John Kennedy O’Connor, the man behind The Eurovision Song Contest – The Official History, thinks there might be some problems with the voting in the 2011 contest. With the jury and public vote so wildly at odds with each other, this could cause issues behind the scenes and have an effect on the public perceptions of the Song Contest. Is this the chickens coming home to roost, was 2011 an abberation. or is this just going to happen because we use 50/50 voting?
There are a lot of things that the fans of the Eurovision Song Contest blame on the ‘Big Five’ nations that take part. Ever since the concept of allowing France, Germany, Spain, the UK and now Italy, direct entry into the Grand Final each year was first mooted, every subsequent change in the rulebook seems to have been blamed directly on the five nations that largely fund the European Broadcasting Union and thus the Contest itself.
One such recent amendment to the regulations governing the annual musical jamboree was the reintroduction of the juries in 2009. Indeed, not just the reintroduction of a jury system abandoned in the late 1990’s, but the inauguration of professional voters; a complete reversal of the previously long held tenant about the judges’ complexion. Assuming the assumption that it was the continuing poor results of the ‘Big Five’ nations that prompted the change is indeed correct, it does seem ironic that similar lore would have it that it was the same group – and Germany in particular – that nailed the lid on the coffin of the original jury system some time ago. No matter why the change actually happened, the discussions about its consequence continue long after the Grand Prix Award has found its new home on a shelf somewhere in Europe.
One of the challenges facing the old jury system that existed every year from Lugano in 1956 to Oslo forty years later, was the necessity of those making the decision to hear the songs multiple times and make a comparison between each of the efforts competing. This gave the judges a keener awareness of quality that was often lost on the general audience who were simply coming up with their favourite as the night unfurled. It led to many winning songs confounding the watching audience, particularly those with a penchant for actually going out and buying the triumphant recording. Perhaps things came to a head when the globally successful “Ooh, Aah… Just A Little Bit” limped home in 8th place at the 1996 Oslo competition, whereas the winning song “The Voice” was largely forgotten moments after the broadcast ended.
The introduction of voting by phone for viewers in five countries the following year, leading to a wider imposition of the new format in 1998, didn’t seem to create any larger hits amongst the winning stable, or indeed eliminate some of the more noticeable neighbourliness of the competing nations. In fact, the latter became far more noticeable and the public watching at home – presumably those that had not reached for their dial – began to complain vociferously about ‘political voting’ and the impact it was having on the results. Perhaps when Russia triumphed in Belgrade in 2008, with most of the then ‘Big Four’ nations once again propping up the lower end of the scoreboard (Spain finishing highest, in 16th place), the EBU heard the dissention loud and clear and promised change.
The change came in 2009 with the decision that the viewers would only account for 50% of the votes, with the remaining scores coming from a panel of five music and entertainment professionals in each country.
The first year the system was used, there were certainly some noticeable differences in the conclusions reached by both methods. That year, in Moscow, probably France benefitted from the jury’s return more than most, with their very traditional Gallic ballad performed by Patricia Kaas, from a very bad position in the draw, scoring far more heavily with the professionals than with the wider watching audience at home. The UK also benefitted from the change and eased back into the top five for the first time in seven years.
But at the very top of the scoreboard, there was really no impact. Norway romped home by a huge margin; by some measures scoring the biggest ever Eurovision victory. It wouldn’t have mattered who had been asked – the viewers or the professional jurors – the win for Alexander Rybak’s “Fairytale” would have come regardless. The same was true of the following year’s victory for Germany’s Lena. Both sets of judges concurred that her song “Satellite” was the best and the Grand Prix was back in the ‘Big Five’s’ hands for the first time since 1997.
But in 2011, the story that emerged after the cumulative results of the jury and public votes were published was of a very different nature. In Düsseldorf on May 14, Azerbaijan scored their first victory with Ell & Nikki’s “Running Scared”. But unlike almost every winner since the knife edge result of 2003 (Turkey winning from Belgium and Russia in the final round of votes), it certainly wasn’t clear cut.
Not that 2011 was a particularly close run competition. The winning margin was 32 points (a relative margin of 14.47%), a comfortable enough victory by any measure. The bigger issue is the actual detail of the scoring. Leaving aside that only three nations of the forty-three voting actually thought it was the best song, it was also noted that of the possible score achievable (504 points since you ask), their grand total of 221 represents only 48.46% of what could have been recorded – the first time under the current ‘douze points’ system introduced in 1975, that any winner had scored less than 50% of the potential maximum. Not exactly the most overwhelming victor in Eurovision history. But there’s more…
Although the back-up juries (assembled in case the tele-vote failed on the night) had been helping to pick the semi final victors from 2007 onwards, generally the semi final results didn’t vary enormously from the placing each country achieved once in the final. Russia won Eurovision in 2008, having only placed third in their semi final, the first time such a discrepancy had occurred, albeit largely due to only the public voting in the final. A similar result was revealed in 2011 when the Azeri’s finished second in their allocated semi final, way behind the Greeks who would go on to place a mere seventh in the final itself. Some nations may also argue that had only one or other of the systems been used, they wouldn’t have been going home early. Belarus, Armenia and Norway would all have qualified had only the public been consulted, whereas Slovakia, Malta, San Marino, Belgium & Slovakia would all have been there on Saturday had power never been given to the people. So what caused the big change this year?
Ultimately, that’s a question that can never really be answered. There are lots of theories, the most likely being that the demographic of the tele-voters watching the semi-finals were a very different set of viewers watching the final. Judging by the difference in the viewing figures (approx 20m for each semi and 70m for the final), this is a reasonable justification of the anomaly, although it would seem more likely that anyone watching & voting on Tuesday or Thursday would do the same on Saturday. But what of the juries who judged both shows? That’s where it gets interesting.
The same five judges are voting in either of the semi finals and also the final on behalf of the participant broadcasters, although the juries only take part in the semi-final for which they’ve been allocated, thus they aren’t judging the same field twice. Changes in the running order and the comparisons between a different set of songs will of course create different perceptions of the songs for those making the choice. But would that alone explain how Lithuania triumphed amongst the jurors in semi final one, only to slump to 20th when ranked by the same people four nights later? The Slovenians won the second semi final for the juries, beating the Danes into second place. When the Danes showed up in the final in one of the more troublesome spots in the running order, the same judges now thought their effort considerably better than the Slovenian song and bumped them above the former Yugoslavs.
But it wasn’t just that the jurors appeared to have revised their opinions of the songs in the intervening days. Look at the EBU’s Jury and Public voting totals (ie the results of the 2011 Song Contest Contest if it had been either a 100% pubic or 100% jury vote). For the first time under the new consultative format, the jurors and the tele-voters were clearly not in sync. Not even close.
Italy benefitted most from the jury panels, topping their list easily with 251 points. The Azeri’s were quite some way behind with 182, but still deemed the second best song by the professionals, whereas they just managed to top the tele-vote poll, giving them a clear win in the contest overall. But what about the rest of the field? There things really do get confusing. Sweden only narrowly missed first place from the viewers by two points. A great result and fairly in keeping with their semi final victory. But where were Sweden ranked with the pros? Third best in the semi final, but a lowly ninth in the final. Quite a difference.
The clear Italian triumph with the selected panel certainly wasn’t mirrored with the wider audience. As far as the viewers were concerned, the returning Italy was deemed only the 11th best of the 25 songs. A vast difference in opinion. As for the United Kingdom, there things really get complicated. Fifth place amongst the viewers could have seen the British storming back into the top 10 after their miserable last place in 2010, only for the juries to scupper any hope of a return to form when they placed Blue’s “I Can” in 22nd place. It was pretty much the same for pretty boy Alex Sparrow for Russia too. Seventh with the tele-voters, but last of all 25 with the professionals.
For Austria and Denmark, it was generally speaking the exact opposite. The tele-voters disliked both efforts markedly, with Danish band A Friend In London registering 18th place with the audience, only to rise dramatically to third with the jury; whereas Austria’s Nadine Beiler was one place off from last with those at home and a remarkable fifth with those pondering their deliberations for longer. It’s a similar story of disparity for Slovenia, Greece and Georgia who all clearly caused dissention in the ranks and neither of the decision making sources could agree on their relative merits.
The discrepancies – whilst astonishingly vast in some of the above cases – can be largely explained by the need for the juries to compare and contrast, while the tele-voters simply reach a snap decision and indeed may not be voting for the song’s merits at all; but factoring in a whole range of other thoughts to their process.
But such wild variations may also be blamed (or at least attributed) on a factor that the general viewers probably aren’t even aware exists. Since the juries made their comeback in 2009, they’ve been making their final decisions based on the dress rehearsal staged (and recorded for back up purposes) the night before the final. Ultimately, the decisions on who scores what are being taken on different performances. Not that it’s ever really mattered as most artists deliver the same show on both nights, having long since polished their performance in the rehearsal period. But it still means that the two sets of judges are not comparing like with like (or maybe exact like with exact like).
The UK in 2011 may be the best example of why this is confusing. Even their most loyal British fans conceded that the performance given by the boys in Blue at the Friday night rehearsal was far from impressive. Yet by Saturday, the lads’ confidence had returned and what they delivered was certainly deserving of the rapturous applause in the Esprit Arena. For any UK viewer watching and cheering on their boys, it must have been infuriating to see the song failing to reach the top 10 by the end of the night. How many of them would have known that a potential win had been lost the night before on a performance they’d never see?
The Brits are just one example of where the Friday night show didn’t match the Saturday presentation. France reversed the UK trend, going in the opposite route and Friday’s impressive turn led to a hesitating and weak delivery on Saturday; yet in this case, it appears the French left both sets of panels equally unimpressed.
So should the competition be decided on two differing performances? Does that even ultimately explain why the scores were so very different this year? Unless every person comes forward and publicly records the reason why they voted the way they did (all reputed 10 million plus of them!) we’ll simply never know. Polling the juries alone might be an option, but possibly only of interest to the hard core Eurovisionistas and it would still only tell half the story. Some maintain that the juries are asked to look for a hit song, but the EBU’s own comments imply that they are simply asked to judge the song and performance on it’s merits and nothing more. Whatever it is the juries are looking for, they’re still hampered by not looking at the same show as the tele-voters.
Should the voting be synchronised so that everyone is considering the same presentation? It would appear to be something worth considering by those examining any potential rule book changes for 2012. Anyone looking seriously at the results will come to the conclusion that had tele-voting never been created, rather than Baku, Rome would be playing host to the next Eurovision Song Contest or that had the juries been kept in their consignment, then the UK would have scored their best result since 2002. Perhaps the ‘Big Five’ will be flexing some of their reputed muscle again in time for Baku?
No matter what, the issues of the voting in 2011 will keep the fans debating over the coming months.
John Kennedy O’Connor, 2011.