American Idol Becoming a Popularity Contest Isn't a Bad Thing, Says Prof

May 06, 2008 - News Release

American Idol has been criticized as being more of a popularity contest than a singing competition. But a University of Guelph economics professor argues that popularity boosts overall performance because it creates a more level playing field.

Prof. James Amegashie examined the voting structure of the reality TV show based on a mathematical model. He found that when contestants are judged on more than just vocal talent, both the strong and the weak singers put increased effort into their performances.

"Introducing the element of popularity into the contest gives the weaker singers a chance of winning by adding an element of luck," he said. "The weaker contestants will work harder knowing that they may have a shot at winning, which in turn puts pressure on the stronger singers to work harder."

It's the same theory behind having a second and third place in competitions, said Amegashie.

"If you just have a first place, the weaker competitors won't exert as much effort because they don't think they can win. This will cause the top performer to slack off, resulting in a fall in aggregate efforts. But if there are second-place and third-place prizes, the weaker contenders will try harder because they know they have a chance of winning a prize. This, in turn, will cause the most able contender to work harder."

Popularity begins to play a role in the American Idol competition once the voting is turned over to the viewers, he said.

At the beginning of the season, the judges, who are presumably experts in evaluating singing ability, are in charge of voting contestants off until the field is narrowed to the top 24 contestants. The fate of the top 24 is then based solely on how the viewers vote from week to week.

"Viewers tend to care more, relative to the judges, about factors other than a contestant's singing ability or performance,” Amegashie said.

Even now that American Idol is down to the final four, there are still some contenders who have made it to this point more on their charisma than their singing ability, he said.

Amegashie added that turning the judging over to the viewers is effective only when there are varying degrees of talent among the contestants, as is the case with American Idol.

"It wouldn't necessarily work as a way to level out the playing field in a reality show like Dancing With the Stars because the contestants are all paired with professional dancers, which is likely to narrow the differences in talent among the contestants."

But restricting the judging to the viewers comes with a risk because it can prevent the best performer from being chosen as the winner, he said.

The trade-off is a more entertaining and higher-quality program, which generates a larger viewing audience and ultimately higher revenue.

"Since viewers' enthusiasm is easier to sustain in a contest where every contestant exerts more than a minimum effort level, allowing popularity to play such a major role may not be too high a price to pay.”

Prof. James Amegashie
Department of Economics
519-824-4120, Ext. 58945

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