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M-Net Idols crisis: a case study of relying on technology

M-Net’s decision to opt for a recount of the South African Idols vote after it found that many SMS votes cast before the cut-off time were possibly not counted is an example of just how critical reliable, real-time technology is in every aspect of modern life. GRAHAM BRAUM, country manager of Idols sponsor Acer South Africa, says he is still happy with the company’s involvement, and that the incident highlights both the pitfalls and benefits of relying on real-time technology.

Graham Braum:

M-Net’s announcement that a vast number of votes were unaccounted for after last Sunday’s (May 3) Idols finale shows that technology is not yet completely fail-proof, as dependent as we have become on it in our day to day lives.

Sasha Lee Davids from Atlantis was initially announced as the winner, but M-Net decided to make her joint winner with Jason Hartman following the recount when it emerged that the delivery of many SMS messages possibly sent before the cut-off time was delayed.

Of course, without SMS voting, counting audience votes for contestants in this show would be expensive and time-consuming, perhaps prohibitively so, Without technologies that allow for real-time audience participation, reality shows such as Idols would be nowhere near as compelling as they are.

This year’s Idols also highlighted just how easy it easy for the contestants and producers of the show to stay in touch with the fans, thanks to technologies like cell phones and the Web.

Acer Africa is one of the sponsors for the fifth season of M-Net’s Idols. The company offered up a range of its latest netbooks and notebooks as prizes for the aspiring musicians as well as for the television viewers who are voting for them.

Acer planned to give the winner crowned as South Africa’s Idol of the year a brand new 18.4″ Gem Stone Blue Acer Aspire 8930 notebook, a high-end machine designed for demanding entertainment and multimedia applications. This prize is valued at R37 000. Following M-Net’s decision to crown Jason Hartman and Sasha Lee Davids as joint winners, Acer South Africa will give them each one of these notebooks.

Jason and Sasha Lee will be able to use this beast of a notebook to manage business affairs, edit videos and mix songs quickly and easily, and watch high-definition content during downtime.

This technology brought a whole new level of interactivity to the show, bringing fans and contestants closer together. It’s a perfect example of the sort of connected world we live in where information and people are always just a wireless connection away from us.

Acer also gave away 12 Acer Aspire One netbooks over the duration of the show to viewers who voted for their favourite idols. In addition, Acer offered four Acer Aspire 5735 entertainment notebooks to four lucky Idols fans.

The 10 finalists in the show have already each received an Acer Aspire One netbook, a compact device with an 8.9″” form factor that will allow them to stay in touch with their fans wherever they are. The Acer Aspire One netbooks feature integrated 3G connectivity and webcams, enabling the Idols finalists to engage with their fans through blog posts, video chat and other online tools wherever they may be.

We were very happy with the outcome of this show – it was the perfect vehicle to showcase how our empowering technology simplifies and enhances the lives of our customers. Being part of M-Net Idols was really great for the Acer brand.

M-Net have released the following statement about the event:

M-Net and FremantleMedia, the format owners, have agreed that both Sasha Lee Davids and Jason Hartman are declared winners.

Says Patricia Scholtemeyer, CEO of M-Net: ‚M-Net’s Idols Season V was an unprecedented success and the public participation throughout the season was phenomenal. For the first time, the voting public had 100% say in the outcome of the competition to decide the winner. Therefore, every vote counted and it was imperative that the votes were counted accurately.

‚When M-Net realised that not all the SMS votes cast before the cut-off time at 18:05 had been received and accounted for, we immediately began corrective action to understand fully the true situation. Following the recount, It turned out that there were 1,3 million votes for Jason and 1,1 million votes for Sasha Lee, which is evidence of the immense public following that both our Idols winners have garnered during the course of the competition.‚

The final week’s voting period ran from Monday, 27 April at 19:30 until Sunday, 03 May till 18:05 during the final live show. When the votes had been verified after the cut-off time on Sunday evening, Sasha Lee was the winner. However, when the regular post-show internal analysis was conducted the following morning, it became apparent that an unusual amount of SMS votes that had been sent in before the 18:05 cut-off time, had not been received and thus included in this result.

M-Net management took action and called in KPMG to independently conduct a recount and verify the actual results. As a result of this process, it has emerged that Jason did in fact receive more votes than Sasha Lee.

‚This competition is driven by the public’s vote. While we acknowledge that this was not a scenario that we had expected or wanted, we are delighted with the outcome as both Jason and Sasha Lee are true Idols. We will be following their careers closely and with great interest,‚ concludes Scholtemeyer.

Gadget comment:

As Acer’s Graham Braum points out, relying on real-time technology brings with it many pitfalls. The truth is that hi-tech systems and equipment are evolving faster than our ability to manage them with total reliability. The cellular networks, in particular, are groaning under the weight of a massive user base: there is now at least one GSM connection for every individual in South Africa. Dropped calls and delayed SMSs are only some of the symptoms of this overselling of network capacity. At times of peak messaging, it is to be expected that something can go wrong.

This means that any activity relying on such systems, especially innovative usage of the systems, must have built-in checks and balances. This applies not only to the use of the technology itself, but also to the process applied in that use.

This further means that, as much as a major event of this nature requires expert project management, it also requires process management. A flawed process is only exacerbated by throwing hi-tech at it, rather than the hi-tech repairing the flaws in the process. One can escape with strategic gaps in the process, but when anything goes wrong, those gaps are magnified, and the flaws in the strategy are laid bare. That, as much as the technical failure that occurred, is what went wrong at Idols.

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Ek is bly alles het toe reg uitgewerk en vertrou daar sal nie weer sulke foute in die toekoms gebeur nie.

Given that MNET and producers have done this many a time before I don’t believe for an instant that this is the first time this has happened on Idols South Africa.

I suspect the only reason this goofy up was ‘caught’ but it’s fans was that they now have the power to communicate amongst themselves quickly using the MNET site and other social sites like Twitter and the Grid. I wouldn’t be surprised if previous contestants or past season contestants were disenfranchised the same way.

This in my opinion will affect how the public see the ‘fair’ voting on future seasons if there are any.


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