The Eurovision Song Contest is considered the most watched non-sporting event in the world, reportedly gathering an estimated audience of 125 million worldwide. Member nations of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) nominate a single song to represent their country once a year and, in its latest iteration, on May 18, 2013, the Eurovision contest celebrated its 58th winner since 1965 in front of multi-generational audience that cheered on beyond Europe. (The picture is by Sander Hesterman, EBU.)
Originally, the contest was an attempt to unify a fragmented post-war Europe, while testing the scope of new broadcasting technology in the 1950s. The EBU cleverly created a song contest as a means to generate content and test the hardware. The show proved itself a hit for broadcasters.
Contestants are chosen from any active member nation of the EBU. The membership curiously includes numerous non-European countries like Israel, Armenia, Morocco and Azerbaijan. This is due to the fact that the EBU’s boundaries extend beyond the continent’s geography.
Members of the EBU belong to national broadcasters’ associations, such as the BBC in the United Kingdom. Once approved, the participating broadcasters of each country have the task of nominating a single entry, selected domestically. This means that each participating country organizes an internal contest wherein aspiring performers compete to become that nation’s Eurovision representative. Generally, this internal selection process is done through a nationwide public vote, because it is important for the broadcasters to enter the Eurovision contest with a sizable domestic audience. That’s why, in some cases, a country’s national finals become even more popular than the Eurovision contest itself. Sweden’s “Melodifestivalen” has become that nation’s largest entertainment event.
Pointing Out the Winner: A History
For much of Eurovision’s history, all the duly qualified participants performed their respective song in a single live show. However, the number of participant nations began increasing dramatically during the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It got to a point where a single live show was not enough to showcase every song; neither was it feasible to extend the show. As a result, there were several attempts to create different pre-selection systems. In 2004 a semifinal round was introduced to pre-select songs for the final. The semifinal period was extended in 2008 to two semifinals, where the rules remained the same with the exception that only the countries participating in their respective semifinals round were allowed to vote.
The way a winner is determined results from a point-awarding system. Each country is allotted a set number of points to be distributed amongst the participant songs. Countries are precluded from awarding points to their own entries. Who awards the points and the number of points available for distribution has varied over the years. For most of the contest’s history, the voting method has consisted of a small group of country representatives serving as jury members. The group is tasked with allocating points and ranking the entries accordingly. In 1997, the voting system changed, allowing countries to cast votes by telephone. As a result some countries continued to submit votes by jury while others transitioned to public “televoting” channels. From 2004 to 2008, televoting became the primary voting method and juries were only needed in case of malfunctions or weak telecommunications systems. The current voting system is a 50/50 combination of televoting and juries consisting of music professionals. Once the tallies of a nation’s televote and jury are combined, 12 points are allocated to the song with the best score, 10 to the song in second place, 8 points to the third, and so on until 1 point is awarded to the tenth song in the ranking. This system was initially implemented for the finals of the 2009 edition but it was extended to the semifinals starting on 2010.
The Eurovision contest has extremely high production costs and in order for the EBU to successfully organize the contest every year, financial support is imperative. EBU receives its sustain through financial contributions made by its members. The contribution fee varies between member nations but often reflects the size of the broadcaster itself. It is known that the members from Germany, Spain, UK, France and Italy are the largest contributors to the EBU. Those countries are referred to as “The Big Five” and since 2000 that group has had clear advantages—they are the only countries that qualify automatically to the finals, bypassing the pre-selection rounds. Along with these five, the winner of the preceding contest becomes the hosting country and automatically qualifies to perform in the finals.
However, the financial unrest in Europe has resulted in several countries pulling from this year’s contest citing the crisis as the main reason for their withdrawal—although this was not always the case: Turkey, for example, decided not to participate this year because it believes the top countries have an unfair advantage.
It’s Not Just About The Music
Besides being a song competition, Eurovision for geopolitical integration. There is statistical proof that regional block voting does indeed happen very often. This process started to be noticeable in the mid-90s and accelerated after the turn of the millennium. It’s debatable if collusive voting happens due to a de facto political alliance or if there’s a tendency of neighboring countries voting for each other because they are culturally close. The fact of the matter is that block voting can end up influencing the outcome of the contest. For example, “in 2003 and 2005, the Balkan Bloc vote was sufficient to swing the result of the contest to a Balkan Bloc member, which would not otherwise have been the winner.” The Balkan Bloc is an example of a confirmed regional bloc, which had 10 members in the 2005 edition: Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, Greece, Cyprus and Romania. Other established blocs are The Warsaw Pact (Poland, Ukraine and Russia), and the The Viking Empire (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland). This can be a concern for other countries, such as the UK or France, which could have trouble winning the contest despite their sizeable financial contributions.
Politics and music clashed in 2005 when Lebanon pulled out of the contest because it refused to broadcast the Israeli performance. Passions were again inflamed this year, when Azerbaijan didn’t award any points to Russia’s contestant while the former gave the maximum possible 12 points to Azerbaijan’s. This caused a diplomatic row between the two countries: Russia was deeply offended and started to allege that vote rigging had occurred. The Foreign Ministers from both countries held a joint press conference where the Azerbaijani representative, Elmar Mamedyarov, stated that the televoting results from his nation’s three mobile operators had put Russia in second place after Ukraine and that he had no idea what had happened with the votes. In turn, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, angrily responded that ten points were stolen from the Russian contestant and that they would coordinate their actions with the Azerbaijani side so that this outrageous action was not left without a response. Jon Ola Sand, Eurovision’s executive supervisor, explained that “the combination of televotes and jury votes, each bearing a 50 percent influence on the outcome, did not result in a top 10 position for Russia in the overall result from Azerbaijan, therefore, Azerbaijan awarded Russia no points.” It would be hard to imagine the British Foreign Minister or the president of France getting so upset over a song contest.
The Show and the Music Industry
Winning Eurovision might mean having a great platform to launch an artist’s career, but this is not necessarily so. On the contrary, most of the contest’s winners have gone unnoticed. There are a few notable exceptions, though. Sweden’s ABBA in 1974 and Canada’s Celine Dion, representing Switzerland, in 1988 (when Dion won with the song Ne partez pas sans moi). There have also been cases where the winner was a previously successful artist. For example, Katrina and the Waves, representing the United Kingdom, won the contest with the song Love Shine a Light in 1997.
Some wonder if it’s still fitting to produce the show, considering Europe’s current financial tribulations and its relatively neutral impact on recorded music sales. However, the contest seems to be a perennial manifestation of Europe’s unity.
National prestige is another driver, especially for nations that are not considered economic or political powerhouses. Others criticize the voting system and its underlying bias towards bloc balloting, while others consider the event to be superfluous entertainment, often likening it to shows like “American Idol” or “The Voice”. In a culturally aware Europe, Eurovision pop may not be universally enjoyed.
Yet the fact is that TV audiences keep coming back and justify the endeavor. There is still something arty, amateurish, and regional about the show, and the plurality of Europe’s many languages and cultures may need a mass media event like it–much more, for instance, than America may need “Idol”.
By Eduardo Loret de Mola
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