When TV viewers voted Bristol Palin into the finals of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," one of prime time's most popular shows, her opponent Brandy cried, a Wisconsin man shot his television in disgust, and the blogosphere lighted up like a Christmas tree on fire.
It was the seventh consecutive time this season that the 20-year-old newcomer to dance performance had beaten out an opponent despite having lower scores from the judges on TV's second most-watched program, which draws an average audience of more than 20 million. The reason for her surprising success, charged fuming critics and some viewers across the Internet, was that "tea party" activists had spearheaded a campaign that essentially stuffed the show's ballot box in favor of Sarah Palin's daughter.
This latest reality show tempest highlights the power of popularity over talent when mostly unregulated public voting is involved and, perhaps more dramatically, the polarizing effect of the Palin family name, which received prominent attention earlier this month in one of the most heated elections in recent memory.
The brouhaha began almost immediately Tuesday evening after Bristol was named a finalist, with celebrity websites like Jezebel.com declaring that "Palin Conservatives are Cheating" ABC's voting system and late night talk host Jimmy Kimmel calling Brandy, a popular singer and entertainer, the victim of "Hurricane Bristol." The dust-up lost little momentum Wednesday as radio host Rush Limbaugh predicted a Bristol backlash in next week's final voting, while Joy Behar told her colleagues on the "The View" that the young Palin will take the grand prize.
This is hardly the first time a reality show elimination has led to an uproar or accusations of unfair play. Last year on the dancing show, Kelly Osbourne, daughter of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, also advanced to the finals despite her often clumsy dance floor moves. And in 2009, " American Idol's" Kris Allen, whose strong Christian fan base was suspected of wrongfully flooded the phone banks in his favor, won the show's top prize over critical darling Adam Lambert, who, unlike Allen, went on to pop culture success after the "Idol" stage lights faded.
"All these shows are open to this kind of thing. It doesn't have to be necessarily for political reasons," said Leo Braudy, a professor at USC who specializes in mass media and pop culture. "Part of the tea party message and part of the Sarah Palin message is about 'normal people.' So let's have normal people go on the show. Let's have people with two left feet win a dance contest. She represents people who couldn't participate in this show. So she's a kind of a Doppelganger surrogate for people who could never get to this level."
But Osbourne and Allen didn't generate the pop culture explosion caused by the Palin factor — wherever "mama grizzly" and her cubs roam, the eyes of the nation seem to follow. It's been a banner several months for the Palins in terms of raw publicity. From Bristol gracing the cover of "People" magazine to the record-setting premiere of her mother's eight-part reality series on TLC — not to mention her continued contributions as a Fox News commentator — the first family of the tea party has been popping up everywhere.
For their part, "Dancing with the Stars" executives dismissed the criticism of the show's voting system. The hit dancing series relies not only on judges' scores, but also public votes, which are averaged together to determine winners. This week's results drew the largest number of votes ever in a semi-final for the show, now in its 11th season.
"Who knows if the process is ideal? But what you can say is it's fair for everyone," said Conrad Green, the show's executive producer, during a phone interview. "It's very clear what you need to do to vote. You'll find many people who are outraged didn't vote at all. They're casual viewers."
"I wish they could take a deep breath and get some perspective," he added. "We've had shocking eliminations before on this season and other seasons. The voting system is exactly the same."
But critics charge Palin supporters found a way to exploit the network's e-mail voting system, primarily through creating a flood of false e-mail addresses that allowed them to grossly over-vote. The show, which won't reveal details about its voting results, permits only five votes per phone line and five per e-mail address.
ABC officials stood by its results Wednesday. Though the network doesn't require users to authenticate e-mail addresses, there are safeguards in place to prevent such fraud. (The Times agreed not to divulge the nature of that system for security reasons.)
"We are confident that the checks and balances system, which has been in place since the show's inception, accurately and fairly reflects the sentiment of the show's viewers," the network said in a statement.
Still, the outcry has not hurt "Dancing with the Stars," which has become one of the most popular shows in television — even eclipsing on occasion the once invincible "American Idol" last season. The show, which pits dance pairs consisting of one professional and one celebrity, has always thrived on its colorful stunt casting.
In addition to former Congressman Tom DeLay, the show has also featured Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, bombshell Pamela Anderson, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and David Hasselhoff, not long after his drunken escapade became a YouTube favorite. This season, the show's ratings are up substantially over its performance a year ago, gaining 3.3 million viewers (20.9 million vs. 17.6 million) and 18% among the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic.
The controversy over Palin's advancement has been brewing for weeks as she triumphed again and again over seemingly more worthy dancers such as Rick Fox, Kurt Warner and Audrina Patridge. Over the weekend, the senior Palin, who has cheered her daughter in the studio, weighed in on the dancing tumult.
"What do we do? Call every tea party person?" Palin asked Barbara Walters in an interview over the weekend. "I haven't got the time."
One of the "Dancing with the Stars" judges, Carrie Ann Inaba, offered some advice for those upset at the list of finalists, which includes Disney Channel star Kyle Massey and Jennifer Grey, who became a movie star after her hit "Dirty Dancing." Winners are not sworn into elected office after all; they only receive a mirror ball trophy. "That's it!" she added. "And it usually breaks."