Junior Eurovision’s Tale Of What Not To Do In May Written by on December 1, 2016 | 2 Comments

No matter what happens, there will always be moments in any show that work wonderfully, and moments of ‘let’s not do that again.’ Ewan Spence looks back to Malta’s second hosting of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest to see the lessons that should be learned for Junior next November and for Eurovision in May.

And so the curtain falls on the excitement of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. The performers have returned home, the paperwork has been filed, the various podcasts, articles, and radio shows have been archived, and the focus of the community and the broadcasters turns to May 2017.

But before ESC Insight locks it all away, after a week away from the haribo-fuelled heat of the Mediterranean Conference Centre, there’s time to look back with a critical eye on Junior Eurovision 2016.

What Worked? Keeping It Simple

While the competitive elements of the Junior Eurovision Song Contest and its grown-up sibling have subtle differences, Junior Eurovison serves as a reminder that you don’t need to dominate the stage with props, you don’t need flashy graphics or in-camera effects – what you need is a strong song sung well. If you look back over the last few years of Junior Eurovision each winning songs may come from a different genre, but they all had strong singers with top notch lyrics.

Yes, the stage shows do well and those with solid routines on stage can help lift the final score – Armenia are masters at the all-up stage show at Junior Eurovision – at the heart of a good Song Contest song is a good song.

But it has to be a certain type of song. You can have a smash-hit song that’s perfect for radio but it doesn’t have the immediacy at the Contest to attract the public or the hook that will make the judges sit up and pay attention. Once the music union issues are sorted in Macedonia I have no doubt that ‘Love Will Lead Our Way‘ will have a long and successful chart run, but it’s not the sort of song that can easily gather points at Eurovision.

That said, I’m pretty sure we can expect at least one country’s Creative Director to look at the Belarussian version of the Red Arrows on hover boards and think ‘that would work with my song in May’ – but they need to make sure that they are either the only boarders or first in the running order. As Serbia’s Dunja Jelicic found out there’s no points for being the second act with the same gimmick.

Junior Eurovision 2016 (image: Andreas putting / EBU)

Junior Eurovision 2016 (image: Andreas Putting / EBU)

Which leads me to the running order. Once more Eurovision had to face the two competing pressures of providing an entertaining show and providing a fair environment for a competitive Contest. Junior Eurovision follows its now normal practice of drawing first and second half for the performers, while offering two of the ‘prime’ spots to be allocated at random. Those spots are opening the show and closing the show at the opposite ends of the running order.

With the best will in the world, I doubt that any producer focused on making an entertaining show would have placed Georgia as the closing number in the seventeen-song Junior Eurovision programme. At the same time running last was probably the only spot in the program where Mariam would have a chance of winning the whole Contest. She took that chance and squeezed out a narrow margin of victory.

There’s also a healthy argument that a later spot in the first half for Armenia would have given then enough of a boost to overtake Georgia. As ‘Tarber‘ had drawn ‘first half’ the position, and the impact on the result, was purely down to the producers. Don’t say that running order has no impact.

What Didn’t Work? Telling The Story

If the 2016 Junior Eurovision Song Contest had a weakness, it was in the ability to tell the story of the Song Contest. From Junior Eurovision’s own changesto the distracting elements of the televised show, it felt like the focus was on ‘getting a show on air’ rather than ‘telling the story of seventeen acts’ or ‘this is a competitive event’. While circumstances had placed more pressure on many of those involved in the planning and organising of this year’s Contest, the end product – what the viewers around the world see and hear –  always has to stand on its own and Junior Eurovision 2016 struggled.

The obvious point to bring up here is the scoring of Junior Eurovision and how the final score was announced. If you missed the action, it was using the new block voting system seen in May’s Contest (and countless Melodifestivalens). Armenia required 118 to win, otherwise it was going to Georgia. A perfect opportunity for a minute or two of tension… which was spoiled in the first breath as our host said there were 110 points left.

Oops.

Junior Eurovision 2016 (image: Andreas putting / EBU)

Junior Eurovision 2016 (image: Andreas putting / EBU)

Looking back at the scoreboard rehearsals and the dress rehearsals, the fault lay in a process that locked in the script and left no opportunity to explain what was going on. Every run-through at every stage was always “I have X points, who are they going to? To country Y.”

Yes it is a live show, yes mistakes will happen, but for whatever reason the production team’s focus that was required to tell the story as it happened was lost. The new ‘block scoring’ system can tell many stories, and each one of them needs the hosts to take a slightly different angle to increase the excitement. Those all need rehearsed before the live show, and the hosts need to have the confidence and understanding to go ‘off script’ as required.

Unfortunately Valerie Vella’s name will be recorded as the host that got it wrong’ when she was simply the final step in an apparently rigid process. In May 2016, Mans and Petra were able to build the tension up to the final reveal – Mans even managed to get in ‘Thunder and lightning, it’s getting exciting’ before handing out Russia’s score. With the block scoring reveal the hosts are no longer working down a checklist of countries, they literally become the show and they have to magnify the story in the moment.

The danger is clear, and with a success rate of fifty percent the climax of the Contest requires far more attention and rehearsal than at any point in the last sixty years.

Junior Eurovision 2016 (image: Andreas putting / EBU)

Junior Eurovision 2016 (image: Andreas putting / EBU)

The final scoreboard was not the only moment where the storytelling elements of Junior Eurovision were muddled. Each country effectively had two postcards, the traditional lead in to the song and the ‘coming up in this section’ announcements from different points around the Island. It meant you had a flow that went “next up is Ireland!” followed by a postcard for Ireland, then Armenia, then Belarus, Then back to a second postcard for Ireland.

Grouping the countries into sections is a smart idea and one that Malta managed perfectly well in 2014 – although in that show the upcoming countries were simply read out by the host before a single traditional postcard for the country singing next. 2016 had more visuals but was more confusing. 2014 was not as visually interesting, but it told a better story and was easier for viewers to follow.

And unless you had a commentator, you might have wondered why there was no recap immediately after 2016’s seventeen songs – because there was no public voting so why remind you of the songs when we have Jedward?

This year’s Junior Eurovision Song Contest had many new stories to tell, not least that loss of public voting and a switch to a 100% jury based system, as well as the time change to Sunday afternoon for the live show. A critical look back at the run-in to the Contest would ask why these elements were not given more focus from all of those involved. The easiest answer to the lower viewing figures is not that they couldn’t vote, but that people simply did not know where to look for the show… assuming they knew that it was happening this year.

There is a history and tradition to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, but that does not guarantee an audience. Every year needs to be treated as if the audience is not aware of the Contest and the story that it tells needs to be told again… and again… and again.

And The Lesson Is…

For many years, the Junior Eurovision Song Contest has piloted a number of changes that would eventually be seen at the Adult Contest – the flag ceremony being the most visible at the start of the show. While 2016’s Junior Eurovision saw many changes, I’m not expecting to see 100% jury voting or a Sunday afternoon timeslot appear in the senior version. But this year’s Contest is full of lessons for the show in May. It just happens to be the case that many of these lessons are in the ‘don’t do it this way, we tried it and it didn’t work’.

Sometimes those are the best lessons of all, assuming you are willing to listen.

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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2 responses to “Junior Eurovision’s Tale Of What Not To Do In May”

  1. Robyn says:

    I agree that the new voting system requires hosts that can ad lib and not just rigidly read off cue cards. It’s going to make casting for ESC hosts different from previous years. It’s not just enough to be reasonably good at English and to be able to read slightly funny jokes off an autocue. Future hosts will need to have more confidence and flow and bring life to the televote climax.

  2. Eurojock says:

    Granted they messed up announcing Armenia’s score, but the general principle of reading out the combined JESC kid’s juries/ESC televote points is sound. I liked the way that in JESC they read out each individual country’s combined score in turn, whereas in ESC 2016 they put a lot of the lower scoring country’s totals on the board at the same time – which felt too rushed and didn’t give the viewer enough time to absorb the implications. Definitely a small lesson for ESC.

    Georgia undoubtedly benefited from being last in the running order and Armenia could well have won if they hadn’t been drawn second. The difference is that Georgia’s win was down to the luck of the draw (fine) while Armenia probably lost because of producer intervention (in my view not fine). And in the last analysis do these producer led running orders really make for a better show? You couldn’t have got a better show finale than little Mariam belting out Mzeo. So, why not go back to a random running order for ESC? The adult contest is strong enough to take it.

    I have also read that JESC viewing figures were down in a lot of countries – perhaps suggesting the Sunday afternoon experiment didn’t work. Ewan, do you think JESC is in danger of dying a death? If it is it would be a real shame, because this year’s JESC contained a number of strong songs, showcased some highly promising young talent and for all the flaws of the presentation (at least to my mind) delivered a very enjoyable show. (Mind you, the very large measure of malt whisky I was consuming while watching it, may have coloured my opinion on the last point!)

    Finally, there was something heart-warming about the show’s ending with a lot of young people of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds coming on stage and appearing genuinely to share in the happiness of Georgia’s win – a refreshing contrast to the xenophobia we currently see on the rise in many parts of Europe and the world.

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