A Brit’s Guide to Eurovision

Australia isn’t in Europe! Why is it in Eurovision?
Everyone should sing in their own languages
But all the songs are crap
We should just pull out
But no one watches Eurovision!
It’s all political
But what about Brexit?
Everyone hates us
Who chooses the UK’s song?
We should just send Robbie Williams
It’s too gay
Why does the UK go straight to the final?
Why can’t Scotland be in Eurovision?

Australia isn’t in Europe! Why is it in Eurovision?

Short answer: because it wants to be.

You don’t have to be in Europe to be in Eurovision. You have to have a TV channel or network that’s a paid-up member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), be prepared to have the rights to broadcast all of the Contest (including the semi-finals), and send an entry to compete. Israel has been in Eurovision for years for this reason. Australia is a bit different – its SBS TV network is an associate member of the EBU (not a full member, like the other countries), but negotiated a place in the Contest partly because of the show’s popularity Down Under.

These countries could be in Eurovision this year if they wanted: Luxembourg, Algeria, Bosnia, Jordan, Libya, Monaco, Egypt, the Vatican, Tunisia, Andorra, Lebanon, Turkey

And these countries are associate members that could, in theory, negotiate a place in Eurovision in the future: India, the United States, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Chile, Cuba, Iran, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Mauritius, Japan, Syria, Oman, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Georgia, Brazil, South Africa

So Eurovision is big Down Under?

The contest has been shown there since 1983, and they even used Terry Wogan’s commentary on occasion. In 2014, Aussie singer Jessica Mauboy performed as an interval act, and it was later announced, after negotiation, that Australia could enter in 2015 via the semi-finals. This year, Jessica is back to perform as Australia’s entry.

OK, so what if the Aussies win? It can’t go to Australia?!

Yes, fair point. Not least because when Eurovision is happening in Europe, it’s between 3am and 5am in Oz. When Eurovision took place in Azerbaijan, the time difference meant that the Contest began at midnight there. If Australia ever won, then its organisers would work with a European broadcaster to produce and host the contest somewhere in Europe. No firm details have ever been released, but NDR (Germany) and the BBC have both been mentioned as possible partners.

Unlikely places that Eurovision has been held include Harrogate, Millstreet (a village in Co Cork, Ireland), Baku (capital of Azerbaijan, closer to Iran than most other Eurovision countries) and Cinecittà, a film studio near Rome.

Everyone should sing in their own languages.

Demanding that each country sings in its own national language (or languages) is a bit unfair, given that English is the international language of western pop music – which is undoubtedly a situation the UK played a big part in creating. In two periods of Eurovision history (1966-73 and 1977-98), acts were indeed only allowed to perform in one of their country’s official languages. Sweden’s ABBA won in English with Waterloo in 1974 and went on to massive international success. Could the same have happened if they’d performed in Swedish? If performers want as many people as possible to understand their lyrics in Eurovision, then, like it or not, their best chance to do so is to sing them in English. It was the UK that created the foundations for both English being an international language and English being the language of rock ‘n’ roll, so we should probably just accept it.

The most successful languages in Eurovision (as far as 2017) are English (31 wins) and French (14 wins). Dutch and Hebrew songs have scored 3 wins each. Songs in Italian, German, Spanish, Swedish and Norwegian have won twice. Songs in Danish, Croatian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Crimean Tatar and Portuguese have all won once.

But all the songs are crap.

OK, here’s a Eurovision fan’s confession: at times, there is some right crap on that stage. Some songs aren’t as good as others. But let’s face it, it wouldn’t be Eurovision if every song was like Adele or Ed Sheeran (and then people would just say, “They’re copying Adele/Ed Sheeran”). You know it wouldn’t be as fun, either. It’s down to taste (and more than a few preconceived ideas). Eurovision generally hasn’t troubled the UK charts for many years (not including Sweden’s Loreen, who got to number 3 in 2012 with Euphoria and is the only Eurovision act to get on a Now That’s What I Call Music album), even in the days when we did well. That’s a shame, because some of the songs deserve success. Don’t assume that every other country obsesses over the entries though – many are like the UK (except Sweden. Sweden does obsess over it).

To enjoy Eurovision, you have to accept that, much as in life, not everything will be to your personal taste. So let yourself possibly be surprised. Or entertained.

The champions of nul points are Austria and Norway, who both ended up with 0 points four times each. Spain, Finland, Germany and Switzerland have all got 0 three times. Belgium, Portugal and Turkey all achieved 0 twice. The countries that got nul points just once are The Netherlands, Sweden, Yugoslavia, Monaco, Italy, Luxembourg, Iceland, Lithuania and – believe it or not – the United Kingdom.

With the way the voting is split between juries and the public now, it’s unlikely that any country will end up with nul points.

We should just pull out.

If the UK pulled out of Eurovision, it wouldn’t be the first country to do so – but why should we? The final pulls in really good viewing figures in the UK (see below) – and it’s actually value for money in terms of the licence fee. In 2012, the BBC spent around £310,000 on Eurovision, not including travel, accommodation, and so on. That’s likely to have been more this year due to increased costs and the decreased value of the pound – but in TV terms, still decent value. Putting Eurovision on TV compares (very roughly) to the cost of about an hour and a half of EastEnders.

Countries that were in Eurovision recently and won’t be there this year include Bosnia, Slovakia, Turkey, Andorra

But no one watches Eurovision!

Wrong! In 2017, the final averaged just under 7m viewers overall in the UK, with nearly 9m tuning in for the voting (for £310k, that’s a lot cheaper than most Saturday night shows). Considering that Eurovision has been up against Britain’s Got Talent on ITV for the last few years, any other show on BBC One would seriously struggle to get those ratings. The semi-finals have been broadcast on BBC Four in recent years, so pull in audiences in the hundreds of thousands – but as the UK doesn’t really figure in either semi-final, that’s also not surprising, and also gives the hardcore fans the chance to have more of a ‘fan show’ (a bit like those lower-league football matches that people love [or insert similar sports reference once checked with someone who knows]).

It’s all political.

Personally, and despite what Terry Wogan might have led you to believe, I think that’s just an easy excuse for the UK not doing that well. I’m not going to deny that there’s an element of truth in the politics argument, but probably not in the way you’re thinking (see below). While Eurovision itself is officially an apolitical event, politics has been a factor in Eurovision to various degrees, including controversial song lyrics, questions over voting, people behind the Iron Curtain being able to watch, and even the performance of one song in Brighton being used as a secret signal to start a coup in Portugal in 1974 (seriously). Neighbourly voting also exists, notably (thanks to Tel’s rants) between Greece and Cyprus. But consider this: if countries send music that represents what’s popular at home and represents their own cultures (like many Eurovisionsceptics demand), then obviously people in neighbouring countries are likely to identify more with those songs and want to vote for them. Let’s face it, the UK and Ireland are no strangers to giving each other high points either.

You’ve probably never let politics get in the way of having fun before, so why should Eurovision be any different?

But what about Brexit?

Eurovision isn’t run by the EU, so isn’t affected by Brexit. We’ll be in Eurovision for as long as a UK channel wants to do it.

Everyone still hates us.

That’s possible, but unlikely. People have a lot going on in their own countries and lives to be spending time actively hating the United Kingdom during the Eurovision Song Contest. Indeed, you’d think certain other countries would also be affected if that were the case, and their results have been markedly better than the UK’s. While Brexit may dominate the headlines here, it’s just another international news story for the majority of people everywhere else. Isn’t it also a bit weird that everyone would hate the UK just for Eurovision but not for every other cultural activity we’re involved in? You don’t see UK music acts having to cancel concerts around Europe because no one wants to see a Brit performing. We just have to face it: no country is too big a deal for Eurovision. Not even Sweden.

Who chooses the UK’s song?

You can vote, if you want. The way the song is chosen depends on what the BBC decides to do each year. This year and last, we’ve had Eurovision: You Decide – a live show with some preselected artists performing in front of an audience and a panel, and then a viewer phone vote. Before that, the BBC’s Eurovision production team chose the song with no public input (which led to the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler performing). And before that it has always been either a viewer vote or an internal selection. The EBU decided a short while ago that the selection of songs must have some public vote element, so it looks like You Decide or something similar will be the way forward. Less than a million people tuned in to the Wednesday night BBC Two show this year (a shame, because it was really good fun and had loads of ABBA in it), so I say why not put it on a Saturday night some time? Even you must agree that it’s got to be better than Partners in Rhyme

We should just send Robbie Williams.

If he wants to do it and has a great song, then yes, we should just send Robbie Williams. But Eurovision duty isn’t (as yet) obligatory for singers, so he’d need to agree to do it. It’s quite a big deal for an established artist to do Eurovision – they’re essentially going up against 40-odd other acts, some new, some experienced, some possibly famous. The artist would have to put themself/ves through the most direct judgement processes possible – phone votes and juries (possibly twice, at home and at Eurovision) – and have to grin and bear the criticism if they didn’t win. That’s a lot to ask of someone. Some fans point to Sweden’s Melodifestivalen competition, where that scenario actually happens over the course of six Saturday nights to choose a Eurovision entry, but acts there arguably get an easier ride from the press if they don’t do well than they would from British media. Will Young once described doing Eurovision as “a poisoned chalice”, referring to the lack of mainstream success that acts have enjoyed following their Contests. I’d agree with that, but it’s also up to music fans to support those artists if they like what they did at Eurovision and want to hear more from them. The list of credible songs that haven’t done well at Eurovision is very, very long.

Established singers who went to Eurovision for the UK include Engelbert Humperdinck (25th), Bonnie Tyler (19th), Blue (11th), Katrina and the Waves (winners), West End stars Michael Ball (2nd) and Frances Ruffelle (10th), and Sonia (2nd). Further in the past, Cliff Richard and Lulu were among other well-known artists who did Eurovision.

It’s too gay.

Sigh. You need to get out more.

Also, if you really think that, then here’s something to annoy you even more: the super-gayness of Eurovision is probably thanks to the UK. Hurray!

When the Contest arrived in Birmingham in 1998, it had, until then, been a relatively straight-laced (ahem) couple of hours full of formality, French and the odd strange novelty entry. The UK hosts were Terry Wogan and Ulrika Jonsson. Wogan brought his trademark sarcasm, while Ulrika (unintentionally) caused a camp storm with her handling of the voting (particularly with the Netherlands). The other big decision by the BBC producers was to get loads of LGBTQ+ people in the front rows and treat the whole thing as a party. Which they did, with more whooping, hollering and general festivity than had ever been heard before. The days of dinner jackets and forced grins were gone. The participation and victory (and super diva-ness) of Israeli trans singer Dana International was merely the icing on the cake. The BBC helped Eurovision out of the closet and it would never be the same again. And we’re not sorry!

Why does the UK go straight to the final?

As more countries wanted to be part of Eurovision following the collapse of Communism in central and eastern Europe, the contest had to change to give everyone a chance to participate in the final without turning it into a six-hour feat of endurance (three hours+ is sometimes enough as it is). This developed into semi-finals to ensure a maximum of 26 countries in the final show (this year, 43 countries have entered). As one of the ‘Big Five’, the UK doesn’t have to earn a place in a semi-final (along with Germany, France, Spain and Italy). These five countries all make the biggest financial contributions to hosting Eurovision, which is the main reason for their free pass to the final. For the UK and Germany, you could also argue that big viewing figures would be affected if they weren’t in the final (less so for France and Spain, and very much less so for Italy). Some fans say that this isn’t always a benefit, because viewers have been able to see all the other performances in the semi-finals. This is debatable, though, as the majority of viewers who make up the core audience probably don’t bother with the semis.

Why can’t Scotland be in Eurovision?

The short answer, whether you like it or not, is that Scotland is in the UK, so already is in Eurovision.

Regions of nations are not permitted to enter their own songs. Scottish channel STV (part of ITV) is an EBU member and could be Scotland’s way to be in Eurovision if it were an independent nation. As it stands, the BBC has the exclusive rights to broadcast Eurovision in the UK, and is responsible for choosing and sending the UK’s entry. If the BBC ever loses those rights, STV could, in theory, take over and send its own entry ­– but the act would still participate as the United Kingdom until such a time as Scotland became independent. ITV itself, and Wales’ S4C are also EBU members, and could also take over the UK’s Eurovision participation if they tried to. Changing the Eurovision rules to allow regions is very unlikely to happen, though.

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