By NATE SILVER
From left, “Dancing With the Stars” couples Lacey Schwimmer and Kyle Massey; Bristol Palin and Mark Ballas; and Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough, at the show’s finale on Tuesday night.
The TV tuner at the Silver household is usually stuck on politics, sports, or — if truth must be told — “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” So I can’t acknowledge having spent much time watching “Dancing With the Stars” this year. From what little I caught, it was clear that each of the 12 couples on the show were far more capable dancers than I ever might be. (I’m saving my reality television karma for when CNBC debuts “Spreadsheet Idol.”)
It does seem, however, that the controversy over the performance of Bristol Palin and her partner, Mark Ballas — who survived until the final week of the program in spite of frequently receiving among the lowest marks from the judges — has been too much about Tea Party politics and not enough about the show’s flawed scoring system.
The “Dancing With the Stars” scoring system ostensibly gives equal weight to the opinions of the three-judge panel — all of whom have a lifetime of experience as professional dancers or choreographers — and those of the home audience. But the judges and the audience rely on completely different methods to rate the contestants, and they are not especially compatible.
The judges assign each team a rating from 1 to 10; the scores from the three judges are then combined. Late in the season, each couple will compete multiple times on the same program; the judges’ scores for each dance are combined as well.
But in practice the judges do not use the full 10-point scale. Only 9 percent of the judges’ scores this season were below 6, and just 2 percent were below 4. Perfect 10’s are also extremely rare early in the season — just two were assigned in the first six episodes of the show — although they become much more common late in the year, as all contestants seem to benefit from a sort of grade inflation.
The home audience votes in a completely different way. They do not assign scores at all: instead, they simply pick which couple they like best. One person, one vote. (At least in theory: concerns have been raised about some fans stuffing the ballot box by signing up for multiple online accounts with fake e-mail addresses.)
Mathematically, this is the 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. Suppose, for instance, that late in the season, when there are five couples left, four of the five teams receive 9’s across the board from the judges, and the final couple instead receives straight 7’s. In terms of the way the judges normally vote, that is a rather clear verdict: the low-scoring couple has had an inferior performance, and should be eliminated.
But in reality the 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.
Sometimes the distinctions are even finer than this. In week 7, for instance, when there were six couples remaining, Ms. Palin and Mr. Ballas received the lowest score from the judges after middling renditions of the Cha-Cha-Cha and the Viennese Waltz. But the way that the show’s scoring system works, they 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.
Although there were some quasi-organized efforts to encourage people to vote for Ms. Palin and Mr. Ballas – including some on Republican-leaning Web sites that might ordinarily take little interest in “Dancing With the Stars” — they may have been superfluous. Just the slightest quirk in audience voting — whether because of the contestant’s politics, her celebrity appeal, or something else (perhaps, as in the case of Sanjaya Malakar of “American Idol,” some home audience members would deliberately vote for the worst contestant) — could easily overcome a fairly clear verdict from the judges.
There are a few relatively simple reforms that ABC might consider to overcome some of these problems.
First, it could encourage judges to use the full, 10-point scale: a truly execrable performance should be met with a 2 or 3, and not a gentleman’s 6. Alternatively, it could narrow the scale — say, to between 1 and 4 stars, with no half-stars allowed — which would force the judges to make finer points of distinction.
Secondly, although it would probably be too cumbersome to have the audience rate each couple from 1 to 10 as the judges do, ABC could allow each home voter to cast two votes: one for the best-performing couple, and the other for the one they felt was most deserving of elimination. This would eliminate the problem of a situation where a couple — perhaps like Ms. Palin and Mr. Ballas — sparked a highly polarized reaction: they would be punished if much of the home audience wanted to boot them out, just as they would benefit if a vocal minority wanted to keep them in. (The potential downside: it could encourage cut-throat behavior on the part of the audience, like deliberately voting to eliminate a strong-performing couple. In reality TV terms, however, this might only add to the fun.)
And whatever else it did, ABC could stand to make the voting more transparent, such as by revealing the exact number of votes received by each team from the home audience — something that reality shows, in spite of their pretenses of being democratic, have long been reluctant to do.
Of course, from ABC’s standpoint, there may have been absolutely nothing wrong with the outcome, for “Dancing With the Stars” did just fine when it comes to the numbers that matter the most: ratings for the show’s finale — perhaps because of the controversy surrounding Ms. Palin — were up 25 percent from last season.