Is reality-show voting rigged? Well, sort of ...

By Randee Dawn
|  Saturday, Apr 17, 2010  |  Updated 6:30 AM EDT
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The Science Behind Reality-Show Voting

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Television’s latest, greatest mystery isn’t about how “Lost” will end. Instead, it’s why Kate Gosselin is still “Dancing.”

Television’s latest, greatest mystery isn’t about how “Lost” will end, or whether anyone on “American Idol” will finally show some personality. Instead, it’s this: Just how in the world is Kate Gosselin still on “Dancing With the Stars”?

Weekly, Gosselin’s dancing has dismayed even elephants. Yet, week after week she keeps coming back despite dismal ratings from judges.

Such behavior has raised a few eyebrows, ones that usually lift after the finale of “American Idol,” when an Adam Lambert loses to a Kris Allen. But “Dancing’s” higher (and “Idol”-surpassing) recent ratings, along with Gosselin’s strange success, have made it a magnet for attention. Could someone be cooking those votes?

Not likely, say industry experts, but it’s not the whole story, either.

“Kate is staying because she’s killer TV,” says Kirsten Alvarado Valkingburg, a producer and talent manager for such reality fare as “Meet My Folks” and “Who Wants to Marry My Dad.”

“People forget that she’s an author and her fan base is huge — every mother in America knows her and they are keeping her in the game because that show’s audience is largely female,” adds Valkingburg.

“Idol” allows viewers to vote as often as they like, but “Dancing” places limits on the number of times an individual can vote each week, then combines those viewer votes with the judges’ scores. It’s that latter blending that can lead to “interpretation” of results — a poorly performing dancer with a high vote tally may do better than one who is merely average in both areas. For now, Gosselin’s star power simply trumps her scores.

“At some point it’ll become apparent that she’s not the one for the show and she’ll go then,” says Dave Broome, creator and executive producer of “The Biggest Loser.” “But it does make the integrity of the dancing aspect of the show a different element.”

Primary factors
Integrity and credibility are two primary factors that let a show sink or swim — without both, ratings slip. TV viewers are on some level aware that reality shows are scripted, cast and otherwise finessed, but competition programs that invite viewer participation through voting are particularly susceptible to appearances of impropriety.

That’s also true on non-voting shows: Carol Leifer, the first contestant fired from this season’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” indicated in an interview that she felt her ouster was politically motivated. She noted that the other contestants wanted Cyndi Lauper out, and Leifer felt she was asked to leave because she wasn’t as big a celebrity.

But show executive producer, star and big boss Donald Trump says he won’t take notes from a producer when firing time comes.

“I make my own decisions,” he says. “I never make a decision based on entertainment value. If it’s going to hurt my credibility, I won’t do it. Once I lose that credibility, the show no longer works.”

Swaying votes
The thing is, actual numbers may never be tweaked, but producers have more subtle ways to sway public opinion. For example, exact numbers of votes per contestant are never broadcast, and those “bottom” performers pulled to the side each week just before the losing contestant is announced may not be the lowest-scoring participants.

Sometimes, groups or pairs are put in the “bottom” groupings because producers particularly like them — and want to goose sympathy (and votes, and ratings) with the “shocking” revelation that the contestants might be on their way out.

Yet some of those viewers are out there trying to game the system themselves. Web sites such as VoteForTheWorst.com encourage “Idol” viewers to choose the least-talented singer in the hopes of de-legitimizing the show.

Such efforts rarely produce results, says Broome. “That gives too much credit to the audience,” he says. “Those sites are funny and in a way they show the power you give to the public, but they don’t move the needle that much.”

Whoever makes that needle move, however — legitimately good performers, overeager fans or calculating producers — the truth is that reality shows are more TV than reality. What producers may not comprehend, though, is that too much manufactured drama may come to bite reality shows in their talented posteriors.

 

“With ‘Dancing,’ it’s basically the powers that be trying to move the variables around in a way so they can get what they want,” says Robert Galinsky, founder of the New York Reality TV School. “They don’t overtly fix the contest. Some producers out there think their audience is made up of 5-year-olds and they can do bait and switch, or talk them into it.

“But Americans have doctorates in watching television,” he continues. “They’re becoming much more sophisticated. And they have no time for fake people and falsehoods.”

Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York City, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion,” which was published in 2009.

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