Journal of Cultural Economics

, Volume 33, Issue 4, pp 265–277 | Cite as

American Idol: should it be a singing contest or a popularity contest?

Original Article


In the popular FOX TV reality show, American Idol, the judges, who are presumably experts in evaluating singing effort, have no voting power when the field is narrowed to the top 24 contestants. It is only the votes of viewers that count. In the 2007 season of the show, one of the judges, Simon Cowell, threatened to quit the show if a contestant, Sanjaya Malakar, who was clearly a low-ability contestant, won the competition. He was concerned that the show was becoming a popularity contest instead of a singing contest. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. I show that, under certain conditions, making success in the contest dependent on a contestant’s popularity and not solely on her singing ability or performance, could paradoxically increase aggregate singing effort. It may be optimal to give the entire voting power to the viewers whose evaluation of singing effort is noisier.


AmericanIdol Committee Contests Tournaments Voting 

JEL Classification

D23 D44 



My thanks are due to Ed Kutsoati, Qiang Fu, Zane Spindler, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and to Arian Khaleghi for helpful discussions. My thanks are due to SSHRC for their financial support. This paper was previously circulated as CESifo working paper #2171.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EconomicsUniversity of GuelphGuelphCanada

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