November 20, 2010

Reality television which allows viewer voting has always been a cross-sectional microcosm of its country's psyche. Most notice only that on-line and telephone voting rules are so loose as to seem meaningless. For determining a winner on a merit basis, they are.

Yet from my perspective, this type of voting reveals trends and pattens in a way that direct question polls cannot. It even automatically pre-selects for those who feel passionate enough about a person to make the effort to vote for them: possibly the single most important variable in any political race. It does not even matter whether rules technicalities are exploited to achieve a result. Unless a celebrity fan group happens to be particularly tech-savvy (remember Steve Wozniak?), exploitation of loopholes cannot devalue any such patterns: since any such exploitation is likely to happen in proportion to the number of fans voting and the importance of the vote to them. (Vote early! Vote often!) Where the voting appears to skew against technical merit, it becomes that much more fascinating.

(My perspective may be different than most. I don't watch the show because of who is on it. Most of the time, I have never before heard of the people on it. The joy of the show, for me, is only that people stretch their boundaries by attempting skills they had never before tried to such a demanding level. No matter the individual reason for participating: almost every one of the contestants will have come away from that show having chosen to step outside their zone of security and learn something new. In such small steps is hope built.)

Nearly every contestant on this season's Dancing With The Stars who has received the lowest score was also eliminated within the next two weeks of having earned that score. David Hasselhoff tied for low score in the first week, and was immediately eliminated. Michael Bolton, Margaret Cho, and Mike Sorrentino were all eliminated the same week they received their first non-tied lowest score from the judges. In week 6, Kurt Warner came in lowest on the judges' leaderboard: he was eliminated in week 8.

Only Bristol Palin has managed to buck the trend: by earning the low score on five separate weeks without being eliminated. In two of those dances, she was alone in having the lowest individual score. Starting in week 4, there were only two weeks where Palin has not been at the very bottom of the judges' scoring. In both cases where she was not, there was only one person below her: and both of those contestants were eliminated well before the finals.

A different, parallel trend started in week 5. From that week forward: the lowest scoring couple of that week was no longer the one eliminated.

The pattern stood out most sharply in the penultimate week: when Brandy was eliminated after having earned a perfect score. Against Palin's 53/60, Brandy's 57/60 was not enough to keep her in contention.

Dancing With The Stars never releases the total number of votes cast during any episode, except to say "millions". Out of sheer curiosity, I totalled the number of votes for Bristol Palin explicitly mentioned in the thread linked earlier: ie. counting only votes in posts where commenters gave specific numbers of votes that had been cast or the number of e-mail accounts/telephones that had been used (@ five votes each). A few posters returned to the thread later to update their numbers: so only the last numbers from these posts were used. I also did not count any votes for support comments who did not give numbers, or people who promised to vote but did not confirm those votes. On that basis, from a 149-comment thread, I came up with 607 votes from ten different people.

Now, it gets interesting.

With only three contestants left, voting patterns concentrate. Both Jennifer Grey and Kyle Massey are much stronger dancers than Bristol Palin. Barring a catastrophic mistake by both, nearly all audience voting based on technical merit alone can be expected to go either to Jennifer or to Kyle.

That leaves celebrity voting: which has always been a key component of these kinds of reality shows.

Two years ago, retired political correspondent John Sergeant was cast on the original British show which launched the "Dancing" series, Strictly Come Dancing. Dancing did not come naturally to the 64-year-old Sergeant, yet his fans supported him so strongly that it became all too clear he would have a very real chance of winning, lack of dance skills notwithstanding. Sergeant chose to resign rather than compromise the integrity of the show.

(In passing, it is worth noting that when Buzz Aldrin, one of the very few men to walk on the moon, was a contestant on Dancing With The Stars last year, he was eliminated in the first two weeks. Such are our choices for our preferred celebrities.)

Dancing skills aside: Bristol Palin has no reason whatsoever to resign now. She knows as well as her mother that the final results of this particular Dancing With The Stars season will be a useful straw poll for Sarah Palin's chances in the next presidential election. When voting on this basis, any vote for the daughter is understood to represent support for the mother.

The situations for both daughter and mother are strongly parallel. The majority of those watching Dancing With The Stars feel that Bristol Palin's dancing skills are not up to the level of the other contestants: yet, in theory at least, it is on her dancing skills that she is being judged. A recent poll shows that 57% of all United States residents feel that Sarah Palin is not qualified to be the president: yet (in theory at least) it will be on her presidential skills that she will be elected or an also/never-ran.

If the popular celebrity vote can give Bristol Palin the mirror ball over and above skills-based voting: it will tell us much about Sarah Palin's future chances to become president.
Two perfect scores for Jennifer? Could it be any more obvious that the judges want her to win?
- rightmindedmoms
And yet, if Bristol Palin does win on Tuesday: it could all backfire. Before, it was just entertainment. Once the possibility of winning becomes a certainty, the fence-sitters may well begin thinking about exactly what this pattern could mean, two years from now.
"Vote like Democrats," I keep telling people. "Early, often, and vote for cats and dogs and dead or imaginary people. Just like Democrats do in real elections".
- Hillbuzz
(I wonder if my inability to find an equivalent anti-Palin thread means that this hypothetical "left" seems to have had better things to do? Although if you know of such a thread, either pro- or anti-Palin, please do link it in the comments below. I would appreciate as complete a picture as I can get.)

I asked it once before and now I ask it again:

Now that you know, can you ever look again at winning without wondering: did I truly win this entirely on my own merits and my own skills? Did I win this on a level playing field? Could I win this on a level playing field?

Now that you know: will it matter to you? Or will you follow the comfortable road, choosing to forget all else against the dazzling light of the winner's trophy?

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