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American Idol and Fuzzy Math: How 3 + 2 = 1 (And What That Means In the AI Universe)

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Is American Idol rigged? I dunno, but I do believe it sometimes ends up being based on fuzzy math.

You know, like when 3 + 2 = 1.


Well, it’s simple, really.

According to the inimitable Ryan Seacrest—who, admittedly, during his AI tenure has had a few probs with numbers (remember him not knowing exactly how many zeroes were on the number of votes separating Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken in AI2?)—the top three finalists, Bo, Carrie and Vonzell, were only 2% apart before the finale.

When I cher-ed on this issue previously, I said:

Look at it this way: if Bo-Carrie-Vonzell were only 2% of the vote apart at the week before the finale, Vonzell had a sizable posse riding herd for her. Once she was eliminated, where were her fans going to go?

If you were attracted to a cute, lovable, perky, fabulous, hottie-girl pop singer—and she got bounced—wouldn’t you then vote for your next favorite cute, lovable, perky, fabulous, hottie-girl pop singer? Or just the other cute, lovable, perky, fabulous, hottie-girl pop singer, even if she wasn’t your next favorite?

I also opined that it was like ice cream. If you had your heart set on ice cream, you got ice cream. Even if the shop suddenly was out of your favoritie flav, you still ordered ice cream. You didn’t bolt crazy out of the store and go next door and up and order, say, teriyaki chicken or liver and onions.

No, you stuck with ice cream.

So it is that, in a tight field, a third place finalist’s votes could be thrown to—or, let’s call it “redirected to”—a second place finalist, thereby causing the second place finalist to end up in first place.

In other words, it’s quite possible that 3 + 2 = 1.

And the problem with 3 + 2 equalling 1 is that it doesn’t. Not really.

What I mean is this: There’s getting votes and there’s winning hearts.

To win American Idol, a singer must get the most votes.

To be successful as the American Idol, a singer must win over the most hearts.

That is, it’s not enough to get enough votes to win. The winner must be able to galvanize and enthral a dedicated and motivated fan base that, in an ideal world, is bigger and more dedicated and more motivated than the other guy’s fan base.

Then, and only then—and regardless of what Randy-Paula-Simon or Clive Davis or the music industry TPTB say—is the American Idol truly successful as far as Idol-dom is concerned.

And that’s where the problem with redirected votes comes in. Of course these votes count just like any other vote. Get enough of ’em and they can put you into the winner’s circle.

But they are the votes of people who loved someone else more.

Though this occurs to some extent throughout the season, the effect is magnified at the finale because redirected votes are the votes of people who loved someone else more week after week for almost the entire, consuming American Idol season.

These redirected votes are cast by people who had been focused on someone else. Who had become invested in someone else. Who had spent all their enthusiasm on someone else. Who, as their favorite survived week after week, began to hope and imagine and believe that he or she really could become the next American Idol.

Then it ends for these fans. Like a ton of bricks crashing down on them, it rudely ends. And they are left with two choices. Vote for one of the two remaining finalists or don’t vote at all.

Most people vote. But, for those who had been supporting the third place finisher, they vote with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Thus, the singer who wins on the basis of redirected votes is, at least initially, in an inherently precarious position.

When this happens, the singer got the votes to win (3 + 2), but it’s not clear he won the support he needs (the love that should naturally flow to the #1 finisher) to propel him to big success in the music world.

Did Carrie Underwood win because 3 + 2 = 1 in AI4?

I don’t know. I do know she was never in the bottom three, a fact which in and of itself demonstrates she has a large and active fan base and, certainly, she is a worthy winner.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s safe to assume that, by the end of the show, she was the frontrunner. And, anyway, we know from Ryan’s comment (that Bo-Carrie-Vonzell were only 2% apart), that Carrie and Bo had a very small margin between them going in to the finale.

But never mind. This whole fuzzy math thing is about to be settled once and for all.

What happened on May 25, 2005 was reality tv. What happens on June 14th, when Carrie releases her first single, “Inside Your Heaven/ Independence Day,” and on June 21st, when Bo releases his first single, “Inside Your Heaven/ Vehicle,” that’s reality.

(BTW, Mr. Heather Locklear, Richie Sambora, is going to strum the guitar with Bo on the studio version of “Vehicle.” Sweet!)

When the cash registers start ringing (or not), that’s when we’ll get an idea of not only how wide each finalist’s support is, but, more importantly, how deep.

True, it will only be an inkling of things to come. As Clive Davis often says, a large percentage of an AI alumni’s initial sales is “souvenir” buying. Still, while a big start may not portend all that much for the future, a slow start is more telling.

At least from where I’m sitting, The Buzz continues to be with Mr. Bice. Although pre-orders, for example, aren’t all that predictive of sales, they do say something about how invested a singer’s fanbase is in that artist’s success.

Based solely on pre-orders, Bo has been at or near #1 on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

It’s not quite the breathless frenzy of anticipation—including world-wide cd release parties, endless internet chatter, countdown clocks and midnight lines outside record stores that accompanied Clay Aiken’s bow in 2003—that was truly a cultural phenomenon that must be properly documented (hence my soon-to-be-announced idolhabit Clay Aiken project)—but the Bice Buzz is undeniable.

Then again, at this point there is only one kind of buzz that counts: the buzz that sounds like “ka-ching.”

So let the games begin—and best wishes to Carrie and Bo as they officially start their recording careers!

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  • eloise

    Is American Idol rigged? Hell, yes! Carrie was already announced as the winner in England before the official finale of the show. I truly think that the vote was close for the final three. I also think that Carrie got Vonzell’s vote. Also, the producers, judges and advertisers were all looking for a “country singer” to win. They also wanted Bo to be the semi-finalist because it brings in a whole new audience for them that they didn’t previously have: Country and Rock. In “reality” it is a great entertainment show. The winners, however, are almost predetermined. When the “group” CD came out:
    2002: Kelly song was first on the CD
    2003: Ruben’s song was first on the CD
    2004: Fantasia’s song was first on the CD
    2005: Carrie’s song was first on the CD
    You may want to call it coincindence; I call it “Fixed”.

  • Sticker

    Today’s the day! Carrie’s cd comes out and everything will start to shake out now.

    I think both she and Bo will have great careers.

    For me, I’m just curious to see their respective fan reaction to their singles and then to their full-length bows.

    Right now, at least, Bo seems more comfortable on the interview circuit, so that helps his cause. But Carrie can find her way there, too.

  • deb

    A4 idols may have more SURPRISES.
    Keep a watch on the searches.
    Clay #21 has been on the charts 106 weeks in a row.
    Constantine #16 5 weeks on the charts he keeps going up.
    Bo #47 3 weeks on the charts and going down.
    Kelly #50 re-enter the charts

    Now, I am not a Constantine fan but the charts are showing a buzz, this same buzz that Clay had when he entered the charts.
    REMEMBER TO WATCH THE CHARTS and yes Clay will have the longest career, he will be setting out to do another tour in Aug. and another cd coming out.

  • Katie

    I dont think ai is rigged. All the winners except Fantasia deserved to win. I am a clay fan and a ruben fan. I am not one of the FANatics that go to lycos and all the other searches and sit for hours searching for one name just to keep them on the TOP list. I believe the music itself keeps them popular.

  • Patty

    According to one of the AI producers in 2 seperate interviews, Clay received the most viewer votes every single week from the Top 12 through the Top 3. So the only way he could have lost legitimately is if enough of Kim Locke’s fans flocked to Ruben on Final 2 night. So your theory about Carrie gaining more of Vonzell’s voters is probably correct.

    In any situation, we have been left every season with a winner who probably didn’t come out on top on the basis of their own fanbase alone, but also with just enough dis-interested voters who simply wanted to be part of the “election.”

    Season 1 would have been a much more interesting contest if the Final 2 had been Kelly & Tamyra.

    Season 2 had the right contestants in the Top 3, but Clay should have won handily. And probably would have if given as many lines & as much time as later seasons have been afforded.

    Season 3 would have been a great show-down with Jennifer & LoToya in the Top 3 with Fantasia.

    Season 4 might have been more interesting if Jessica, Nadia & yes, even smarmy Constantine had lasted longer. But all-in-all, Bo probably should have won.

    Therefore, I don’t think any season had a definitive WINNER.

  • Eric Olsen

    fascinating Sticker and it makes a lot of sense: all votes count equally on the show but not all votes are equal in the real world

    Thanks for the great coverage!

  • Mike

    Katie, I think the FANatic online fan voting is a myth to a large degree. At least as far as making any sort of difference in the Lycos ranking.

    If approx 3 million people bought his debut CD and only 1 person per household is a fan, however casual. He likely has at least 3 million fans. The online fandom estimates that there are probably about 10,000 fans that are registered on message boards and maybe 10% of those are ” enthusiastic” and will vote and search to keep him in the running. ”That’s about 1,000 people. Its impossible for 1,000 people to do the multiple millions of searches needed to rank Clay in the top 10 on Lycos. They have to eat and sleep sometimes.

    There’s a saying that comes up quite often. Its.Not.Just.Us. and it can’t be. Right now he is out of sight, off the general public’s radar while he concentrates on recording. The casual fans are not looking up his latest charity gig or trip to somewhere for Unicef. He’s on a downcycle.

    When he is back and the publicity ramps up, the Not.Just>Us will once again be looking for info.

    Its like that for all celebs and the degree of interest is what is reflected in the Lycos searches. Constantine and Bo seem to have the most interest of the Season 4 group.

  • Penny

    The phone voting is limited by technology in a way that almost guarantees a near-tie. Only a certain number of calls will go through. If Contestant A and Contestant B have an equal number of available phone lines and the capacity of each is approximately, let’s say, 10 million calls, then it doesn’t matter that 50 million votes were attempted for Contestant A and 20 million for Contestant B. They will each register approximately 10 million votes and luck of the technological draw will determine who is the winner by a statistically insignificant amount.

    A more reliable indicator of fanbase might be to collect votes cumulatively. This year when Constantine was eliminated much earlier than anyone–even nonfans–might have expected, Ryan mentioned that the person to be eliminated that night had received a total of, IIRC, 55 million votes so far that season, trying to make the point that he had had quite a lot of fan support, yet would be going home that night. Certainly if Scott, Anthony, or even Vonzell at that point, had had more cumulative support than Constantine (as opposed to votes on that one particular night), I would be quite surprised. The continued post-season buzz seems to bear out the fact that Constantine has a much more devoted fan base than those other eliminees. Bo versus Carrie? I suspect she might have a higher cumulative total thanks to Simon’s long-running support of her, whereas Bo’s stock seemed to rise more gradually, drop a bit mid-season as Constantine became ascendant, and then rise again after Constantine’s elimination. The current voting system renders that all irrelevant; again it falls to sales will tell who the true winner is.

  • avmoran

    The only rigged events on AI are that telling the public that their votes counts. Sorry Nope, they do not. This is not a game show, popularty poll, it is an entertainment show that by using public voting and getting the public personnal involved in the system, new talent can be introduced to a premade audience. The draw back is that TPTB who do choose the winner are not taking note of the votes. They do not have to. By having complete control over the winners they determine their fates and 19E and 19M have shown that they allow these artist to live or die on their own getting what they can from them as quickly as they can so that they can go to the next winner. It is Business. After AI1, which I did not watch, the top two were everywhere even through the AI tour and into the horrible movie. AI2 the same the top two were everywhere, you could not turn on a talkshow, newscast, or entertainment tv without seeing them, AI3 less so and AI4 some just after the finale but little since.
    Hopfully the fans of the artist will support their artist but the fans of AI are showing they only support AI and that is a shame that these young people are put through and entertainment whirlwind and dumped to make room for the next group.
    Is it rig? No the producers know exactly who will win and who will come in second etc. AI is entertainment, the voting public only count for advertizing dollars and eventually they will catch on.

  • Mike

    “Is it rig? No the producers know exactly who will win and who will come in second etc.”

    Isn’t that what rigged means? A “competition” with a pre-determined outcome is rigged.

  • Cassie

    Well Mike I’d agree with your estimation that Clay has 3 million fans IF his boards weren’t FULL of buying campaigns and threads urging fans to buy more and more of his CD/Books/etc. Heck there was a HIGHLY organized effort just last year to out buy Fantasia’s single so Clay could win the BB award for best selling single. it was quite comical really. They seem to REALLY care about his ranking on Lycos, even going so far as to have threads dedicated to searching for his name when his ranking slips. Granted Clay has A LOT of fan, but not nearly as many as his initial sales would indicate. If that were the case explain how a full quarter of his OVERALL sales happened in the first week and over HALF in the first three weeks of his debut. He launched his CD with almost 700K CDs sold but in total has only sold 2.7 million, so where are all those buyers? why don’t we see Usher like numbers as his first week sales would indicate? did they ALL rush out in the first weeks to get that CD? did they not spread the word that it was good hence causing MORE people to buy it?? apparently not.

    Will Bo outsell Carrie, I think that’s the crux of this blog, who knows, and honestly who cares at this point. They BOTH are talented, they BOTH deserve their success. Carrie and Bo shouldn’t be locked into a competition for the rest of their careers. They need to prove themselves on their OWN merit with their talent and drive and determination.

  • Sticker

    wow, Patty, I am so “what you said.”

    Everything “what you said!”

    In my previous piece on this, I said that it was very likely a lot of Kimberley Locke’s votes went to Ruben, thus making him—as I’m using the phrase here—3 + 2 = 1.

    Clay is the only finalist who was never in the B3, but who also never won AI. Kelly and Carrie were never B3’d and they both won.

    However, Kelly had Ole Mo with her every week. In fact, she kept building.

    But Bo started coming on really strong after “Vehicle” and had he been able to attract a few more of Baby V’s votes, he’d probably have pulled it off.

  • Sticker

    to Mike and others who mentioned the buzz surrounding Constantine:

    It certainly appears he has buzz, but there are some counter-indicators.

    First, PFTSB bowed with only about 7,500 copies. That’s not good for a guy who had several million people voting for him each week.

    Secondly, although not that great of a measure, but still of interest, Constantine doesn’t have that large of an internet presence. He googles at about 180K results, while Carrie pulls 680K, Bo pulls 543K and Clay pulls 684K.

    However, that just gives you an idea of what I call how “wide” support is. It doesn’t tell you how “deep” the artist’s presence is.

    I’m going to blog about this eventually, but if an artist is mentioned on a million sites, but no one visits them, so what?

    If an artist has one site that is about him, and two million people a day visit it, well, who has a bigger internet presence and deeper support and is more likely to have buzz?

    That said, viewed in very round numbers, internet pulls (results) do add a piece to the puzzle and I was surprised Constantine didn’t have more.

    But he does (or did) have some very active boards.

  • Sticker


    Your concept of cumulative voting is very interesting.

    Or even a formula that somehow factored in the cumulative vote total.

    My one immediate reaction is I think the judges don’t want to give up their “you’re only as good as your last performance” mantra.

    There’s some truth to that, but then again, no. In RL, people don’t abandon an artist after one poor performance. Or even one poor disc.

    Sure, it’s hard to get hot in the entertainment world if you’re cold. But it’s not to the extent that it’s sudden death.

  • Vickie

    I am a very devoted Claymate. And, yes, there are overzealous fans who will vote for him for anything and everything, just to keep his name out there. Now, when it comes to silly little polls that don’t mean anything, I will sometimes vote as much as I possibly can, just for fun. But, when it comes to important things like Lycos and the InStyle What’s Sexy poll…no. In those things, I want him to win or lose on his own merits. Now, when it comes to Lycos, I had never done it before up until a couple of months ago, and I have been a big fan for over a year.
    I decided to check it out. At first, I didn’t see anything that interested me. THEN…I clicked on the NEWS tab.
    WOW! So that’s where people were finding all these great articles!
    Now, I search his name at least twice a day for news articles. If he goes up and down on the list, that’s fine with me. I’m just proud that he’s been on for so long. I disagree with fans searching his name MANY times a day, just to keep him on the list.
    As far as buying multiple cd’s…I do that. I have 2 copies of MOAM(one with TITN, one with Solitaire…different posters; the second one is much better.) I own one copy of MCWL, but I bought a couple for Christmas presents.
    I own one TITN/BOTW. I own one S’Way.
    But, I have bought more copies of S’Way than I can count right now(ten in just the last couple of weeks.) I give them away to people who have never heard his music. Clay doesn’t really have official street teams that I know of. All his fans contribute to spreading both his music, and his message of inclusion for kids with disabilities. Most people I know who buy multiple copies of his cd’s do so with a specific purpose for those copies. They have been gifted to kids’ hospitals, retirement homes, TFT, overseas fans, cd donation projects for military personnel. Some buy mulitiple copies of his full-length cd’s so that they can have them in several locations, without having to carry them around. Nothing worse than wanting to listen to MOAM, and realizing you left it at work/school/in the car(especially when it’s storming.)
    As deeply as we care for Clay(as to why we do…well, that’s a whole nother story,) there will always be those fans who take it too far. But, from my experience, they are in the minority.

  • Vickie

    BTW, Sticker…I enjoy your insights, commentary and ruminations. Looking forward to your ‘ Clay Aiken project ‘ with great interest…:)

  • Sticker

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m going to be asking Claymates to help out on my Clay Aiken project — so stay tuned!

    Thanks again for stopping by.


  • Cassy

    I am really starting to think is a great idea. Rigged or not- who cares, if someone is good they will be recognized, if someone sucks it’ll make a good SNL sketch. So if we would have voted for say Scott this season and if he won AI it would piss off millions but it woulkd be F***ing hallarious.

  • Vickie

    I’d be glad to help if I can. I have this thing where little tidbits of info stick in my head. I have all kinds of stuff stuck up there, and quite a bit of it is about Clay: quotes; some stats; history; charity events he has participated in…things like that.
    Would you be interested in hearing reasons why we love Clay, or why we are fans? What kind of stuff would you be looking for?

  • Sticker


    Thank you for your kind offer. To answer your question: yes, all of the above!

    I love tidbits of info!

    I’ll be setting out my concept for the project in a few days (I hope) on my blog, and talking about what kind of info I’d like to invite Clay Aiken fans to share.

    So stay tuned! And thanks,again.

  • Vickie

    Okay, and thanks.
    I usually find these articles of yours through Lycos(lol.) So, just let me know where to look for updates, and I will be there…:)

  • Sticker


    my blog is at idolhabit


  • Vickie

    Ok, thanks. I have it bookmarked now! I’ll keep checking in..:)

  • Alex

    I doubt AI is rigged. After all, carrie has been outselling Bo by alot so far.

  • sally

    Quote: When the cash registers start ringing (or not), that’s when we’ll get an idea of not only how wide each finalist’s support is, but, more importantly, how deep.

    Your quote above was a very good assessment of the varying degrees of support that Carrie and Bo will have in the future. As of now it seems that Carrie has growth her fans support not only with the Single but also most importantly with the Album.
    Congrats, Carrie in passing the one million mark.

  • Sally

    Congrats, Carrie. Now more than 2 million sales of “Some Hearts”.

  • Natalie Davis

    AI5 is under way, so where is the beloved Mr. Sticker???

  • Sally

    This week offically over 3million sales of Some Hearts. Congrats Carrie.