When discussing interactive media the first examples that are referenced tend to be video games and interactive art. This is not at all surprising since interacting with video games has become second nature to our digital culture and interactive art is predominantly self-reflexive and explicitly brings interactivity to the forefront of its discussion and performance. However, a form of interactive media that isn’t completely apparent is the form of voting in reality competition programs such as American Idol.
American Idol was created by Simon Fuller, a British music and television producer who’s British show, Pop Idol, was an enormous success. American Idol premiered in 2001 and became an immediate hit show. By 2004, American Idol had already become the most watched show in the US and held that position for 7 years straight.
The basic structure of the show begins with a series of auditions where contestants are judged by a panel and narrowed down to a group of 24 to 36 semifinalists. At this point, the audience becomes the judge. Contestants then perform and after the show there is a two hour window where the audience can vote for their favorite performers in multiple ways: (1) Toll-free Number Voting; (2) AT&T Text Voting; (3) Online Voting at http://www.AmericanIdol.com; and (4) the American Idol App Voting. In the first two options viewers can vote as often as they want, but in the second two options their votes are limited to 50.
By setting up the TV show in this way, the narrative of the show is given over to the audience. In the first part of the show, the viewers are simply passive spectators. In this portion they are beginning to become acquainted with the contestants’ stories. After certain contestants survive through the rounds a stronger bond is formed between the audience and the contestants. After the competitive field is narrowed down even further, viewers start to form favorites. When the audience is given the chance to vote, strong emotional bonds are already present and viewers are engaged with the narrative arcs of the contestant. The audience is empowered to take ownership and control the artist’s fate by participating in the voting.
This form of interactivity is located in what Eric. P Bucy calls the User Perceptions Locus of Interactivity. Bucy states that more so than knowing whether their interactivity is substantial, it’s actually the experience of interactivity that really matters. 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.
An important note to make is that during the voting periods, there is no visual tracking of the votes. That is, there is no way for a viewer to know if a contestant is winning or losing in the voting. Viewers simply cast their vote and then hope to find out during the results show whether their interactivity actually paid off. In this way, there is no real two way communication between the viewer and the show. Sure, their artist might have survived the round, but that doesn’t mean it was because of their interactivity. What the show hinges upon is that the entire audience’s interaction and therefore individual interaction is almost unimportant.
One further complication to the value of a viewer’s interaction is the rise of power voting. Power voting is where viewers use some sort of program that allows them to cast more votes than they could on their own. In some instances individuals are able to cast hundreds or thousands of votes. One such program is called DialIdol. In addition to power voting, Dial Idol also tracks busy signals in the phone lines that can be interpreted to discover the frequency of votes for each contestant thus enabling predictions. DialIdol and power voting is problematic because it further decreases the value of a single individuals vote.
On the other hand, there is an entirely different perspective on interactivity from the point of view of the producers. Simon Fuller describes the process of creating the show for a purely consumer driven purpose in a 2011 interview with Variety. In the interview he states that “the interactivity was important because this would allow the audience to tell me who they liked best and this, in turn, would indicate to me who would have the most fans and eventually sell the most music and become the biggest stars.” Therefore, to him, and the shows sponsors, interactivity is a marketing tool. He makes it clear that what he created was not something to empower audience members or a form of mass communication but a “unprecedented promotional marketing platform that speaks directly to the consumer” which has in turn “translated into tens of millions of sales in both music and concert tickets and has created endless other commercial opportunities.” From this perspective, the interactivity seems to be located in what Bucy calls the Technology Locus of Interactivity. To the producers of the show, the interactivity is simply a form which provides insight on observable behavior.
Depending on how you look at Fuller’s statements, interactivity can be seen as either positive or negative. If you consider Fuller’s view of interactivity it is an enormous positive value for him, but perhaps a negative value for the viewers who are being mined for marketing information. Yet, in the audiences view, interactivity has a positive value because they perceive that they are in control of the show and that what how they interact is essential to the show. However, Bucy argues that interactivity itself is “value-neutral, although the outcomes associated with it may be value laden.” Despite the ambiguity over the value of interactivity, it is undeniable that incorporating it into American Idol is one reason for the widespread success of the show.
Bucy, Erik P. “Interactivity in Society: Locating and Elusive Concept.” Information Society. 20. (2004): 373-383. Print.
Fuller, Simon “Simon Fuller on how ‘Idol’ Began” Variety.com, May 20th, 2011. http://variety.com/2011/tv/news/simon-fuller-on-how-idol-began-2-1118037190/
“How do I vote?” AmericanIdol.com, 2013. http://www.americanidol.com/faq#question_1
“How does DialIdol Work?” DialIdol.com, 2013. http://www.dialidol.com/asp/faq/faq.asp