Vote For The Worst picks are usually poor

Intro

Vote For the Worst is by now a tradition in American Idol. The website, founded during Season 3 of the show, attempts to promote a villain: a contestant who is widely hated, but makes it through many stages of the contest despite this. This is, of course, what a villain is—if Lex Luthor were an ineffective bumbling idiot who immediately fails in all his schemes, he wouldn’t be a villain, would he? No, a villain or foil has to be effective in addition to bad. “Worst” is a misnomer; VFTW is supposed to pick the contestant who is overperforming. That is, the contestant gets a disproportionate amount of the vote compared to what the quality of the performance should have garnered.

But does VFTW really do this effectively? Their selection process seems to be a blend of editorial control and forum posters preference. They have been known to switch contestants even when their pick wasn’t eliminated, presumably because of buyer’s remorse after seeing the next performance. The site usually picks around 6 “worst” contestants per season, and the reason for switching is often that their pick was eliminated. Some seasons, though, have seen as many as 9 picks. These statistics of themselves don’t imply anything except that perhaps the history is a bit checkered, and that maybe the site on balance does on ok job. Continue reading

Editorial: Good singing does not mean good contestant

Nigel Lythgoe, the producer of American Idol, has said a lot in the past few days about Pia Toscano’s elimination. In particular, he might advocate a system like So You Think You Can Dance? has, where the Bottom 3 is chosen by popular vote, but the decision of who among them should go is left to the judges. Personally, I think this is a fine idea, and it wouldn’t make Idol any less fair, or probably any more fair either. Yes, the judges would have saved Pia, as they saved Casey, and maybe even Karen. Stefano may have gone home already, as would Paul.

But what of Ashthon Jones? The public rejected her in the vote for the Top 10, and the judges chose her as a wild card pick. That entire process was overseen only by the judges. No vote in the entire contest kept Ashton in. Her first week in the hands of the public, they voted her out. Lauren Turner arguably would have been a much stronger contestant, scoring significantly higher in the WNTS scores, and with a more distinct personality, reminiscent of other contestants such as Carly Smithson. The judges whiffed on that one big time.

The other revelation of Lythgoe’s is that Pia was, in fact, an average contestant when it came to vote totals. This wasn’t unforseen: she was frequently the tops according to the judges and critical review, but significantly underperformed on Dialidol. And Dialidol didn’t go far enough. While it often had her in the top 50% of the field, Lythgoe reports she wasn’t even there when the votes were counted. She was middle-of-the-pack.

I find this wholly believable. A good singer, which Pia most certainly was, does not necessarily make for a strong contestant. Continue reading

Another result for the record books

Let’s talk a little about how this never should have happened.

While I personally found it underwhelming, Pia Toscano’s version of “River Deep – Mountain High” rated an 85 in WNTS’s ratings. Dialidol had her at third highest ranked singer of the night, and safe within their margin of error (Dialidol is extremely cautious about calling someone safe). She had one performance before with an even higher score, a 91 for “I’ll Stand By You”. As I’ve noted, very few previous contestants who scored that high in the first few weeks fail to make it to the Top 4.

These scores aren’t theoretical. WNTS score and Dialidol score are statistically significant predictors of the outcome of any given round. While sex is also a major factor, a score like 85 is so high that the logistical model put Pia’s elimination chances at less than 1%.

We have to face some real questions:

1. Could the demographics for Idol be shifting enough to throw all previous years off? With an average viewership drop of only 3% from last year, I find this hard to believe.

2. Is there some systematic reason for the worsening condition of women? I certainly haven’t noticed anything regarding styling, or any other technical reason.

Finally,

3. Is Idol being honest about its results?

I hesitate to raise this question, but this is a major outlier. I’ve noted that in Season 9 Dialidol had some major sampling problems, but overall they are a highly reliable, scaling determiner of the disposition of a contestant’s performance. The average approval polling, however, evidences none of these problems. Pia had zero votes in Zap2It’s Exit Poll every week. Nobody ever thought she was gone, or even near enough the bottom to risk a bet on. It’s also been noted that ratings after a surprising result (e.g., Casey) raise the show’s ratings (about a 10% bump last week from the one previous).

Yes, sometimes a 22-year-old athlete non-smoker has a heart attack. But it’s extremely rare, and these events are getting to be not-rare enough that my eyebrows are firmly raised.