Sanremo’s Lessons For The Eurovision Song ContestWritten by Ewan Spence on February 12, 2017 | 6 Comments

As Francesco Gabbani walks towards Kyiv after a shock win at the 67th Sanremo Music Festival, Ewan Spence takes a moment to look over organisation of the festival to see what else the Song Contest can appropriate from the Italian Riviera.

My week in Sanremo has been an eye-opening experience. The slower pace of the individual shows contrasts with the faster pace of the competition as the fortunes of the 22 artists. And while it is used to help select the artist for the Eurovision Song Contest, Sanremo is a unique beast of a music contest that continues to evolve. Is there anything from the Festival that I think the EBU should consider for Eurovision?

The Value Of History

For an annual event, the Eurovision Song Contest is quick to move on from ‘we’re here because we won last year’ to the new songs and looking forward. While some broadcasters will package up clips of previous years to cover the commercial break for the BBC, more emphasis is placed on the host country with perhaps a nod to next year’s host country once a song is declared the winner.

That’s not the case in Italy. Sanremo does have an advantage here because RAI has been organising the broadcasts since the first shows in the city and now runs the whole event. Compare that to the Eurovision Song Contest which moves venue and host broadcaster on an annual basis, effectively resetting the show each year. The traditions that do exist are more to do with the rules and the occasional long-established element.

There is something to be said about reminding everyone about the impact and the memories every year. It creates more passion, more connections, and emphasises the status of Sanremo.

Lucio Dalla, Sanremo 2017 opening VT (image: RAI Play)

Lucio Dalla, Sanremo 2017 opening VT (which you should watch here on RAI Play).

Voting’s Third Way

For the quarter finals the public televote makes up fifty percent of the vote and the other half is made up of votes cast by all the accredited members of the media. I’m not sure the Eurovision Press Room is ready to take that responsibility on, but it’s the second system that has more interest for me.

To keep everything from getting predictable, the voting system changes for the last two nights. The Semi Final and Grand Final of Sanremo have three voting elements. The typical ‘Expert Jury’ and public televote constituencies are joined by a specially selected panel of 300 music fans from across Italy. They vote from home using a secure app, and make up 30 percent of the final vote (with the experts getting 30 percent and the public the balance of 40 percent). It acts as a delightful restraint to stop the public and expert juries running away with a result.

We’re going to expand on televoting and reflecting public sentiment later in the month on ESC Insight. For now, one thought… I’m sure 300 panelists could be found in San Marino to create a valid public vote and avoid the secrecy we saw in Stockholm 2016.

Big P, Little P

There is a huge interest in the Sanremo Music Festival from the media – this is one of the major events in Italy’s social character and is reflected in the diverse range of organisations that are in the press contingent. With space at a premium in the city, there is no practical space to gather everyone together. The solution is to split the media over two press centres. One is focused on the fan community, the other to the more traditional publications and broadcasters.

Supporting the various levels of media over the two weeks at the Eurovision Song Contest involves shifting priorities from the community-focused first few days to the major broadcaster dominated last few days. The Song Contest does try to accommodate all of the fourth estate in one space under a single ‘P’ designation. Sanremo is able to offer specific facilities to two different groups and while I think that leads to a hegemonic  view of new media, targeting specific media facilities to specific groups in the Song Contest’s Press Delegations could help reduce the high costs involved in managing the press room.

But if the EBU was to take on one idea from the Sanremo press room it would be this. The Italians keep a fully stocked and licensed bar open whenever the press room is open.

Sanremo 2017 Press Room (Image Ewan Spence)

Sanremo 2017 Press Room (Image Ewan Spence)

Today’s Story From Sanremo Is…

On the dot at 12 noon every day of Sanremo week, the Artistic Director (and host) of Sanremo Carlo Conti, the organising team in the Ariston Theatre, and the RAI broadcast team hold a press conference to talk over the previous night’s show, the plans for that days show, any other relevant information

Compared to the single thirty-minute press conference from the EBU over the two weeks of the Song Contest, Sanremo is incredibly open with its information, plans, and creative thinking. It also allows the team behind the Festival to shape the media coverage of the next day – for example focusing on achieving more than 50 percent market share for the opening show, promoting the appearance of guest stars such as Ricky Martin, or explaining why a local organisation is getting some stage time.

I much prefer the open and pro-active approach from the Sanremo team.

This Is What Not To Do

Sanremo 2017 managed to get over 21 hours of television out of 22 songs. The Eurovision Song Contest should manage eight hours from 43 songs this year. Part of the, er, charm of Sanremo is the mix of social acts and special guest stars. It works in Italy because of how important Sanremo is to Italy’s sense of identity, but this is an element that struggles to travel well.

Given how much the flow of the Eurovision Song Contest is disrupted by the sole commercial break in the middle of a typical running order, dropping in a ten minute medley from Ruslana followed by an interview with Natalia Vodinanova would not work.

Junior Eurovision 2016 tried something similar, with Poli Genova’s performance of ‘If Love Was A Crime’ dropped into the middle of the Contest’s songs by PBS Malta.

The lesson here is simple. Sometimes the Sanremo needs to stay in Sanremo.

It’s A Song Contest!

Sanremo did something new this year… it used staging to emphasis two acts. Sergio Sylvestre had a heavenly choir appear on his shoulders with a clever camera angle that utilised the stage-high entrance door. And you can’t escape the subtle but relevant appearance of Gerald the Gorilla in Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentali’s Karma‘. Even with those considerations, every act at Sanremo was primarily static, in front of a single microphone stand.

The focus is on the singer, on the lyrics, on the composition, and on the song. There’s nowhere to hide a poor performance, there’s no throwing money at glowing wall to try to distract the viewers and voters at home. Choose a colour theme, hand us your PowerPoint for some graphics, step out onto a level playing field and entertain us with talent, not tricks.

Hiding In Plain Sight

Sanremo, along with a number of Eurovision National Finals, makes a big thing about keeping the songs under wraps for as long as possible. The first time the public will hear them is on the Tuesday or Wednesday night live Quarter Final show. That creates a sense of excitement around the initial shows.

There’s no way that the Eurovision Song Contest could manage such a feat – it would kill every national Final for a start. But coordinating the release of the official videos and making it an ‘internet event’ to build up the event would be an interesting choice.

As if it’s not clear, Sanremo is not Eurovision and Eurovision is not Sanremo. But the two contests can learn from each other, bring the best in class ideas from one to the other, and create a better show and a more engaging experience.

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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6 responses to “Sanremo’s Lessons For The Eurovision Song Contest”

  1. Shai says:

    I only watched the Sanremo final and at 5 hours running time, that’s was way too long.
    Spreading the songs through the show and making small intervals between the song, make sure that some of the songs and contestants weren’t given the right focus.
    At a certain moment I lost track if the song I’m hearing is part of the competition or not.

    In way it was typical Italian- it was a bit messy.

  2. Ewan Spence says:

    Although Sanremo includes most of the National Final for ESC, it is first and most of all Italy’ s biggest TV show of the year, and a celebration of all things Italian. TO compare it to a 90 minute one-shot NF from another broadcaster is missing the point. The point on song spread is valid, but I’d love to have more studies. If ESC proclaims to ‘showcase the individual songs’ then Sanremo is the ultimate expression of that goal.

  3. Liking the idea of 300 music fans supplying an extra ‘jury’ but would those be ‘general’ or ‘Eurovision’ fans? Eurovision fans are likely to kill off any rock or rap entry quicker than an Azeri entry before an Armenian jury (and vice versa)…or dare I say it, even ‘1944’.

    Respect to you for living through the Sanremo marathon – I still didn’t make it to watch the Super Final!

  4. Ewan Spence says:

    Martin, for Sanremo they are general fans.

  5. That might give a nice balance between professionals and Eurofanatics…

  6. Debra Rowe says:

    Hey Ewan:

    I wanted to send you big thanks for your coverage of Sanremo. I found your Eurovision podcasts for the first time last year, and enjoyed them, and could hardly believe my good fortune when I discovered you were covering Sanremo. Bellisimo!

    I’ve been following the Sanremo song festival since the ’80s. As a non-speaker of Italian, I was often confused about who was winning what when, but I loved the music. Occasionally I got to see clips on a local Italian TV show, and listen via a local multicultural radio station. In the early days of the Internet, I enjoyed watching a 2″ x 2″ stream and was amazed by the huge spread-out orchestral backup, the many conductors, the staging, the gowns and the special guests.

    Finally, this year, with your podcasts, I understood what was happening while it was happening. I loved your enthusiasm, and really appreciated your guests’ insights.

    Gotta say, I like the focus on the songs, and wouldn’t mind a little less stagy spectacle at Eurovision, but as you say, they are two different beasts.

    Thanks again for making this year’s Sanremo my personal favourite!

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