How is American Idol's Phone System Configured?
April 23, 2006 3:45 AM   Subscribe

For *cough* professional *cough* reasons (see profile) I'm interested in how a large scale "vote for your favorite" phone bank would be setup. Every year during American Idol seasons fans complain that they were unable to vote for their favorite - why might that be?

Now, the popular grassy knoll theory is that the show producers make certain lines unavailable for contestants that they no longer want to be on the show. To make that happen the phone system would have to be setup in such a way that a block of "lines" was actually reserved on a contestant by contestant basis. Now, I admittedly no very little about phone systems but this theory makes little sense to me. Wouldn't it make more sense for American Idol to by a "block" of lines - let's say 100,000 for arguments sake, and then accept calls for any voter on any line?

There is an increasingly popular website called Dial Idol that claims to be able to predict show results based on a contestants "busy signal percentage". The site has been amazingly accurate recently - so perhaps I am wrong and AI does set aside "blocks" of phone lines per contestant. If the lines were configured according to my theory above then each contestant would have exactly the same chance of getting a busy signal.

Add to this the ability to "text vote" via cell phone which never receives any busy signals

I bring this to mefi as a longtime member looking for reasonable technical discussion and not fanboy "they cheated" chatter. What would be a reasonable way for a phone vote system of this magnitude to be configured?
posted by dhacker to Media & Arts (28 answers total)
i have wondered about this in the past. while it doesn't answer your question, it struck me that using something very similar to the "busy signal percentage" would allow you to get reasonably good scores based on a small number of phones, especially if all that mattered was the relative ranking of different numbers. in essence, you could have one phone for each number and the most popular would have the smallest average time between calls.

(in practice i assume that they make money off calls and so would not do this)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:10 AM on April 23, 2006

andrew, statistically, it makes sense that this methodology would work but only if each performer had their own bank of reserved phone lines. My suspicion is that they do not - each call goes to the same bank and is then routed appropriately. In that case the busy pcts. should be the same for every performer.

I'm wondering if anyone in mefi land knows more.
posted by dhacker at 4:28 AM on April 23, 2006

actually, what i said doesn't make much sense anyway because if you just wanted a ranking the most calls wins. my original thought was that you could use the time between calls to correct for busy lines and so get a more accurate estimate.

addressing your argument, i think you could still use this (measuring the gap between calls to correct the call rate for busy lines) as long as you assigned the gap to the person voted for in the next call (although the actual correction function would change).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:00 AM on April 23, 2006

Let me be clear, I think Dial Idol's methodology is wrong because I don't thnk the phone systems are configured on a "per contestant" basis. I believe that there is a "bank" of lines and that each contestant should therefore have an equal "busy percentage". Problematically, Dial Idol has been very accurate recently so, am I wrong?

Any insight on how large scale phone systems like this would be configured?
posted by dhacker at 5:09 AM on April 23, 2006

oh, i see. presumably you're wrong, then.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:21 AM on April 23, 2006

Ha! Good one. The meager evidence available would suggest that I'm wrong. I just don't believe the evidence. Maybe I'm just skeptical. I do know a LITTLE about phone systems and this sort of setup (blocks of lines reserved per contestant) doesn't seem logical.

I'm willing to be wrong - I'd just like some confirmation from another source that I am.
posted by dhacker at 5:35 AM on April 23, 2006

ok, it seems the word you want is "televoting". google turns up a load of relevant-looking hits, but i can't find an exact answer (haven't looked very hard).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:38 AM on April 23, 2006

they all seem to be integrated solutions. i'm beginning to think you're right - there seems to be something fishy about the "busy line" story. sorry can't be more help...
posted by andrew cooke at 5:41 AM on April 23, 2006

Let's say American Idol(AI) have a bank of N telephone numbers, and contestants Fu and Bar.

Normally, AI could set up Call forwarding, or 'rollover' at the PBX so each phone forwards to the next in numerical order (IE: 867-5309 forwards to 867-5310 when busy.), If AI breaks the forwarding chain at N/2, and give out 867-5309 for Fu and the start of the second half of the forwarding link to Bar, you have a 'Fair' playing field, and can receive N/2 calls simultaniously for each contestant - But it caps the maximum number of calls-per-minute either contestant can receive to(60/((n/2)*avg call length)) - Thereby serving as an automatic damping function: Popular Fu will not get all of his votes counted, but unpopular Bar will.

AI could cheat, for example, by breaking the chain at N/3, and giving Bar 2/3 of the open phone lines if they wanted to damp Fu's votes and inflate Bar's - But it would result in Dial Idol's guesstimate of votes for Fu being too high(Because they observed too many busy signals) and Bar's being too low (because they didn't observe enough.) - AI could fudge the number of calls they report having recieved to roughly match with the externally perceived count, however.

On the other hand, if AI is influencing DialIdol (directly(AI running them as a shell) or indirectly(AI writing an application that spews skewed busy results into the DialIdol server)), both sets of numbers could be skewed or even completely fake.

And that has nothing to say about how DialIdol's program itself may be skewing the voting - Either by functioning as advertised, or by ignoring the user input and voting for whoever the original writer tells it to vote for.
posted by Orb2069 at 6:10 AM on April 23, 2006

I read this week that in the show's Terms & Conditions it explicitly says they can end the voting whenever they feel like it and that they can drop/ ignore votes for any reason. So they don't need to futz with the phones to get the result they want. It really is just a season-long intro to Simon Cowell's newest recording artist.
posted by yerfatma at 6:25 AM on April 23, 2006

yerfatma, do you have a link for that?
posted by dhacker at 6:30 AM on April 23, 2006

Since a huge chunk of the programme's revenue comes from the half billion plus calls they receive, I - perhaps naively - don't think they'd want to prevent people getting through, and thus paying. Monkey with the votes afterwards, perhaps, (รก la yerfatma's suggestion) but problems with connecting are surely due to the unprecendented volume of calls hitting the system.
posted by RokkitNite at 6:32 AM on April 23, 2006

dhacker's point is (i believe) that the most efficient way for them to make money, and also measure contestant's success, is to have a single queue for all numbers, connecting to the next available response. this would give an accurate relative rating of contestants, and maximise the takings (per call charge) but imply that callers for all contestants have an equal chance of a busy line. if that is the case, then "dial idol" would not work.

so either dial idol are lying, or the voting system is not configured in the most efficient way, or there is something wrong in the model used above.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:39 AM on April 23, 2006

Call gapping could potentially drop calls with a busy signal before they're ever collated.

There was much discussion about this in the UK a while back - the newsgroup uk.telecom and the search term "Pop Idol" might be good places to start. I seem to recall contestant A was expected to be way out in front, but contestant B won. The result was that both A and B got recording deals - two for the price of one series.
posted by Leon at 6:45 AM on April 23, 2006

But if they were "monkeying with the votes" or "dropping calls" would that mean they were misleading people by encouraging them to vote by phone and pay money for the contestant they want to stay.

If they then are doing this, is that not obtaining money through fraudulent means?
posted by ndaguiar at 7:02 AM on April 23, 2006

ah! call gapping would give dial idol the information they want while letting american idol do the most efficient thing possible (and since it could be at any switch, it's outside american idol's control anyway, so they can't stop dial idol). sweet! thanks!

(call gapping is where a switch drops calls to a number when they get too frequent, returning the busy number, so it serves as a measure of the popularity of that number, which is what dial idol want. this happens automatically at switches in the network that have no knowledge of american idol, so all numbers are independent).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:02 AM on April 23, 2006

Just from the technical side...

Usually, all of the inbound telephone NUMBERS come in on the same set of lines (herein referred to as 'trunks') which are generally, but not always, a set of PRI spans or DS-3 spans. This could, of course be set up with multiple sites and the carrier load-balances the calls between multiple locations.

Now - what is answering the call can be a human, but in all likelihood it's an IVR system. The Calling Party Dialed Number (CPND) is transmitted on the inbound line, so it doesn't actually matter what 'line' or 'trunk' the call comes in on - it just depends on what number is dialed. In large phone banks a busy signal is ONLY returned from the CARRIER level - that is, if the carrier cannot connect the call a busy signal is returned to the carrier.

Now, a single PRI span can handle 23 calls simultaneously, and a DS-3 is a collection of 28 PRIs - so, if they have, say, 2 DS-3s, they can receive 1,288 calls simultaneously - (23*28*2.) The point is that the CAPACITY the call centers/phone banks can take is finite. And the AI people do pay for each and every call, offset by ad revenue.

The IVR (if that's what they're using) records the number of calls taken in, and they get a report on how many times a specific number was dialed during the voting process.

It is possible to get a record from the carrier level showing what number was dialed when a busy signal was returned anyway. But that would raise the question of whether or not they are counting those busied-out calls as actual votes. I would suspect not, but then again, I work in telecom and not on a TV show.

And as far as text-voting goes, that's just an extrapolation of the same thing. The calls are routed either to a carrier who is reporting back the number of votes, or there is an interconnection relationship between the phone bank IVR and the receiving text-message entity. Not sure what the transport methodology would be though.

Make what you want of this information - I'm just telling you how phone banks/call centers are generally established.
posted by Thistledown at 7:10 AM on April 23, 2006

The technical stuff is pretty much way over my head, but I'd just like to point out that there is no fee per call to vote.
From the AI FAQ:
How much does it cost to vote?
Telephone calls to the American Idol voting lines are toll-free. If you use a wireless phone to call the American Idol voting lines, airtime and applicable roaming and long distance charges will apply. Additionally, if you vote using Cingular Wireless Text Messaging, standard Text Messaging fees will apply

And there, they also blame busy signals on congested local phone companies.
posted by ferociouskitty at 7:31 AM on April 23, 2006

Would area code specific voting have anything to do with anything? I've heard that if people on the west coast are in the east and try to vote with cell phones, they can't get through until the show is over in the west. I don't know if that would have anything to do with phone banks, though.

Mostly I just wanted to say I like your site. I even sent my mom to it the other day when she wanted to see the SNL sketch that you posted.
posted by sugarfish at 7:44 AM on April 23, 2006

There's no fee to the CALLER, but AI is paying to RECEIVE those calls. Nothing happens in the telephone network without someone paying for it, some way. Even 'free' services are paid for somewhere else.
posted by Thistledown at 8:45 AM on April 23, 2006

In the UK the equivalent of AI is Pop Idol and the calls to that are chargeable, about 25p each, which I think is about 18 cents a call.
posted by ndaguiar at 10:40 AM on April 23, 2006

That's strange... why would American Idol not charge? I thought part of the business model of those kind of shows was to make loads of money out of fools calling premium-rate lines to vote.
posted by reklaw at 11:09 AM on April 23, 2006

Sorry, I don't have a link (which is why I shouldn't have said anything). I most likely read it off of one of my bloglines feeds, but that's tough to track down.
posted by yerfatma at 1:12 PM on April 23, 2006

Occam's Razor: If American Idol wants to monkey with the votes, it is going to be easier for them to just ignore the phone vote and make up what they want. I'd guess they do record the phone vote as a sort of consumer satisfaction survey, but just make up the reported results.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:20 PM on April 23, 2006

That's strange... why would American Idol not charge?
They are already able to charge record-setting amounts of cash for the advertisers that show commercials during the show, due to their phenominal viewership, so it seems to me that they needn't bother with the nickel-and-dime routine, especially if it would put off fans.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:41 PM on April 23, 2006

Nickle and dime it may be, but if you have a nickel or a dime for each of the million people who vote every week...

Australian Idol runs on the pay-to-vote system too, just for the record.

The British Idol was the first one, and so when the US producers bought the format from the UK producers, they must have at least considered charging, and decided that US consumers wouldn't go for it.

Apart from anything else, charging to vote means that people are less likely to try and influence the outcome by multiple votes.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:29 AM on April 24, 2006

ok, well, i worked for the group in the large telcom that handled the AI calls when the show started so i can somewhat explain what went on at that point in time. as they have switched to a different telco since, i am not sure what happens now.
for the first few weeks we just did what we usually do with other call-in voting shows, put the number into all of the 4ESS's or 5ESS's (call switching devices in the network) in the country. this resulted in massive amounts of dropped calls as no one expected the volumes we got. this especially affected contestants with large regional support, for example if Magnus Magnuson was huge in the south east and the switch that serves the southeast was full, those calls were dropped while other contestants' calls from other parts of the country got through. this is not a busy signal, this is the fast busy or else the "please try your call again later."
shortly after we pretty much had dedicated switches JUST for AI for the voting hours which only dropped about 5% of calls.
now i cannot answer exactly what happened at the call center level but they should be able to handle all of the traffic that the switch could throw at them.

we provided FOX with the data, what they do with it is up to them. we were not privy to the data really either so i cannot say if they always reported on it correctly or not.

the only other time we got NEAR as many calls as we got each week for AI was when they were going to kill that bunny or cat or whatever on SNL like 15 years ago. crazy stuff.
posted by annoyance at 7:13 AM on April 24, 2006

I don't think I've ever seen a pay-to-call # in the US that costs less than a dollar per call. That implies that perhaps the phone company billing overhead per call is too high for $0.25 charges. They figure they won't get many calls if they charge a dollar or two, so they end up going free.
posted by smackfu at 2:07 PM on April 24, 2006

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