Lack of ‘Idol’ vote information frustrates fans

As three “American Idol 5” contestants became two last week, the show’s host did something he rarely does: Ryan Seacrest revealed how many votes each contestant received.

Well, sort of: While he didn’t mention the specific number of votes, he did show the exact percentage difference between each of the final three competitors. Earlier, he said that a record 50 million votes had been cast the night before, and immediately viewers everywhere pulled out calculators to do the math and discover the vote totals.

The percentages alone were stunning because they were so close. Elliott Yamin, who was eliminated, received 33.06 percent of the votes cast, while the top vote-getter (who wasn’t named) received 33.68 percent of all the votes cast. Doing the math, that’s a difference of 310,000 votes between the most and least popular performers.

Of course, the idea the show received exactly 50 million votes is about as likely as Paula Abdul having actual Coca-Cola in her red cup on the judges’ table. Still, that number plus the percentages were more information than “American Idol” usually provides.

And that is profoundly frustrating. Except for revealing the two or three contestants who received the fewest number of votes each week, the producers generally refuse to identify the results of each week’s vote. Sometimes Seacrest doesn’t even say how many votes were cast the previous evening.

As a result, some viewers come up with elaborate theories to explain why their favorite “Idol” contestant was eliminated. If someone calls to vote for their favorite Idol and hears heavy breathing instead of a “thank you,” it’s a safe bet that they’ll start a Web site about a conspiracy instead of blaming their own inability to dial 11 numbers correctly.

Do viewers really want surprise spoiled?Other, more rational fans try to figure out the results on their own. This season, a Web site and software application called DialIdol was born to do just that. Jim Hellriegel’s program dials the phone numbers for its users based on their voting preferences, and then sends data about the number of busy signals back to the Web site.

That results in (nearly always accurate) predictions about who’s going home. The site correctly predicted, for example, that Chris Daughtry would leave the competition, and thus his elimination was not a surprise to those who follow its predictions.

DialIdol’s accuracy was apparently so threatening to the show that its production company, FremantleMedia, ordered Hellriegel to cease and desist earlier this season. After making some cosmetic changes such as removing the show’s official logo, DialIdol relaunched and hasn’t faced problems since.

All of this would be unnecessary if FOX and the show’s producers would just reveal the exact vote totals every Wednesday night. Is knowing how people voted really that much of a threat to the show? Actually, it is.

According to DialIdol’s statistics, Taylor Hicks has had a commanding lead since the top 12 finalists were named, and has received the most votes every single week, although a few weeks the second-most popular contestant has been somewhat close to Hicks.

Had Ryan Seacrest told viewers starting more than two and a half months ago that Taylor Hicks was going to gyrate his way into the final two, his fans would have been energized but everyone else may have been turned off, especially as he continued to dominate week after week. His victory would have seemed so assured that those who weren’t part of his “Soul Patrol” might have just given up and turned off the TV.

Just as the Kentucky Derby would be kind of boring with one horse running a furlong ahead of the rest, “American Idol” would lose a lot of its appeal if the votes weren’t close and they were revealed every week. In other words, being forthcoming about the number of votes received might just ruin the show.

That would explain why Ryan Seacrest reveals vote totals only when such information helps “American Idol,” as it did last week, when the percentages reportedly indicated that the competition was now anybody’s game.

On weeks where vote totals and percentages aren’t revealed, it’s a safe assumption that there’s a large discrepancy between the high vote-getters and the bottom three, and revealing that information would result in very little drama. Concealing it, however, allows viewers to craft their own scenarios (and conspiracy theories).

Being forthcoming can create other problems. The best example came during the finale for “American Idol 2,” when Ryan Seacrest revealed the number of votes that separated the two finalists, Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken.

However, someone screwed up, as first Ryan said that 13,000 votes separated the final two, and later corrected his number, saying it was just 1,335. As the AP reported later, the figure was apparently closer to 133,000. To this day, that discrepancy fuels theories that the show was rigged in favor of Ruben.

Of course, that didn’t exactly hurt Clay Aiken’s career, just as shocking eliminations, such as Chris Daughtry’s surprise exit a few weeks ago, doesn’t exactly hurt interest in the series. Conspiracy theories — and the number of them out there is proof of just how invested people are in “American Idol” — don’t damage the show, they help it by drawing viewers.

Even though being open and honest about vote totals would be ideal, it’s probably not going to happen, and transparency isn’t exactly best for everyone involved with the show. Viewers ultimately want to be caught up in the drama and the intrigue, and producers want people to keep tuning in. The best bet, then, is for the show to continue to do what it has been doing: giving information when it’s most advantageous to do so.

One thing should change, however: Regardless of the outcome, “American Idol” should, starting Wednesday evening, reveal the vote totals for the finale, identifying exactly how many votes were cast (not a number rounded off to the nearest million) and how those votes were cast (via text message or telephone). The precise number of votes that each of the final two contestants received should also be revealed. At this point in the competition, there’s nothing to lose by being more forthcoming.

During the results shows, host Ryan Seacrest is fond of talking in the second person, telling viewers that their votes matter, and that the winner will be “your American Idol.” If the winner of the most popular television series on the air today truly is America's idol, then Americans deserve to know how much they really like them.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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