Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Idol Jury Part III

This week concluded another milestone in the American Idol season – the selection of the Top 12, or, in this season, the Top 13 contestants. In many ways, the path to the Top 13 was the same as in previous years, and yet in other, significant ways, this year’s contestants set out on an entirely new path to the coveted place in the next round of competition.

As usual, the selection process for the Top 13 involved voting by the American public. Unusually, however, this season this judges selected 36 contestants from which to draw the Top 13. Instead of having all contestants perform and then allowing the public to vote, the 36 contestants were divided into groups of 12 and each group performed once over a 3-week period. The public was invited to vote for a favorite contestant after each of these performances, and the following night the top vote-getting male and female singer were advanced to the Top 13, along with the next highest vote-getter, regardless of gender. The final slots in the Top 13 were determined by the judges’ wild card picks. In order to make the wild card determinations, the judges picked eight previously eliminated contestants and asked them to sing one last time before advancing four members of this group to the Top 13. In addition to providing an interesting variant on past seasons, the Top 13 selection process has a variety of implications for and parallels to the jury process.

The introduction of the new format for contestant selection could in some ways be seen as the antithesis of the jury experience in that there is a set procedure for the conduct of jury trials and that procedure is not drastically changed in any jurisdiction. However, a parallel can be seen between the change in the contestant structure and the jury deliberation process. Although there is a set format for the process for jury deliberation, there is not a routine jury deliberation itself. The experience for a juror can range speedy or tediously prolonged and reasonably civil to outright hostile. In this sense, the format of the inner workings of a jury deliberation is unpredictable and similar to the change in Idol contestant format because of the disquiet and changing expectations in terms of experience and outcomes that are associated with both.

Prior to each contestant’s performance, a short video interview with the contestant was shown, and after each performance the contestant had the ability to answer the judges’ comments and criticisms. In this sense, the contestant’s statements could be analogized to the testimony of a plaintiff or defendant at trial. The initial video is in many ways similar to examination by one’s counsel, bringing out the good and appealing qualities associated with the contestant and his/her particular story and/or relationship to the art of singing, as well as to the audition process to that point. The video is generally positive, upbeat and laudatory. In contrast, the judges’ comments and criticisms can be seen as analogous to a cross-examination at trial in that they generally bring out the negative or less appealing aspects of the contestant’s performance. During the judges’ comment session, some contestants elect to answer the judges’ comments directly in what often becomes an adversarial or defensive tone. Others elect to wait until after the judges’ comments have concluded before making any responses or further comments; when these responses and comments are made they vary from polite to visibly annoyed. In this sense, the contestants’ confrontational comments during the judges’ comments can be seen as similar to cross-examination, while the contestants’ post-judging comments responses can be analogized to a witness rebuttal statement. It is during this process that voters can also form opinions of the contestant outside of their purely vocal abilities; opinions which can be formative in the voters overall decision-making and voting patterns.

Similarly, after many contestants performed, their family and friends were interviewed by the show’s host, Ryan Seacrest. These interviews can be analogized to character witnesses at trial. Again, their actions can also frame the attitudes of voters in terms of their demeanor and defense of the family member or friend who has performed and been judged. Some family members appear as supportive and sympathetic to the audience and potential voters, while others seem to be more defensive and thus potentially antagonizing to viewers and voters.

During the public voting process, the judges can also be seen to have colored the viewpoints of voters and sent subtle – and sometimes quite obvious – cues to voters. In several instances, one or more of the judges was not enthralled with a contestant’s performance but encouraged America to vote for the contestant because of their personality or potential for future vocal development. In other instances, the judges were quite harsh on contestants, in essence daring the voting public to prove them wrong by voting for the contestant in question. Several times, the public apparently followed the cues of the judges in their voting patterns. The analogy here is between both lawyers making their closing arguments to a jury and, in some instances, to judges who take active roles in the conduct of a jury trial.

There are also important analogies to the jury experience in the wild card selection process. Perhaps the most glaringly obvious analogy is between the ability of the judges to overrule the voting public’s opinions and the ability of a trial court judge to enter a judgment not withstanding the verdict.

Another analogy to the trial system altogether is that of the song choice made by the contestants selected to compete for the wild card slots. Repeatedly, the judges commented that contestants made song choices which were self-indulgent and which were not sung to please or appeal to the judges. The analogy here is with witness testimony at trial, regardless whether that trial is a bench or jury trial. By exhorting the contestants to sing songs designed to please the decision-makers rather than being true to their own selves – in essence, to the truth of their identity – the judges essentially encouraged contestants to change their identity in order to please them. Similarly, witnesses are often guided – by counsel or their own beliefs – to appear different than they really are or to testify in a way which the witness believes will be well-received by the finder of fact rather than to testify to the blunt and honest truth and to present themselves and the facts as they really are. Here, potential jurors receive the message that it is encouraged, and even necessary, to shade one’s presentation in order to please those making decisions. This can be seen both as inculcating acceptance of this idea in potential jurors and making them skeptical of in-court testimony by causing them to question the veracity of a witness’ presented identity and facts.

Finally, at the wild card stage the judges made no attempt to disguise the fact that their selections for both the wild card tryouts and the wild card slots were heavily influenced by the history of the contestants from their first auditions onward. Thus, in essence, the judges relied on a series of impressions to make their wild card selections and did not necessarily focus on the performance of the contestants on the designated night of their decisive performances in order to advance contestants. The danger of this practice to the jury system is in the analogy to the ability of jurors – consciously or subconsciously – to incorporate first and other impressions of parties and witnesses into their final decision rather than relying solely on the testimony and evidence presented at the designated portion of the trial. Problems involving juror use of impressions and other non-testimonial or evidentiary based elements to make decisions are certainly nothing new; however, the wild card selection process on American Idol only served as a reinforcement of the acceptability of such considerations in crafting decisions.

For information regarding American Idol see .

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