in the semi-finals.

Initial audition effect

In my last article I presented the data collected on screen time devoted to contestants and how that was related to how far the contestants got in the contest. The long-lived effect of total screen time was modest, but likely real.

Now I’d like to narrow the focus a bit and concentrate only on whether a contestant had his initial audition shown during one of the Audition shows before Hollywood week. Let’s look at the distribution of votes survived, both for those whose auditions were shown and those whose were not

Histogram of the number of voting rounds a contestant survived (was not eliminated from), categorized by whether or not the contestant's first audition was shown or not.

The mean number of rounds survived by someone who did not have her initial audition shown was 2.1, but someone whose initial audition was shown lasted a mean 4.4 rounds, quite significant and statistically significant (p < 0.00001). Logically, it’s the early rounds that prominently show the effect. 54% of the contestants who are voted off immediately (0 votes survived) are people who didn’t have initial auditions shown, and they are already outnumbered 169 to 109! Put differently, of the 109 contestants to compete who did not have their initial audition shown, 50% of them are eliminated in the very first vote, whereas a mere 27% of those whose initial auditions were shown share the same fate.

It’s hard for me to believe that this is merely a correlation. There’s good reason to believe that votes in the first round are influenced by solid pre-exposure, and initial audition may be the best measure of this, since Hollywood footage tends to cut both ways, and screen time is often shared with other people. It certainly doesn’t help that last year was a sudden-death bloodbath, resulting in a major tilt against those like Lauren Turner, Ta-tynisa Wilson, and Tim Halperin whose initial auditions were not shown. Here are the survival probabilities for a contestant with and without having their initial auditions shown:

The percentage of contestants remaining after a given number of voting rounds, separated based on whether initial audition was shown. Both curves, of course, must decrease or stay level with each round, but the group with no audition shown falls much faster.

By round 3 only 22% of those with no initial auditions shown remain, whereas half of those whose initial auditions were shown are still in the contest. This is the fraction, not the absolute number.


As always, it’s interesting to look at the outliers: people who didn’t have their auditions shown but made it quite far.

The most prominent example is Bo Bice, who endured 13 votes despite having only 66 seconds devoted to him in Hollywood rounds, and no initial audition shown. His average approval rating was 72.0 ± 18.2 (out of 100), the 11th highest in the history of the contest, and the most significant because he turned out 20 performances to earn that ranking. Bice was up against Carrie Underwood, who had 300 s of pre-exposure and whose initial audition was shown. Though Underwood’s average score was much lower (57 ± 18), she was a strong contender and likely benefited from some kind of “country music” advantage.

Next is Kris Allen, eventual winner in Season 8, whose face was flashed quickly during the auditions, but whose initial audition was never shown. Like Bice,  Allen got a little over 1 minute of screen time (62 s) during the entirety of the pre-voting shows. With an average approval rating of 61 ± 19, Allen was in the top 20% of all performers, but it’s clearly possible that something other than pre-exposure and singing ability was at work in that result. There were, in fact, two contestants with higher approval that year (Allison Iraheta with 75 ± 12 and Adam Lambert with 70 ± 16). It’s possible that there is a momentum effect, and that Allen collected many of the voters of the previous eliminated contestants, whereas Lambert had a loyal following that never really expanded.

The same analysis may hold for Syesha Mercado, 2nd runner up in season 7, successfully weathering 12 rounds of voting with no audition shown. Syesha did, however, get featured significantly during Hollywood week, where she lost her voice (403 s of screen time), although I don’t know that that time was very memorable. She ranks at number 76 out of 279 contestants ever in approval rating: not bad, but not spectacular. It’s still a mystery how she pulled this off.

So far in this series I have spent time talking about how pre-exposure affects the overall outcome of the contest. In the next segment, my focus will be on how pre-exposure influences whether a contestant gets past the semi-finals, those rounds shown directly after the auditions/Hollywood episodes, where the audience is being introduced to some people, but merely re-introduced to those chosen by the producers to be beneficiaries of a lot of screen time.

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