“All TV show voting is fixed!” Or at least that’s what the airport shuttle bus driver was saying. I took my seat, listened to her loud conversation on the phone and then told her that I did most of the TV Contest and Game Show voting – about a thousand shows. She was surprised when I explained how the voting really works.

TV Audience Voting—from Applause Meters to Funniest Home Videos and American Idol

The original method of empowering an in-house TV audience to vote was an applause meter used to measure sound (applause). If you are old enough, you remember the host of shows holding his hand over the head of each contestant and then a shot of the needle spiking on the meter to determine the winner.

The next step (almost three decades ago) was when Quick Tally started wired in-house electronic keypad voting for America’s Funniest Home Videos. We used our audience response system and purpose-made voting devices. The $100,000.00 prize shows involved in-studio voting at multiple “away” locations. The more advanced methodology involves having home viewers cast their votes along with that of the studio audience. Typically the voting is not aggregated adding the studio audience one-on-one with the millions of home voters; each of these elements (including possible celebrity judges) are treated as a separate weighted vote, perhaps with each group given equaled value, perhaps not.

An exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum honoring America’s Funniest Home Videos contains our original wired device. They were honored for helping develop the reality-show with voting competition. It used our purpose-made wired voting devices (keypads). Our largest event (and the world’s largest at the time) was 5,000 people. It took a crew of 45 people a full day to wire the arena then—and just one today.

Large and reliable wireless events were made possible with the advent of spread spectrum radio technology. It really began during World War II, Hedy Lamarr and a scientist invented spread spectrum technology. It was created by a need to work around interference with radio signals to torpedoes.

It was war time (WW II) and out of necessity they were looking for a way to make radio-guided torpedoes harder to detect and jam. Hedy Lammar, the 1940s movie star (often called the most beautiful woman in the world) is in very large part responsible for the ability to use wireless ARS equipment and modern communications including your cell phone). It began with Nikola Tesla and related to work that he did around the start of the 20th Century. (Tesla is probably best known for work that formed the basis of modern alternating current.)

Hedy Lamarr and scientist and composer George Antheil co-invented their “Secret Communications System” an early form of frequency hopping. If knowing it was Hedy Lamarr was not enough to make this fascinating, the most wonderful part of the story is that they used a player piano roll to change among 88 radio frequencies. One frequency could be found and blocked; however skipping between multiple frequencies is quite a difference story. Ms. Lamarr invention was shelved by the Navy and eventually used. Despite her scientific contribution, she also raised millions of dollars in War Bonds, and her treatment by the US government was shameful.

The Rise of Phone and Text Voting

Almost thirty years ago telephone land line call in voting was tried by Funniest Home Videos. They were on right track; however technology wasn’t up to the task. The millions of calls coming in all at once wasn’t really a viable concept. (Quick Tally provided then and now the in-studio and multi-site voting for AFV without using the phone lines.)

After 9-11 people were justifiably afraid to travel and meet in large public gatherings. Online meeting participation solutions became popular out of necessity. Voting was now possible on any web enabled device–and on a huge scale. Not taking into account voting by computer, the number of Smartphones world-wide is over two billion, this year. The estimated number of smartphones in the US is estimated to reach over 270 million in 2020. To put that into perspective, world population is 7.7 billion.

Television soon made that ease of participation into a production value (entertainment and interest by participation) element and a way to hook the voter. If the show was not broadcast at the same time across the country, the results would come in hours after the show ended, so it happily created the need to have a “results show”. Texting empowered huge audiences to participate using their own devices. That changed the game regarding one-person-one-vote in studio voting surety and fairness.

When the voters were outside of the studio, all bets were off regarding fairness. The producers were happy to expand the audience involvement and have an emotional investment in their selection. They also realized that by splitting the texting fee, or being sponsored by the carriers — on millions of calls, was very profitable. The cost was automatically debited from the user’s provider.

American Idol — the benefits and problems with text and internet voting.

The success of American Idol has been described as “unparalleled in broadcasting history”. In 2014 the population of the United States was 318.9 million. American Idol had 178 million texts in a single season, that’s more texts than half of the US population.

Here’s how it’s done: There is a two hour window where the audience can vote for their favorite performers in multiple ways: (1) Toll-free Number Voting; (2) Text Voting; (3) Online Voting (Facebook, Google, etc.) and (4) the American Idol App Voting.

Viewers were allowed to vote as many times as they can on the internet within the two-hour voting window. Voting via text messaging was made available when AT&T Wireless joined as a sponsor of the show. The number of text messages reached 178 million by season eight. Online voting was offered for the first time in season ten.

Good news/bad news!

The good news with the ability to move voting out of the studio is that anyone can vote. The bad news is that anyone can vote—and they do– multiple times. The desire to vote as many times (in general, not specifically related to TV) as possible lead to the rise of Power Voting, which is where viewers use some sort of program that allows them to cast more votes than they could on their own. The show “has the right to discard” that voting. (That is not to say that they do, or do not.) The overall process is fair only in that everyone has an equal opportunity to subvert the vote.

Texting and Web based applications have several important benefits:

  • The viewer is hooked. By allowing the viewer to think that their vote matters and perceive a result in the form of an artist surviving, than the viewer will believe that their interactivity is influential.
  • This involvement and heightened interest created the need for a second highly rated and profitable “results” show.
  • In the beginning of the process producers figured out that there were large amounts of money to be made from splitting the fees with the texting service providers.
  • The voting helps determine which contestant is most popular and marketable. This is extremely valuable information for future shows and potential investments in record sales, etc.
  • The ability to track and possibly respond to viewers is a great chance to sell them on seeing the results show, other shows, or soap suds.

Here the very strictly enforced safeguards

There are two main checks: producers wisely remove themselves from the process by hiring outside companies for the voting, (which is how I make a living) and the entire process is strictly supervised by the networks. In my 30-plus years in the audience response business, I have been asked twice, if I could fix “pre determine” (an artful way of saying fix) the vote at corporate/union events; never by a TV production company.

Audience voting is subjective. It depends upon what the vote is about. Some are simply popularity contests instead of talent contests. Audiences vote differently if the contestants are unknowns than if they are celebrities. If the contestants are known, they vote emotionally as fans, not as judges. Fans have no problem assigning an unpopular personality a zero, or a one. Professional judges normally rate performance and don’t score below a four.

Producers, if they were to choose to, could influence the outcome of the contest, but not via the vote itself. I’m certainly not saying that they do, I’m just pointing out ways in which they could help influence the outcome. They are responsible for the original selection of contestants (and later on for challengers). For example, do the producers of Jeopardy pick more, or less qualified contestants to continue, or break a winning streak? (That would mean selecting contestants on a daily basis and subvert the scheduled process, under the watchful eye of Network Standards and Practices.) Other general factors influencing voting on entertainment shows could be: placement in the order of the show and production elements that are used to “sweeten” the presentation. An example of sweeting might be musical accompaniment and other theatrical elements used as a part of the presentation.

The biggest (generally unknown by the public) deterrent to cheating are the Network Standards and Practices (S&P) Departments which are staffed with very professional personnel– sometimes they are attorneys. They insure fairness both in the presentation and accuracy of the voting. For example, when the voting is limited to the in-house studio audience, “friends and family” of the contestants, employees of the production company, the contestants and network, etc., are not allowed to vote. They also make sure the contestants appear in the voting segment in the same order in which they performed. They watch our Quick Tally computer screens as the voting is collected and insure the voting is valid. I have never been aware of a show favoring any one contestant in the voting process.

The Future

A historic moment for some perspective: A US television station put on a production of a play by Shakespeare; not a big TV event compared to the Super Bowl, or the popularity of Uncle Miltie. However it was special when put into perspective. Understanding that prior to TV, plays were performed for audiences of hundreds, or as many as a few thousand people. The Globe Theatre (still my favorite way to see Shakespeare) holds about 1,500 people. On the day of the TV broadcast, which I watched, more people saw the play, in one country, than had seen it world-wide from the day it was written—from 360 years ago until then. That was the power of modern communications in the 1950s.

Content was traditionally limited by the limitations of the methods of distribution. Now, the traditional barriers to the flow of information being only, print, radio and TV, no longer exist. Things started to change as Quick Tally was used in Florida by Blockbuster Video to have the audience select which video game that was to be played by contestants—and keep score. Then we were used on television, for the first time, to have an audience (which was also the worlds-largest interactive event) determine the winner of a skating contest. It was now possible to move away from only being able to quickly score a few judges votes to an entire arena in real time. The innovation continued with, Eat the Runt, an interactive stage play that used our voting system to empower the audience to select the actors to play each part. There were no pronouns, so depending upon the selection of gender, the meaning changed.

We’ll have to wait and see what future technology makes possible for TV and audience voting. How many millions of people world-wide could become the audience for one broadcast, or message on different voting platforms? Will the world get smaller and more interconnected for the better? What other consequences will the next giant step for audience participation and linking the world-wide together bring? Will the future of our interactive audience participation change from the traditional formats of today and include, or morph to include Augmented Reality? Is the gaming industries delivery of product and hold on the current generation, a harbinger of the future of the TV contests? How will we participate? How will fairness and rules be handled?

You tell me. I welcome (encourage) your comments.

With over 30 years of experience in helping clients achieve their meetings goals. I am passionate about the power of insight. If I can help your firm discover this power, please contact me.

Alan Warshaw
Quick Tally® Interactive Systems, Inc.
Direct Dial: 310.306.4930

About Me

After graduating from New York University with a degree in Communications, Alan attended the New School for Social Research, Graduate School at N.Y.U. and the Master’s Program in Cinema at U.C.L.A. Following his service in the U.S. Army, Alan was employed by Doyle, Dane and Burnbach Advertising Agency. He worked in the U.S. and Europe in the feature motion picture production business. He was employed by Quick Tally Interactive Systems for one year prior to acquiring the company. He has owned and run the company for almost three decades and has pioneered in the manufacturing of ARS equipment and providing interactive event services. In addition to US State and Federal Government Agencies, America’s leading companies, associations and television networks, he has also worked for events clients in the EU, New Zealand, Hong Kong Thailand and Dubai.