Mac Musings

Where Dancing with the Stars Went Wrong

Dan Knight - 2010.11.18 - Tip Jar

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This article has nothing to do with Macs, although I used a Mac to write it, research it, and calculate numbers. The goal of this column is to help people understand the voting system used by Dancing with the Stars and see how it has created so much controversy this season.

Something is seriously wrong on Dancing with the Stars when the lowest scored "star" (teen activist Bristol Palin) remains on the show while better dancers - Brandy this week, after scoring a perfect 30 for one dance - are being voted off the show.

The judges are shocked. The other dancers are stunned. And one man in Wisconsin was so incensed that he shot his TV set.

The show has become nothing more than a popularity contest. Because of the voting system it has used since Season 3, the judge's ratings are almost meaningless to the final results.

How Scoring Works

The producers of Dancing don't say anything on the show explaining how popular votes and the judges' scores are weighted to produce a final result, although that information is posted on the show's website.

There are two components involved in a dancer's final score, the rating by the show's judges and votes from the general public.

The first problem is that the votes and the judges scores are treated as being equally important. I'm sorry, but Carrie Ann, Len, and Bruno know a lot more about good dancing than the American public - even those who have watched all 11 seasons. Their scores should be worth more.

The second problem is the way votes and scores are converted to percentage points when creating the final score. Here's how that works:

1. The scores for all the dancers are totaled, and then each dancer's score is divided by that number. Here's how that worked out this week (228 points total):

  • Jennifer Grey, 60 points - 26.3%
  • Kyle Massey, 58 points - 25.4%
  • Brandy, 57 points - 25.0%
  • Bristol Palin, 53 points - 23.2%

In this case, the worst dancer only need to receive 3.1% more votes than the best dancer to have the highest result - and a mere 1.8% to beat out the dancer in third place.

2. Viewers are allowed multiple votes (if I recall correctly, five per phone number or email address this week), which can be divided among the dancers or all cast for a single dancer.

That's the part that the producers of Dancing don't make public, but it's easy to see how those results can be skewed by a concerted effort to keep one dancer in play.

Let's say 2 million viewers cast their maximum number of votes for a total of 10 million votes (we'll ignore the possibilities of vote fraud, although it should be easy for someone to have multiple email addresses and use different browsers or clear cookies so they can vote from each address). Further, let's say that 72% of the voters only vote for the three best dancers, sometimes dividing their votes and sometimes giving them all to on dancer. Assuming a pretty even distribution, that's 2.4 million votes for each of the top dancers.

The other 28% of viewers are Bristol Palin fans and cast all five of their votes for her. That's 2.8 million votes to keep the lowest rated dancer on the show.

In this purely hypothetical case, the three better dancers would each have 24% added to their scores, while Bristol Palin would gain 28%. End result:

  • Jennifer Grey, 60 points - 26.3 + 24.0 = 50.3
  • Kyle Massey, 58 points - 25.4 + 24.0 = 49.4
  • Brandy, 57 points - 25.0 + 24.0 = 49.0
  • Bristol Palin, 53 points - 23.2 + 28 = 51.2

And that's how a group with its own agenda can throw things off, driving away some of the best dancers week after week while keeping Palin, who has been the weakest dancer on the show for some weeks now.

The Old System

During the first two seasons, the final score was handled differently. After the judges gave out their scores, the dancers were rated by their position on the list. This past week, Jennifer Grey would have received a 1, Kyle Massey a 2, Brandy a 3, and Bristol Palin a 4.

Votes would have then been counted, with Palin ranking #1 (which is speculation, but seems likely based on the math above) and perhaps Gray 2, Brandy 3, and Massey 4. Net scores would be:

  • Jennifer Grey, 1 + 2 = 3
  • Kyle Massey, 2 + 4 = 6
  • Brandy, 3 + 3 = 6
  • Bristol Palin, 4 + 1 = 5

This system put more weight on the scores of the judges, because the absolute number of viewer votes only mattered in giving dancers a ranking score. But even in this case, Bristol would still be hanging in there. However, if she took second place and Grey had the most votes, there would be a three-way tie - and that would be a mess.

How to Fix It

Here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, we have something called ArtPrize, an art competition open to artists from anywhere in the world. Art is rated by those who view the artwork. This year, the second year for the competition, there were 192 places to view the art, 1,713 artists, 38,501 activated voters, and 465,538 votes cast. The artist with the most votes takes the $250,000 prize, and all the artists receive a lot of exposure for their art.

Voters can vote a piece of art up or down, although the down scores are only used in case of a tie in up scores. After one week, the Top 10 pieces are announced, and voters are allowed to cast a single vote during Week 2 of the competition.

The Down Vote

I'm not proposing that as a solution for the Dancing problem, but the "down" score could point us in the right direction.

What if, instead of voting for their favorite dancer, viewers were given one vote each week which would be cast for the dancer they think should be voted off the show? Palin would have been gone long ago, a result that most Dancing viewers thing should have taken place.

You wouldn't even need to take the judge's votes into consideration until the final round (although they probably would factor this in as well). Their votes would help viewers identify which dancer should be going home each week.

No Multiple Votes for Dancers

Another way to fix Dancing would be to allow viewers X votes, where that number is one less than the number of contestants, and only allow them to case one vote per dancer. Palin boosters would only be able to help so much, and every vote they also cast for another dancer would dilute Palin's final count.

At the same time, Dancing should dispense with the practice of weighting votes as an absolute percentage of votes cast. Instead, take the total number of voters as a score of 30 and give each dancer points based on what percentage of that number they receive. If Palin gets votes from 28% of the viewers, she would receive 8.4 points. If someone receives votes from 80% of voters, add 24 to his or her score.

Add the score from the judges to this number for your final score, in which case this week's results might have looked like this:

  • Jennifer Grey, 60 points - 26.3 + 24.0 = 50.3
  • Kyle Massey, 58 points - 25.4 + 20.0 = 45.4
  • Brandy, 57 points - 25.0 + 20.0 = 45.0
  • Bristol Palin, 53 points - 23.2 + 8.4 = 31.2

This still gives the voters a lot of weight in the voting process while making the scores from the judges a bigger part of the final result. The show's producers might want to tweak this so the dancer with the most votes scores 30, but either way, it retains the importance of the dance scores while still giving a lot of weight to votes from the public.

Either of these would solve the problem that Dancing with the Stars has created for itself.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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