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 (this 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 next 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.
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
- France Gall
- Vicki Leandros
- Bucks Fizz
- Riverdance (an interval act)
- 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 travellers 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.