Eurovision: everything you ever wanted to know (and more)

I can barely remember missing a Eurovision song contest since I was a little girl. I love the theatrics of it all. It makes me laugh. And every once in a while I hear a new tune that appeals to me. It’s become a family event for us. We plonk ourselves down in front of the screen, with paper and pens and award points to each of the acts. Then we cheer as our favourite artists hit the high points and gasp in astonishment as the ones we thought were rubbish, climb up the points table.

Last year we took it all a step further. As one of my 101 challenges we had a Eurovision party. My husband printed off score sheets he found available on the internet and friends contributed various foods from Europe. We had a great laugh and I forgot to take photos after asking all my friends permission to put their faces on my blog. (I blame all that European wine!!)

In the aftermath, I wrote the following informative article, which I thought might make a nice reblog as todays post because Eurovision hits our screens again tomorrow.

Doesn’t time fly?

The wonderful world of Eurovision

It has been brought to my attention that some of my readers do not actually know what Eurovision is. Now that’s not really surprising, if you look at my flag counter, it would seem that the majority of my readership is actually in the US. So, I thought I would write an informative piece on the phenomenon that we call Eurovision, but it’s taken me a while to do as I decided I’d learn a bit more about it myself and that meant I had to do some research!

A little bit of history

The Eurovision Grand Prix, as it was originally known, (actually, a lot of my neighbouring Germans still call it the “Grand Prix”) was first broadcast in 1956 and has consistently been transmitted every year since then.

A committee, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), had been set up in the 1950’s in Switzerland, with the purpose of designing a “light entertainment program” to help to bring the countries of Europe together. Committee chairman, Marcel Bezençon, came up with the concept, based on Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival. His idea: an international song festival, whereby countries would participate in one program which would be transmitted to each of the countries within the union, simultaneously: LIVE.

Not only then, were the committee trying to rebuild war-torn Europe, but they were also attempting an extremely ambitious technological experiment!

Few Europeans had televisions at home in 1956, so most listeners tuned in by radio.

Seven countries participated in the first contest: France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Netherlands. Each country performing two songs. The host nation Switzerland won, a decision made by a closed jury.

This led to much speculation. Especially as the jury from the Netherlands had not been able to make their way to Lugano, Switzerland and so Swiss nationals were appointed to vote on their behalf. That and the fact that nations were permitted to vote for their own entry!

Lys Assia’s winning entry in 1956 remains the only song from a Swiss national to have won the contest.

In 1957 rules change

From 1957 each country performed only one song and each country gave their scores publicly, which were then added to a scoreboard. Nations were no longer permitted to vote for their own song. And duos, not just soloists were now allowed to perform on stage.

Three additional countries joined the ranks: Austria, Denmark and “Hello” the United Kingdom! 😉

And so it goes on

Throughout the years the format has developed, the rules have been updated and the contest has grown.

Although the competition is called the Eurovision Song Contest, not only countries of Europe have taken part. The rule states that all participants must be active members of the EBU (as opposed to Associate Members). Thus, whether a country is geographically located in Europe or is a member of the European Union or not, is of no consequence.

Throughout the years, 51 countries have taken part in the show on at least one occasion, those outside of Europe include: Israel, Armenia, Azerbaijan (last years winner), Georgia and Morocco.

One of the rules that has stayed the same is that all vocals must be sung live.

The current format

With so many countries now regularly taking part, a qualification round in the form of two semi-finals, takes place in Eurovision week.  The ten top placed entries in each of the two qualifying rounds will then take part in the grand final at the end of the week. Along with the ‘Big five’: UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. The ‘Big Five’ qualify automatically for the grand final because without their financial contribution, the contest would not be able to take place.

Each qualifying country performs their three-minute song and as the entries are introduced the host country often shows a background video of sights to interest would-be tourists. Once all the songs are performed, an interval act takes centre stage while voting concludes and is subsequently totted up. The presenters return to the stage and each country (including those who did not qualify at the semi-final stage) presents its scores via a spokesperson (who is often sitting in front of a famous backdrop from their country ;-)) through a camera-link. Votes 1-7 come up automatically on the scoreboard, then votes 8, 10 and 12 are read out for dramatic effect. The votes are reiterated by the presenters in both English and French. The camera switches to the gleeful faces of backstage contestants on their receipt of “douze points”. The performer receiving most points overall is declared the winner and must return to the stage and sing their song once again. (I have been known to cry at this bit).

There is no actual prize for winning: the prestige of having won is considered enough, although the songwriter normally receives a trophy and the winning country is invited to become the following years host (since 1958).


Most of the expense involved with hosting the Eurovision Song Contest is covered by commercial sponsors and other participating nations, in particular the Big Five. In general, being the host of the contest is considered an opportunity to promote the host country as a tourist destination worldwide.

On five occasions the winning country has declined the invitation – four times: Netherlands (1960), France (1963), Luxembourg (1974) and Israel (1980) due to expense and once: Monaco (1972) due to no suitable venue.

The largest venue to date was the football stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark which held about 38,000 people in 2001 and the smallest in Millstreet, Ireland in 1993. The small town’s population being only 1,500, must have felt swamped by the up to 8,000 crowd that could fit in the local Green Glens Arena!

Due to the scarce availability of tickets for the final live show, tickets are often also sold by the hosting nation for the semi-finals and the dress rehearsals of the grand final.

Song selection

Each country submits one song of no longer than three minutes which has not been broadcast before an agreed date. They can select their song through any means they deem appropriate. Some are decided internally by broadcasters, others by countrymen and women’s public televote (national finals). The EBU encourages televoting for the simple reason that it creates publicity for the international show.

In some countries the national finals are as big, if not bigger than the Eurovision itself!

In Sweden, for instance, the ‘Melodifestivalen’ incorporates 32 songs over four semi-finals with the final show being the most-watched Swedish television program of the year.

In 2002, Spain started using a reality show, Operación Triunfo, to select Eurovision performers.


The voting system in place today is a positional voting system and has been used since 1975.

Originally, votes were cast by an internal jury, however, nowadays televoting is commonplace. The public can also use SMS to vote for their favourite act.

Studies have actually taken place with regard to Eurovision voting patterns which have identified that certain countries form ‘clusters’ by tending to vote the same way, affecting the final result of the competition at least twice.

So now, national juries have been reintroduced and represent 50% and the televoters the other 50% of the points given.

In order that countries cannot change their vote in a bid to influence the outcome, a scrutineer is given the results of the five last countries due to vote.

In 1969 with no tie break system in place, four countries (France, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK) all qualified for first place and were all announced as joint winners! The fallout was massive, in 1970 Finland, Norway, Sweden and Portugal refused to take part. So the EBU had to introduce a tie-break rule.

Since then there’s only been one more instance of multiple winners, in 1991, France and Sweden tied. The rules then stated that Sweden must be the winner, however, since then the rules have changed again, and if the 1991 contest had been judged by the current standards, France would have actually been the winner!

Politics and Eurovision

In 1978, as Israel’s Izhar Cohen and the Alphabeta sang “Abanibi” live in Paris the Jordanian broadcaster, JRTV, suspended the broadcast and replaced it with pictures of flowers. At first, they cited technical difficulties but as the voting proceeded and it became obvious that Israel would win, they pulled the broadcast altogether. Later announcing that Belgium had won (they actually came second).

In 2005 Lebanon had intended to take part in the contest, however, due to their failure to recognise Israel, they intended not to transmit the Israeli entry. As this breached the rules of the contest, they were forced to withdraw. Their late withdrawal resulted in them being fined.

To fame and fortune

The contestants may not win a prize, but their win often leads them to fame and fortune. The most successful winner of the Eurovision Song Contest so far is ABBA who won with “Waterloo” for Sweden in 1974.

Other participants who were given a hand up by the Eurovision stage are:

    • Céline Dion who won for Switzerland (although she is Canadian) in 1988, with “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi”
    • Cliff Richard
    • Johnny Logan
    • Olivia Newton-John
    • Lulu
    • France Gall
    • Dana
    • Vicki Leandros
    • Bucks Fizz
    • Riverdance (an interval act)

Fascinating facts:

    • It’s estimated that around 125 million people watch the Eurovision annually, meaning it’s one of the most watched non-sporting events
    • It has been transmitted every year for the last 56 years making it one of the longest running television programs in the world
    • Johnny Logan won for Ireland three times, twice singing and once as songwriter
    • Ireland has won a record-breaking seven times!! Including three consecutive years from ’92 until ’94
    • Before 1999 the host country had to provide a live orchestra
    • Noel Kelehan conducted the winning songs five times
    • Norway has come last ten times!!
    • Bands were only permitted from the 1970’s
    • Since the year 2000, viewers can also watch Eurovision over the internet
    • Language restrictions have been laid and lifted on several occasions, the current rule (as of 1999) permits performers to sing in any language, since then both Belgian and Dutch entries have contained an artificial language!
    • In French the contest is called: “Concours Eurovision de la Chanson”
    • In 2008, a record number of 43 countries took part
    • Only three women have ever conducted the orchestra
    • 22 winning songs have been performed in English
    • In the summer of 2005, Ukraine abolished its visa requirements for travelers from the EU, due to being that years hosts
    • Actress Samantha Janus sang for the UK in 1991 and placed a respectable tenth
    • The show has been transmitted far and wide to countries such as Japan, Egypt, China, Thailand, Brazil, New Zealand, the Philippines and Chile although these countries themselves do not participate in the contest.

24 thoughts on “Eurovision: everything you ever wanted to know (and more)”

  1. Wow! That is a lot of information about the Eurovision! I actually find the show incredibly dull so I’m surprised you managed to keep me reading to the end. You did so much research!

    It’s not something I ever watched growing up. My housemates at Uni forced me to watch it a few times but I used to escape at any opportunity.

    I confess that I did watch at least half of it last year and I DID enjoy it. (Much to my horror!)

    I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I might watch it again this year…

    1. I had no idea, before I did the research about the ‘back-history’ of the whole thing. I really enjoyed finding out about it.

      I think the key really, is to take it all with a lot of humour and open a bottle of wine. 😉

      You’ll have to let me know if you watch it tomorrow and who you liked best (or most despised).

      In our house we tend to do a lot of shouting at the telly.

      Damn it. We have new neighbours. I guess they won’t get much sleep! 😉

  2. I love the Eurovision. As you pointed out Ireland won 7 times and in the early nineties there were loads of jokes here about how not to win the Eurovision – including an absolutely brilliant episode of Father Ted where Ted and Dougal are set up to lose the contest with this wonderful song (Enjoy!) –

  3. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Eurovision Song Contest. A lot of my friends and family just don’t get it; they keep saying to me “But most of the songs are so awful and a lot of the performers just look ridiculous!” – they don’t understand that that’s part of why I love it! The whole spectacle, and of course the patriotism of cheering on your own country’s entry. I do get a bit frustrated with the voting, when the same countries always give each other top marks, I certainly wouldn’t say the voting is fair and unbiased, but I love it nevertheless. I have a notebook and pen with me too, not so much to score them, but to write little notes about each one so that I remember who they are when I’m watching the scoring, I writing things like ‘Blonde lady in the long white dress, accompanied by men wearing devil horns playing the violins’. I then would just put a little star next to it if it’s one I like, or maybe two stars if I really like it! I hadn’t actually even realised it was tomorrow, so thank you!

    1. “I do get a bit frustrated with the voting, when the same countries always give each other top marks, I certainly wouldn’t say the voting is fair and unbiased,”

      The scoring always frustrates me too. Watching it would be far more fun if they weren’t so predictable.

      I have a love / hate opinion of the presenters too: I cringe listening to them trying to eke out their 10 seconds of fame – They try to grab more screen time whilst we’re thinking “Just give us the score! We don’t care about the rest!”

      (Who knew I felt so passionately about the Eurovision?!)

      1. Oh yes, the presenters, I forgot about the presenters! The host presenters on set, and the ones from each country are all entertaining in their own unique way! We have a Dutch exchange student staying with us for a few days, so I think this will be the first time I get to watch the Eurovision with another competing country in the room (at least I think they’re in it this year, or it could be a bit awkward).

      2. I can’t tell you if the Dutch are in. I try not to watch the semi-finals or find out anything before the final as I like to have an evening filled with shocks surprises.

        Yes the presenters are truly ‘special’.

      3. I’m so glad this has turned into such a passionate debate. I’ll put a post on after the fact and you can tell us your views of Eurovision 2012!!

        I liked Terry Wogan and his what I found hilarious approach to the whole thing. I didn’t cope well with Norton at first, he didn’t seem to be able to fit in the shoes Terry left behind. Last year I thought Norton did a better job though. He seemed more comfortable. Or maybe it was just me regularly topping up wines from various countries. 😉

  4. Hi Sarah, I’m just ‘dipping in’ momentarily whilst on my break from the blogosphere, and had to comment on this most excellent of posts! I’d say I’m addicted to the Eurovision – I just LOVE it! I remember the draw between France and Sweden – Carola and Amina, and although I liked the Swedish entry, the French one was so unusual it was very good, and I thought it should have won. Glad to see that in the revised reality it had!
    I’ve experienced two Eurovisions already this week… I’ve watched the two semi-finals, and have been surprised by some who got through – and some who didn’t – to Saturday’s final, but it looks like it is going to be a good night.
    And yes, don’t take things too seriously and have a great time just going with the flow, and you’ll have a great time watching it!
    Anyway, thanks for dragging me back from my self-imposed exile… such is the pull of the Eurovision. I’m going back there now. Exile, that is… I’ll be back in Baku tomorrow! 😀

    1. Thank you for ‘dropping in’. Perhaps you would like to be dragged out of your self-imposed exile once again for the debate. That is your opinions on the 2012 final!!

      I enjoyed researching and writing this post. So I’m really glad you enjoyed reading it!! It’s a big family event in our house. The kids get to stay up late and through their opinions around.

      I enjoyed the final very much. I think a few pretty good acts took part. Though I did nod off temporarily during the score giving. Whoops!

  5. I used to love it when I was a kid and would be allowed to stay up and watch it – and I’d have a notepad for all my notes! Now, I rarely get to see it as the OH will refuse to have it on. If it’s still nice weather though, he may be out working late so I may get to enjoy it myself.

    Loved reading about all the history – really interesting.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it. My husband didn’t want to watch it at first – but now he loves it too!! I hope then OH was out and you got to watch it. 😉

  6. I have no idea who most of those musical entertainers are. I don’t watch variety shows or “light” entertainment. I do know many of the mystery heros on European TV, however, including the German duo, Max and Freddie. They probably are no longer around. I haven’t seen them in ages. Dianne

    1. I’m so sorry I don’t know Max and Freddie. We tend to watch British TV although we live in Germany. It’s just better. 😉

  7. I’ve never heard of this, its amazing! I’m certain you will enjoy this year’s event as much! Thank you dear~Sincerely Deborah

  8. What a fab post! I learned loads about the Eurovision here – thank you! ABBA are undoubtedly the contest’s greatest success. I wonder if we’ll ever see their likes again?

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