Why Dial Idol Doesn’t Work For DWTS

It seems as though every season, some people either freak out or get excited over what they see on Dial Idol for DWTS - maybe their favorite is in the lead, maybe the couple they hate is in the bottom, maybe a high-scoring couple looks like they aren’t getting votes.  While I agree that it would be great to “pull back the curtain” and get a peek at what the volume of votes for each couple might actually be, I can tell you this right now: it’s a carefully-guarded secret, and TPTB have ways to keep it that way – despite the efforts of supposedly “genius” software like Dial Idol.  So let’s debunk this one, shall we?

First of all, a bit of background on Dial Idol. It’s a software program created in 2005 by Jim Hellriegel, a fan of American Idol, that uses your computer modem to automatically “speed-dial” in votes for your favorite contestant.  It then measures how often a busy signal bounces back on a particular contestant’s phone number, and, assuming that a greater number of busy signals bouncing back means that more people are trying to vote for a particular contestant, then the more votes a certain contestant must be getting. The idea was pretty clever (at the time), and despite efforts by the FOX legal team to get it shut down due to copyright infringement, it’s perfectly legal, and has correctly predicted the winners of 5 seasons of Idol.

So, you ask, why can’t the same program work for DWTS?

REASON #1: We have a limited number of votes.

Keep in mind, this software program was created for Idol, and on that show, there is no limit on the number of times you can vote; so, in theory, you could get hundreds of votes in for your favorite contestant before the phone lines closed.  Hence, the more votes you can dial in, the more often you either do or don’t get a busy signal, and the more accurate the Dial Idol results are going to be. We don’t have that luxury on DWTS – we get a small, limited amount of votes each week, meaning we have fewer opportunities to measure a potential busy signal.  For those with a bit of knowledge in statistics, the smaller your sample size is = the less accurate your results are going to be. And the sample size for DWTS is going to be much, much smaller than it is for Idol, due to the voting limit.  Really and truly, it almost seems like a waste of time to even use Dial Idol to get your phone votes in to begin with – you’d reach your limit pretty quickly, unless the phone lines are particularly busy (such as in the finale). 

REASON #2: We have a larger “window of opportunity” to vote.

The voting lines on Idol don’t open until the end of the show and are open for 2 hours after that; the voting lines on DWTS are open from the beginning of the show until 30 minutes after the show is over.  Not only do DWTS voters get an extra half-hour to vote by phone, but we’re not limited to waiting until we’ve seen all the performances before we cast our votes.  So what does that mean? Some smart “power voters” (like Heidi) will start voting for their favorites as soon as the show starts, when the phone lines aren’t so busy. Some viewers (like my mom) will wait until one performance catches her eye midway through the show and will give all her votes to them. And some voters will wait until the end of the show to cast their votes.  What does this mean? With a larger time window to vote, there’s also the potential for the voting to get “spread out” a bit more – meaning there’s less liklihood of getting a busy signal, even though there may be just as many votes being cast for a particular contestant. With Idol, everyone is scrambling to get their votes in at the same time – meaning busy signals galore, and a more accurate estimate of just how many people are voting for a particular contestant. With DWTS, there may be a bit of a scramble to get votes in after the show is over, but Dial Idol likely won’t pick up on votes that were made earlier in the show, when there wasn’t the same urgency to hurry up and get your votes in…and hence, fewer busy signals to measure. 

REASON #3: Dial Idol doesn’t take text message or online votes into account.

 Perhaps the biggest caveat of Dial Idol is that it only measures phone votes – and with more and more shows also opening up voting via text message and Internet (Idol included, as of this season), it’s going to become progressively less accurate.  There is absolutely no easy way to quantitatively measure text message or online votes – no busy signal to bounce back, no publicly-available statistics, etc. If you think about it, phone voting is possibly the LEAST convenient method of voting for a reality show anymore – if there’s a busy signal, you just have to wait and keep hitting redial; even though the call is toll-free, you still use up minutes if you call from a cell phone; and fewer and fewer homes have landlines anymore – leaving fewer avenues to dial in your votes.  I get the feeling that more and more viewers are resorting to voting online or via text – there’s no waiting, there’s a longer window of opportunity to vote (at least online), and you’re able “cheat” the system a bit by creating multiple accounts to vote online (I can’t vouch for Idol, but I think we’ve all seen what a boon online voting can be for some DWTS viewers!).  Why even waste time and money on slow phone voting when you can get the instant gratification of voting via text or Internet? And thus our Dial Idol “sample size” gets even smaller.

 REASON #4: Dial Idol gives itself a “safety net” of accuracy.

 Ever notice how sometimes the results at Dial Idol are different colors? You may have written it off as the web designer just trying to make the site more “visually pleasing”, but the colors do have some significance – it’s basically a way to show how confident they are in the results for each contestant.  And that’s where the sneaky yellow-colored results come in – officially, it’s a way to say that the results are “too close to call” between all of the contestants who’s results are yellow; unofficially, I think it’s a way for Dial Idol to save face in the event that they’re completely off-the-mark, and pad their accuracy percentage. :-) See the column that says “Dial Idol Range”? Those numbers from 1-whatever for each couple are where they’re predicted to be ranked in terms of votes.  And when those numbers are yellow, it means it’s too close to call, and the contestant could fall anywhere between those 2 numbers.  Let’s use this week’s DWTS results on Dial Idol as an example. Chelsea & Mark are in the lead with a Dial Idol score of 31.92.  But all of the couples’ scores are yellow, meaning it’s too close to call, and all of the couples could potentially be as low as 11th place.  What does that mean? That if there was an elimination this week, and Chelsea & Mark get sent home, it would still count as a “correct” prediction for Dial Idol, since they said it was too close to call and that Chelsea & Mark could be anywhere between 1-11th place. Inflated accuracy percentage much? Is your faith in Dial Idol wavering yet? :-) That sneaky yellow “too close to call” is what lulls a lot of people into a false sense of security – their favorite couple may be in the lead with their Dial Idol score, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe from elimination.  And even the green & red colors, which signify “likely safe” and “likely in danger”, respectively, are no guarantee – Dial Idol has been wrong about those before, too.  Why, you ask? Which brings me to my final point…

REASON #5: NOT EVERYONE USES DIAL IDOL TO GET THEIR VOTES IN!!!!

Remember what I said about sample size? The more people that use Dial Idol, the more accurate it becomes (in theory).  The problem is – we don’t know how many people are actually using Dial Idol to vote, and in order to get a decent representation of what kind of votes each of the contestants is getting, there has to be people using Dial Idol to vote for each of the contestants.  The same applies to any show that Dial Idol supports – how can it measure the busy signal for each contestant if there isn’t at least one person using it to vote for each contestant? Let’s say no one uses Dial Idol to vote for Chris & Cheryl.  Then there’s going to be no busy signals bouncing back, and to those who don’t know the particulars about how Dial Idol works, it’s going to appear as though they got the low score and are predicted to head home.  In reality, there simply isn’t any data to determine whether they’re going to stay, go, or how they stack up against other contestants.  Or, on the other hand, let’s say most of the people using Dial Idol are voting for Hines & Kym.  It’s going to result in an inflated score for them that may make it look like they’re safe, but without equally as diverse data for each of the other contestants, there’s no way to know for sure. 

The bottom line? Short of forcing everyone voting on the show to use Dial Idol to phone in their votes, giving us limitless votes, and making us wait until AFTER the show is over to vote, and finding a way to measure the impact of online voting & text message voting, Dial Idol is NEVER going to have the same success on DWTS that it has had on Idol up to this point.  I say “up to this point” because now Idol also has online voting, and I think that will impact the results even more.  So who knows, Dial Idol may become obsolete soon…yet another reason not to put too much stock in it ;-)