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

Surprise elimination and the save rule

Casey Abrams had the lowest number of votes last night, even though he was a highly popular contestant, with plenty of name recognition, and had previously never been in the bottom 3. He was voted in by the public, not a wild card. How often does it happen that a contestant is eliminated without his fans knowing that he was in trouble?

Excluding the first two rounds of the finals, and the top 3, it has actually happened 15 times.

Season 1 Tamyra Grey was eliminated from the Top 4
Season 2 None
Season 3 Jon Peter Lewis in the Top 8
Season 4 Nikko Smith in the Top 9
Constantine Maroulis Top 6
Season 5 Mandisa from Top 9
Season 6 Chris Sligh Top 10
Gina Glocksen Top 9
Season 7 Chikezie from Top 10
Ramiele Malubay from Top 9
Michael Johns from Top 8
Season 8 Megan Joy Top 8
Season 9 Didi Benami from Top 10
Andrew Garcia from Top 9*
Michael Lynche from Top 9 (saved)
Siobhan Magnus from Top 6

*During a double-elimination week

You can see that nearly all of these eliminations happened in the Top 8-10. I think this is kind of interesting, actually. I’ve heard of the judge’s save referred to as the Chris Daughtry rule, but this is wrong. Daughtry’s fans had every reason to believe he could be in trouble: he was in the bottom 3 during the Top 7 round, and was eliminated in the Top 4. What this should really be known as is The Constantine Maroulis rule! Similarly, the season 8 save was Matt Giraud, but he was in the bottom 3 in the Top 10 round and saved in the Top 7. That’s not very far removed. If his fans really just weren’t voting because they thought he was safe, they sure don’t have a very long memory.

Surprise eliminations like Casey are inevitable in Idol, particularly in the first few rounds, after people have seen their favorites sail through and start voting for their second favorites—ones they like, but aren’t sure are safe. However, these make it damn hard to predict what is going to happen in the first volatile weeks. The judges save has been invoked twice rightly, once wrongly, and in each case for men.

In the future, any predictive model is going to need to take into account dialidol or some other measurement, because the results alone would never have had any indicator that Casey was in danger, let alone the losing competitor. He was male, went first (historically not a position that was dangerous), had lots of pre-exposure, played an instrument, chose interesting songs—last night never should have happened. The fact that it did shows just how strange the voting public is.