Audience votes have disproportionate power on Dancing with the Stars

While Dancing with the Stars gives equal weight to viewer votes and the judges’ scores, in reality, viewers have a lot more power than judges Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli, and Carrie Ann Inaba. That’s what allows someone who receives consistently weak scores, such as Bristol Palin or Marie Osmond, to stick around. So not only is it an obvious popularity contest, but a contestant doesn’t even have to be super-popular to overcome low judges’ scores.

New York Times poll guru Nate Silver examines the voting system, and finds that it’s flawed for two reasons: because “in practice the judges do not use the full 10-point scale” and the audience’s vote “is the [mathematical] equivalent of the audience assigning their favorite couple a perfect 10, and every other couple a 0. This gives the audience much more power over the show’s outcome than the judges.”

He shows how that affects actual voting scenarios, pointing out that in one example, a “low-scoring team would need to receive only 24 percent of the votes from the home audience — just barely better than the 20 percent they would get if the audience voted completely at random — to be guaranteed passage into the next round. It doesn’t matter if 24 percent of the audience thought they were the best-performing couple — and the other 76 percent thought they were the worst one! They would still advance to the next episode.”

During week seven, he writes that Bristol and Mark “would have needed to receive only 2 percent more of the audience vote than one of the highest-scoring teams — Brandy and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, or Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough — to place ahead of them.”

As a result of this, Silver suggests two reforms: “encourage judges to use the full, 10-point scale” or “narrow the scale — say, to between 1 and 4 stars, with no half-stars allowed,” and to let viewers “cast two votes: one for the best-performing couple, and the other for the one they felt was most deserving of elimination.”

I like the latter suggestion, but reality TV voting is pretty clearly established as voting for your favorites—that inspires people to call, and vote for more people (if they hate someone, they can spread their votes out against that person). It’d be super-easy to do the former, and it’d be awesome if the judges actually scored awful dances with one point instead of, say, four or even six.

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