With hundreds of Eurovision Song Contest fans heading to Stockholm for the Melodifestivalen final, the national final season is nearly over. How did national finals become such a part of the build up to Eurovision and why some more than others? Dr Paul Jordan investigates…
Part of the excitement of the Eurovision Song Contest is the build up to the event during Eurovision week, or fortnight as it is now! The rehearsals, press conferences, excursions and of course parties. However to the non-Eurovision fan little is known about this. Often I’ve had people ask me “you mean they actually rehearse for Eurovision?” Seriously, do people think that the acts just step off a plane, sing for three minutes then head home? I daren’t tell them about the various selection programmes which are broadcast in the various competing countries around Europe, the long-awaited “national final season”.
Switzerland is certainly an early bird (I blame the cuckoo clock!) and has held their national final in December several times. Eurovision season has been getting longer over the past few years. Some fans applaud this, Eurovision is no longer something which seems to take so long to come around and is then over with in a flash. Could it be though that the extension of national final season (now starting at the end of the year before) is actually taking some of the excitement out of Eurovision? Or is it giving Eurovision new life?
The popularity of national finals amongst fans of Eurovision seems to have exploded over the past decade. Arguably the rise of the internet has helped this immensely. Long gone are the days of dialup when even photos took an eternity to download. Nowadays the national finals are broadcast online and the EBU have got in on the act and stream them from Eurovision.tv. It’s never been easier to follow what the rest of Europe is up to – unless the dreaded buffering happens!
The sheer amount of people actually travelling to national finals has also increased. Perhaps the change is due to the availability of cheap airfares and improved access to tickets to these events. However more crucially, the orientation of Eurovision away from being a somewhat high-brow occasion to a more ground-level fan-focussed event has also had an impact on national finals. Eurovision has changed and so too have national finals.
Of course the grand dame of national final season is Sweden’s Melodifestivalen. It is the biggest show on Swedish TV and a partial blueprint for the format of the Eurovision Song Contest itself today. Melodifestivalen is the national final that Eurovision fans talk about the most, well and yes, argue about the most too! Having been to the event myself in 2008, I saw first-hand just how massive and impressive an event it is. However for me personally, it was less about the show and more about the social opportunity. Essentially it was like a mini-Eurovision reunion, a chance to catch up with friends old and new over a pricy beer or two.
Whilst enjoyable, I don’t think I’d want to go every year (I couldn’t afford it even if I did!) However for some fans, Melodifestivalen represents the nadir of Eurovision season. As one gentleman of a certain age, who shall remain nameless (Bet it was Dermot Manning – Ed.) once told me, “national finals are great because just when you think it’s over and you feel a bit sad, you realise you still have Eurovision ahead!” Perhaps that’s the key to it all; it’s the warm-up for Eurovision itself.
Sweden isn’t the only country that is getting attention from Eurovision fans though, Estonia’s Eesti Laul, launched in 2009 has steadily been gaining popularity amongst the fan base and Norway and Portugal have also attracted visits from dedicated Eurovision fans. Some have event opted to attend national finals this year in lieu of going to Baku, a consolation of sorts.
Of course there have been many examples of songs which have been huge hits with fans which have never made it to the Eurovision finals. The birth of “second chance” contests such as Consong and Second Cherry are a product of fandom, an expression of ownership over Eurovision. “Hera should have won in Denmark in 2009, we’re definitely putting her in Consong!” National finals have become international, followed by fans across the continent, a feat which is a testament to the success of Eurovision itself.
Last year we discussed the way in which the domestic audience is often the focus in Sweden, Estonia and now Finland and there are of course national finals which aren’t really national finals at all. Look at Albania’s Festivali i Këngës, launched in 1966, until 2003 it had nothing to do with Eurovision. Then there is Italy’s San Remo, the founding father of Eurovision itself. Many San Remo winners go on to sing for Italy at Eurovision but not always, that honour sometimes goes to someone else, almost like a consolation prize if 2012 is anything to go by.
What happens when national finals go wrong though?They are live TV events where anything can happen and like Eurovision the p-word sometimes comes into play… Politics! Serbia and Montenegro found this out after a near-riot ensued when the boy band No Name was announced as a winner after alleged tactical voting from the Montenegrin jury. No agreement was reached the country withdrew from the 2006 contest. Serbia and Montenegro split that year and entered Eurovision as separate countries in 2007. A case of art, or the national final, imitating life it seems.
There are of course the gaffes. Terry Wogan and Fearne Cotton declaring different winners in the UK national final in 2007 is one such example of recent times. There is also the FYR Macedonian final which appears to take no consideration of broadcasting schedules and then of course Belarus where the public vote for the winner, which is then replaced by a completely different song anyway. The national final is a precursor to the dramas of Eurovision itself or in the case of many fans, an excuse to crack open the prosecco and have a fantastic time!
Do you attend national finals? Do you think they’re overrated? Why is it that some national finals seem to be more “fan-friendly” than others? It is simply geography and economics? Or is it because the respective countries appeal to Eurovision fans more than others? Let us know what you think!