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What Is Aussie For 'Nul Points'? The Australian Impact On The Eurovision Song Contest Written by on February 11, 2015 | 17 Comments

With Australia set to appear at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, the world’s media is suddenly paying to the Song Contest three months early. The inclusion of SBS is already proving controversial. Is it the right move for the Contest, or has the EBU taken a step too far? Ewan Spence isn’t sure…

On the surface, the idea of inviting SBS to send an Australian entry to the Song Contest is a good one. Stress the one-off appearance, send them ‘Direct To Saturday’ so the semi-final system is not unduly unbalanced, bring something new and special to the Song Contest’s sixtieth edition, create lots of talk and chatter about the Contest… how could anyone find anything wrong with that?

Actually, there’s quite a bit wrong about it, and it’s mostly under the surface. Specifically it dilutes the competitive elements of the Song Contest in place of a one-off TV spectacle; it diminishes the ability of a controversial song to win the Contest, placing more advantages into safe middle of the road songs; and it does not foster a sense of fair play.

Tension, Eurovision Style

The Eurovision Song Contest has always had to accommodate two different camps and satisfy both of them. The first is the ‘television show’, or in the sense of the Song Contest, the ‘Biggest Variety Show’ on the planet. It brings together disparate strands of entertainment and packages them up for the viewers at home. It delivers high viewing figures with a family friendly, safe, show, that can be shown across Europe. The Contest has to work as a TV show.

The second camp is actually presented front and centre in the name. Eurovision is a Contest, and as such it should do its best to provide a level playing field for all.

SBS Australia and  Eurovision (image: SBS PR)

Jess Mauboy flies the flag in Australia’s first Nul Points (image: SBS PR)

The Song Contest works well when equal consideration is made to both the television show and the Contest. There will be times when certain decisions can be made that preserve that balance, and certain decisions can put the two sides of Eurovision out of balance.

The past few years have seen a number of changes that have pushed the Eurovision Song Contest further towards the ‘television’ side of the see-saw, and away from the ‘competitive’ side. Bringing Australia to the Contest pushes ‘Europe’s favourite TV show’ even more towards a populist, predictable, and safe, seven hours of television

On The Side Of Television

The Eurovision Song Contest has made a number of changes in terms of organisation and presentation over the last few years that have benefited the television show.

Having a. This allows for a better ‘flow’ of songs to create a better experience for the viewers at home. It allows bigger names and ‘audience draws’ to be placed near the end of the running order (be it in the top or the bottom half), and it allows each of the three shows to open strongly, finish strongly, and keep the audience attention up throughout the two hours or more that it takes to go through the Grand Final line-up.

SBS Australia and  Eurovision (image: SBS PR)

SBS Australia and Eurovision (image: SBS PR)

This, of course, causes some major issues to the competitive line-up. , so the plum spots are not decided by a random draw (which would make the competition fairer to those entering). Viewer fatigue means the last five songs in a twenty-six strong final are going to be less well received by the viewers and voters, and will not score as highly. But .

The changes to jury voting, and asking jurors to rank all the songs places had a noble aim – which was to make every vote count and every song to be ranked. What it does do is create the situation where songs that create great positive or negative passions are penalised more by those who do not like the song. A single ’26th’ vote from a juror can pull a song right out of the points places, even if the other four jurors appreciate the song.

What works in this scoring system is sending slightly above average, inoffensive, middle of the road songs. That makes for a more predictable and safe show that appeals to a wider audience, but it reduces the ability to take competitive risks.

Australia, The Great Destabiliser

Looking at the points above, Australia’s entry increases the impact that the televisual-favouring choices have brought to the Song Contest.

The addition of Australia, direct to the Grand Final, increases the length of the show, and increases viewer fatigue. It also creates an even wider gap between a highly ranked song and a negative song, increasing the chances of an inoffensive ditty from a manic pixie dream girl (with our without a beard) to win the Contest.

There are some other areas as well where Australia’s effect will be heavily felt, not least in the semi-finals. The Reference Group has decided that Australia should go straight to the Finals, on account of the ‘wild card’ nature of the offer, and while it doesn’t rob any of the Semi-Final Countries of a spot, is it fair that a competitor can pay to go through to a later round of a Contest? The semi-finals are currently unbalanced (16 in one, 17 in the other), so there is a natural place ready and waiting for Australia to take on board.

SBS Australia and  Eurovision (image: SBS PR)

Guess who wanted a National Final… (image: SBS PR)

“It’s a special occasion, we’re only going to do this once, so can we just waltz into the final?” It feels that the spectacle of Australia turning up on the Saturday night is more important than fair play.

This is of course the same argument you can use against the existing Big Five, and you’d be right. Commercial realities (i.e. the need for a guaranteed audience for advertising and marketing, as well as a significant slice of the budget in the large delegation fees) has already distorted the Song Contest.

Given Australia joining ‘The Big Six’ I think it’s fair to assume that SBS will be paying an equivalent delegation fee to the other countries in last year’s ‘Big Five’. In which case I wonder how that sits within SBS? Having to implement budget cuts of $53m, losing an estimated ten percent of it’s workforce, and now it’s spending more money on the Eurovision Song Contest? That might not go over well…

Changing Things In The Right Way

Should we all be open to Australia entering the Eurovision Song Contest? That’s a more fundamental question. I come back to some of the principles put in place by Marcel Bezencon when he brought the contest to life, namely:

… to test the limits of communications technology, to create a sense of community in post-war Europe, and to allow the people of Europe to share their individual cultures with one another.

Bringing Australia into the Contest does create a sense of community, and a growing community at that. It allows Australia to share its culture with the other contestants, and vice versa. As for testing technology, given SBS’s history with the Contest over the last thirty-odd years I think they’ve got that one sorted.

Marcel Bezençon

Marcel Bezençon, the Father of the Eurovision Song Contest

But it’s that word ‘Europe’ that is causing many people to think twice. SBS is an associate member of the EBU, and any broadcaster can apply for that (other associate members include National Public Radio in America, the Islamic Broadcaster of Iran, and Fox News). Until now, entry to the Eurovision Song Contest has been restricted to Full Members, who fall inside the EBU transmission area.

Eligibility is one of the few rules that has not changed since the launch of the Contest in 1956. The argument will probably go along the lines of the EBU invited SBS, they are not entering, but wedges have been thinner than that for rule changes in the past (after all, what if Australia loses the 2015 on a count back and rolls up with a truck full of delegation fees?)

Rules should be for everyone. If Australia gets a pass this year, can we expect more wild card entries? The Song Contest debuted in China in 2013, can we expect Ruhan Jia next year? If Azerbaijan pays a Big Five equivalent fee, can it buy its way to Saturday night?

The Eurovision Song Contest is no longer an invited audience, forced into evening gowns and dinner jackets. There is no mandated orchestra, and we don’t have to sit thought Italian entries that go on for more than five minutes. The Song Contest evolves through the decades and changes with the times. I’ve never been against that.

What personally upsets me is when value of the show is diminished because changes have altered the balance between the competitive element and the spectacle element. If Australia is to be invited to the Song Contest, if the contest is to expand and reach out around the world, then change must happen by its very nature.

I fear that, once more, the desires of the television production and the need to be ‘bigger, better, and bolder’ than previous years has not been tempered by those who can implement a longer-term vision. Australia’s inclusion in the Eurovision Song Contest should have been with more determination and clearly stated vision. It should be a glorious moment, allowing the Contest to look towards its 60th birthday party in 2016 with renewed vigour and purpose.

Instead it feels like it ‘brand Eurovision’ has been cheapened in a race for spectacle and headlines.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (facebook.com/ewanspence).

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17 responses to “What Is Aussie For 'Nul Points'? The Australian Impact On The Eurovision Song Contest”

  1. Eric Graf says:

    You made the point, but as an American fan, I have to address it again as it pertains to North American networks:

    They won’t want to touch a contest that changes the rules midstream on a whim.

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but the fact that the EBU Blah-Blah-Blah Committee approved throwing out the rule book over a month *after* the first entries were submitted would have no weight whatsoever with American (and, I assume, Canadian) viewers.

    The reaction here would be: “If they’re willing to do this, what other shenanigans are going on behind the scenes?” It’s a good thing Americans *aren’t* paying attention, because if they were, the credibility of the Contest would have just dipped to zero.

    Rule 1.1.1 of the already-in-effect ESC 2015 rules says. in very clear language: Active EBU members only, with a *maximum* of 26 in the final. I can’t find anything in there about “unless we suddenly change our minds because whoopee! 60th edition!”

    Australia’s participation isn’t the issue (although I have some problems with that as well). The issue is, as you say, the ratings tail seems to be vigorously wagging the Contest dog. This won’t end well, and it sets a dreadful precedent. (And seriously, does anyone think Australia *won’t* be invited to the 2016 edition?)

  2. i do hate this precedent the EBU had put on the show. it clearly violates the 2015 rules of contest and diminishes the program that was once the ‘olympic of music’ into to vote buying farce (see azerbajinjin). why cound’nt they change the rules beforehand or announce it before the allocation draw.? there are so many logical and legal rule that the EBU should answer.

    as for australia, i’m happy that they could join the contest because it means that other non-european countries can join or better yet revive the ‘asiavision’ project that was once on the work because ABU is shite

  3. Ali Nella Houd says:

    Sadly, I agree with all your points, Ewan and Eric, and this from the perspective an Australian ESC-aphile.

    The message the EBU seems to be sending with this decision is: “Give us enough money and we’ll let you into the final, regardless of what the currrent rules say, or where you come from.”

    At the risk of appearing to look a gift horse in the mouth, I’d like to air a few additional qualms:

    Has Australia jumped the queue? Mainstream Australia is actually far less obsessed with Eurovision than SBS tries to make out. Countries like South Africa, Argentina, the Philippines and Kazakhstan may well be (per capita) more ESC-obsessed than Australia is. The OGAE’s membership stats would bear this out, either way. SBS tells the world we’re ESC obsessed because it helps their marketing, and helps them keep the EBU door oiled. So, you can’t blame SBS for pulling this off, but I think many other non-full-member countries would be entitled to say: Why them instead of us? Australia is apparently not a fan of queue jumpers, but that’s what’s happened in this case.

    What view of the ESC does SBS disseminate? For all its much-vaunted ESC credentials, SBS still takes a (dare I say “UK-style”) tongue-in-cheek, flippant approach to the ESC. This attitude oozes from the SBS stock presenters, Sam Pang and Julie Zemiro (love them dearly as we do). The “ESC-as-joke” attitude was blatantly evident from the segments SBS put together for broadcast as part of the last two contests. Basically the segments were saying (and hardly between the lines): Eurovision is not about the music – the melodies, lyrics and performances – it’s just one long hilarious cliché, like some kind of nerdy, camp, musical Olympics, and that’s why Australia watches it, and – yep – that’s why we want to be a part of it, ’coz we’re all nerdy and camp too (or at least the minority that watches SBS are — not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).

    When it comes to the more serious side of the contest, SBS pays it lip service only. Last year, Sam rudely told Ralph Siegel to his face that interviewing him was tedious, just to score a laugh back home. Why not ask him a probing and illuminating question about how he goes about composing some of his songs? (If you want someone else to do your boring interviews, Sam, let me know.)

    Based on SBS’s past form, I do also have a (hopefully misplaced) sense of dread as to what blandness they will come up with to represent Oz. (Memo to SBS: Nick Cave, please?)

    Who will benefit from Australia’s votes? Notwithstanding its multicultural qualities, Australia is still a very “Anglo-Celtic” country, so one suspects that any tele/SBS voting will have a discernible UK/Eire bias. (Australia’s head of state still lives in Buckingham Palace.) If I were, say, Russia, I would not be welcoming the arrival of a former British colony as an interloper into the ESC, especially not with a direct entry to the final.

    Where is Australia’s cultural heart? Australia has just won the Asian Cup in football (aka ‘soccer), competing against 15 other teams from the ‘Middle East’ to the ‘Far East’. (Israel would normally be part of the Asian Cup but has opted to be treated as European rather than having to play against countries that don’t want it to exist.) Geographically, and increasingly economically and ethnically, Australia is part of Asia. The hankering to be treated as European for the purposes of a song contest speaks volumes about our cultural confusion and sense of isolation, and sends another mixed messages to our neighbours.

    It may sound like I’m being overly churlish here. After all, l will supposedly be one of the beneficiaries of this decision, e.g. I’ll be able to cheer for an Australian performance (assuming it’s worth cheering for), watch a ‘live’ SBS transmission — from about 5 a.m. on the Sunday — and may somehow also be able to televote from Down Under. So, yes: I did allow myself a mini conga dance down the main street today. Why not.

    But, as someone who loves the ESC for what it has been and can become, in my soul I feel that today’s decision steers things (further) in the wrong direction. Let’s hope it’s truly just a once off.

    Ali

  4. Frederic says:

    Great article Ewan, I almost feel sorry for you reading it because we can feel how disturbed you are about such a decision ( and I greatly am too). The final part about Marcel Bezençon, makes it all the more meaningful that many of us must feel powerless in trying to defend him now.
    Also, I really wanted to thank you Ali for such and insightful and nicely written comment. I believe that a lot of fans should read it, it’s important that we know many Australian fans aren’t especially comfortable with this decision either.

  5. Frederic says:

    I meant he final part about Marcel Bezençon, makes as meaningful as many of us must feel powerless in trying to defend him now.

  6. Seán says:

    As ever you are probably right Ewan, however I am not surprised by Australia entering. Looking at there interval act last year, it was obvious what was coming. I’m just really surprised it has come so soon.

    I think the EBU are right to reward Australia for their loyalty to the contest. However the manner in which they have done it was wrong. In particular it was wrong to add someone directly to the final.

    Sadly I also suspect the Australia will probably win the contest. The advantage of publicity, assuming they have a strong song, should push them over the line (does anyone think they’ll be put in position two).

    The question really is not does this break the morals of the contest but is this the way we want to celebrate 60 years of Eurovision? Having grown and developed a contest within Europe that celebrates the people and music of Europe which promotes understanding difference and culture – is it selfish to say this contest is only for us? Can we really say everyone else must stay out in a globalised world? Should we ignore the fact the roots of most of the population of Australia are in Europe?

    The intention is right but the actions of the EBU are wrong.

  7. Ali Nella Houd says:

    Thanks for your kind comments, Frederic. I suspect there are indeed many Australian ESC fans who are aghast at this development.

    BTW, when I said ‘tele/SBS voting’ I meant ‘tele/SMS voting’.

    For reasons I won’t go into here, I think the SBS-appointed jury is actually more likely to have an ANTI-UK bias. But hopefully I’m wrong. It’d be a shame if the opportunity for an apolitical, non-block (therefore relatively ‘impartial’) Australian jury vote is missed.

    PS: Ewan – I take it everyeurovisionsong is on a break (perhaps till June?)? I’ve been loving every entry. Congratulations on making it halfway. You certainly deserve a breather. Just pace yourself, and it might be finished by the “real” 60th anniversary in 2016. Thank you for your wonderful and heroic efforts to date.

  8. Jake says:

    This is the first thoughtful commentary I’ve read on this issue. Thank you.

    The EBU are clearly violating contest rules already established for 2015. I wonder if we will see countries backing out from principle. Clearly if they do they would suffer penalties. But the reality is of the EBU and Australia are already bending the rules of the contest then they have to honor other countries willing to do so.

    This is what is called Pandora’s Box.

  9. Arrrooohhh says:

    I am a long time fan of Eurovision from Australia too.

    When I heard the news yesterday I thought that it was April 1st. What seems nice as a dream is not quite as good in reality.

    Yes the Final will be too long with 27 songs. Unless there is a straight Jury vote phone voting will be very problematic. I read this morning that SBS will broadcast live at 5 in the morning.

    Australia’s insecurity in its own culture and position in the world always presents with an awkward display, rather than one of pride. Latent insecurity and latent flippancy – two things that mark Australian culture – could lead to a real cringeworthy 3 minutes.

    I am scared Australia will win. Eurovision has shown itself time and again that a novelty will win. Many hardcore fans have taken Conchita and her message to heart and she performed strongly but to the greater public at large Conchita is a novelty and post Copenhagen, Conchita seems more concerned with attention than music. In this situation imagine the uproar if Australia won over a very worthy act?

    As there is no announcement of an act as of yet perhaps as the weeks go on and the unfeasibility of Australia’s participation and the mixed reaction sinks in this will be abandoned. Lots of publicity will be gained.

    In any case there are people in Australia who are excited at this participation.

    At first it sounds unreal and exciting but I am sure any real Eurovision fan who reads websites like this one will agree with you – too many holes and potential problems. I am surprised the EBU agreed to this.

  10. Frederic says:

    Thank you very much Arrrooohhh for this nice comment. It’s very relevant especially about the way Conchita is seen (I personally believe The Common Linnets were the actual winner in Denmark) linked to the possible victory of your country that I also tend to believe is very likely to happen only because of the novelty (I actually even think people who’ve never seen the contest or voted before will just vote because of that).

  11. Shai says:

    Well though and well written article Ewan.
    I agree with you and have noting to add to your article or to any of the comments above.

    @Ali- A small correction – Israel is a a full active member of the EBU and therefore is very eligible to join the contest, as it has done since 1973.
    The Asian confederation has expelled Israel from participation in any Asian events(including the Asian games) and therefore Israel was forced to find another area to play football. it took some time and eventually the EUFA has let Israel joined its ramks and since than, Israel compete in European football. It was never Israel decision to leave Asia, but Israel was forced to do so.

  12. Clairzilla says:

    I’m not entirely comfortable with Australia competing either. I’m happy to vote, but I’m just so unsure. If the act bombs, then Aust will be the laughing stock of the ESC for years to come.

  13. Ali Nella Houd says:

    Thanks for the correction, Shia. I did not know that background about Israel’s expulsion from the Asian Football Confederation. I’d be interested in whether any Israelis would actually consider themselves ‘Asian’?

    Ali

    PS: I am very impressed with your quiz skills on OnEurope. Scarily good.

  14. Shai says:

    @Ali-That’s a very complicated subject.I don’t think that the Israelis see themselves as “Asian”, but until the end of the 70’s they were part of Asia, because geographically,Israel as the whole Middle East is part of Asia.

    Thanks for the compliment 🙂 – some is pure knowledge, some is research. The hardest thing is to follow the quiz master’s logic

  15. Dave VanKappel says:

    My main concern is that if Australia wins, how many next year’s countries will be able to send a delegation there in 2016.

    Many seem to struggle to afford the days necessary for rehearsal, adding in the extra airfare and days for jetlag may push attendance beyond the budgets of many countries

  16. Ewan Spence says:

    If SBS win it will be a co-production with a European broadcaster, in the EBU region – my money is on Berlin (or Malta)

  17. Chad Brown says:

    Just throwing my two pence in here but as a huge fan of Eurovision (I live in Northern Ireland), I am delighted that Australia have been invited to take part.

    I will admit that as soon as I heard (before I knew Guy was the singer) I proclaimed “it doesn’t matter who they send, I will vote for Australia.” Blame it on my excitement of them being there. I know it was a concern that somebody mentioned above.

    Obviously if Australia can swing some points the UK’s way that would be great 😉

    I’m very much looking forward to seeing how Guy does on Saturday night! Good luck Australia and good luck to all the entrants (even Finland who are my least favourite).

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