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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.