Trying to make the call on `Idol'

Web sites, bookies make predictions about ousters

April 11, 2007|By Tim Swift | Tim Swift,sun reporter

Lakisha Jones ended American Idol with a bang last week, winning over the judges with a sassy rendition of "Stormy Weather." But hours after her final note, the online chatter looked grim for the former Millersville bank teller.

DialIdol.com, which says it can predict the results, had her at the bottom of the heap. Online bookmakers had moved her into elimination territory, ousted from her frontrunner position. And Jones' name had finally crept onto some fans' "in danger" lists.

But after all that hand-wringing, Jones had the last laugh, standing in the Top 3 of the remaining nine finalists. While the various predictions and odds-makers were proven wrong, they underscored the growing legions of Idol prognosticators who struggle to know the unknowable.

Since the start of the Fox hit, producers have kept a tight lid on the voting results. Actual hard numbers have never been disclosed. Instead, many look to sites such as DialIdol.com to get an early take on how the Idol voting will go down.

In early 2005, tired of getting busy signals trying to vote for his favorite Idol contestant, Jim Hellriegel Jr., a Windows-server engineer from Cleveland, wrote a computer program that would act as speed dialer so he could vote and get his laundry done. But his program had an unintended byproduct.

By analyzing the number of busy signals for each contestant, Hellriegel could extrapolate the Idol results.

"The predictions ... were never intended to become nearly as popular as they have become," Hellriegel said. "The biggest reason I threw in the busy signal [feature] was that I wanted my vote to count as much as it possibly could."

Early on, he used the busy-signal function to spot underperforming contestants -- the fewer busy signals, the less popular the contestant, he reasoned -- so he could swing his votes their way. With all the kinks worked out, Hellriegel posted the program on the Web last year. Now, about 1,000 people are using the program. Its predictions are highly awaited by Idol fans and have appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone.

Last week, Jones' phone line was busy 7.286 percent of the time, ranking her eighth out of nine finalists. But Hellriegel's system isn't a pinpoint predictor, especially when the voting is extremely close and the margin of error is factored.

But Jones' Top 3 finish last week hasn't convinced the online bookies, whose odds-making is also closely followed by the most fervent Idol fans. Odds-makers at bookmaker.com have listed her as at risk of being eliminated from American Idol tonight. The vocally challenged but imaginatively tufted and popular Sanjaya Malakar will be safe, according to the British betting site.

"Will Lakisha Jones be `Sanjayaed' next?" the site asked.

Roberto Castiglioni, editor of the Online Wire, a Web site affiliated with bookmaker.com, says the odds are made in two steps. First, odds-makers cull information about previous performances and factor in media exposure to post initial odds. But after the performances, the several large gambling outfits conduct random sampling via phone much like presidential campaign polling to determine the second round of odds.

"I personally prefer Lakisha," Castiglioni says, an avid Idol bettor himself. "However, she has been sliding back a little bit. ... It's about what she hasn't been doing. She's a good singer. That's a given. Probably she just has too low a profile when you have that freak that changes hair every week."

With Web sites like voteforthe worst.com (Malakar is its pick) trying to skew the results, fans have been looking for clues in unlikely places to gauge who will go home based on the millions of weekly votes from the top-rated show's viewers. Everything from the order the contestants sing to how much screen time each singer gets has appeared on discussion boards.

Glynis McCants, a California numerologist who goes by "The Numbers Lady" and who recently used her expertise on ABC's Dancing with the Stars, says the numbers in birthdays, in the current year and coded in names can answer questions the performances can't.

McCants says Jones' numbers bear out that she's a born entertainer, but also that she's hard-headed -- something that has been on display in her reticence to heed advice from some of the celebrity mentors.

While Malakar may not have the vocal chops, McCants says he has the numbers for stardom. His birthday is filled with ones -- a good omen for success, McCants says.

"It's his numbers to do this. It's hysterical," she says. "It's really about this kid. Let's pray to God that he gets kicked out. But in the numbers, he's still the superstar."

tim.swift@baltsun.com

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