In Q&A form, we’ve tried to compile the mistakes in the American Idol voting system as reported in newspapers, online press releases, and news articles.

Q: What is Right with the American Idol Voting System?

American Idol’s voting seems to be a flawed system. Its merit is its consistency—Idol finalists are voted off the same way their predecessors were voted off. There seems to be no specific scandal brewing or cheating—just television producers maintaining a system that isn’t fair and balanced and doesn’t work toward a valid result.

Q: Why Isn’t It Fair and Balanced?

The problem might be the number of votes per phone and number of phone lines open per calling period. As long as producers allow multiple votes per phone number and allow an unbalanced total of votes from Hawaii, the “American Idol” winner may or may not be the American people’s choice.

Most text messages go through--according to message board posts, web sites maintained by the text messaging company, and through news articles. But viewers pay a small fee to send a vote in text--so paying for the vote does give you leverage.

Yet last year when Ruben Studdard won, texters on an American Idol message board reported some of their messages didn’t go through. Hours after the calls, people said their phone companies send back text error messages from their phone carriers saying some messages failed. Up till that point, texters were reporting 100 percent completion.

Q: What can producers do to correct this problem?

Anything they want. There has been a disclaimer on the program that voting is subject to the producers’ whims. They can eliminate voting “blocs” and recently say they eliminate huge numbers of votes for the same person from one phone number. They can change the entire system in the middle of a season, if they so desire.

Viewers have suggested changes. Viewers say the show “Fame” on NBC limited the calls—only 5 calls per phone number were allowed to be counted toward the competition. That makes sense and phone systems can stop counting excessive calls from one number.

Or American Idol can go the way of Big Brother, Survivor, or Last Comic Standing and invent a voting system that doesn’t include public phone calls. But taking that route—and disenfranchising the American public—may be the eventual downfall of a show that embraces its ability to empower the American public in a democratic fashion.

Q: What do you think of the “Hawaiian Skew,” or unequal voting power for Hawaiians?

From what I see about the Hawaiian voting on AP and E!Online, it seems absurd if true. Producers should have corrected it much earlier on.

Q: What caused this unequal voting problem or “Hawaiian Skew”?

Since phone companies are beginning to release national calling statistics for American Idol nights, this could be wrong but it sounds like Fox pays for a certain number of incoming lines for AI voting each Tuesday night. That number of lines handles first, all the phones with area codes in the Eastern and Central time zones. That means Texas through Florida up to Maine. That’s a lot of phones. When phone lines open the second time (after the second broadcast that we get at 8 pm PDT), then the same number of receiving lines handle calls from New Mexico through California up to Washington. Next, the show is played a few hours later when Hawaiian viewers get to see that night’s American Idol contest for the first time. After that airing, Hawaiian voters can ring into that same number of receiving lines for two hours. That means the Hawaiians have a chance to make one third of all votes cast nationwide for the show, if what is reported is true. In that scenario, one tiny state really influences the telephone vote.

Q: But producers flew to Hawaii purposely to recruit Hawaiian singers. If they knew about this “skew,” why did they do this?

My first guess is it had nothing to do with the “skew.” Hawaii has a reputation for singers, Don Ho to name one. The sound is unique and culturally different from the “lower 48 states,” so it was exciting to hear singers (Jasmine and Camille) who did sound different than the others. Producers wanted to share this uniqueness.

My second guess is the cast and crew wanted to take a paid vacation in Hawaii. Since the audition days are very long and the production crew doesn’t see much outside of the hotel, this guess is less likely.

Third choice: producers misinterpreted the “Hawaiian skew” in the telephone votes and thought it translated to a higher percentage of Hawaiian viewers. Since I have no clue how Nielsen’s rating system does or does not cover the islands of Hawaii, there probably is no merit in this guess.

It would mean producers thought the tiny state had huge viewership. Merely comparing ratings to audience data would have quickly shown producers that there was a problem with the Hawaiian call volume and this made Hawaii viewership seem larger than it really was. So this possibility is unlikely.

Q: Did this “Hawaiian skew,” if it really exists, affect other seasons?

If the stories about “1/3 of the total calls come from Hawaii” are true, producers have known for all the seasons that more votes are successful in Hawaii. Indeed, the proof is there—give a small group of people a lot of power and that group can have a lot of influence as Hawaii has shown with the program’s Hawaiian contestant Jasmine Trias.

If producers already knew about “The Hawaiian Skew,” then producers should have expected this exact result when they specifically recruited Hawaiian singers. And Ruben Studdard might be very popular in Hawaii, and Hawaiians didn’t like Tamyra Gray or LaToya London. That is, if the show’s calling system hasn’t changed in all the years the show has aired.

Q: Why did Jasmine Trias get voted off on May 19?

It could be several things. The producers could have fixed the Hawaiian skew by limiting incoming phone calls from Hawaii. This could be done by using less incoming phone lines for Hawaii than the other two phone calling areas. Or, producers could have determined a fair percentage of calls from Hawaii and added in only those calls. Or viewers could have purposely decided NOT to vote for Jasmine as a backlash or a reflection of her singing. Or the number of singers could have caused the change in total votes—less choices could have meant Hawaiian votes had less affect on the total votes for any one singer. Any of those things could have been true.

Q: What have other shows done when they had voting problems?

There was a voting backlash against Big Brother 1 contestant George Boswell when producers made it look like George’s wife Teresa biased the vote against his fellow contestant Brittany Petros.

Voting for Big Brother Season 1 was negative voting. Audience members paid for calls—the calls weren’t free like American Idol. In fact, the calls cost over a dollar each for Big Brother, much more than the 10 cents per text message that texters are reporting for American Idol.

For Big Brother, people rang in to vote someone OFF the show. It was a hate vote not a love vote. George left next, and for the second season of Big Brother, producers changed the voting system to exclude the audience. That way, no one on the outside could second guess or influence which contestant would leave the show next. In other words, producers decided to cut out public participation.

Q: What would it take for fans of American Idol to know if the voting was fair?

On American Idol last year, after the Clay Aiken/Ruben Studdard voting irregularities made front page news, Fox wasn’t releasing its phone statistics and generally, neither were the telephone companies. Fox still isn’t releasing phone call information, other than total votes (but not for every show). Unfortunately, to determine if calling is unfair from any specific calling area, phone companies must choose to disclose call volumes and successful phone calls in their telephone systems. Or Fox would have to release the calling statistics. That doesn’t happen very often.


Dr. Joan Giglione is a graduate of Cal State Northridge, the same alma mater as Fox’s VP of reality shows Mike Darnell, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle, and Paula Abdul.