The Show Must Go On
And so it did on Saturday February 25th , when six songs competed for the right to represent their country at the International Conference Centre. For those panicking about Ukrainian organisation the National Final flowed as smoothly as they do in any other European state. Ukraine has its problems but is not pure self-destruction as recent headlines would have Eurovision fans suggest.
However the way this National Final has managed to survive is due in part to being a completely different entity from the chaos. Even down to the people in charge.
Two Channels, Two Worlds Apart
Ukraine’s broadcaster responsible for the Eurovision Song Contest (formerly NTU, now known as UA:PBC after legal reforms over the winter period) has nothing to do with their National Final. As a state broadcaster and therefore EBU member, there are surprisingly few benefits at their disposal. Many private stations are able to attract not just bigger budgets but also hit TV shows from across the Russian border. The state channel simply can’t compete and attract the viewers.
The old NTU had the Eurovision Song Contest, and to a lesser extent Junior Eurovision, as the only shows worthy of getting any reasonable viewership. Even with these ,the state broadcaster’s main channel is still outside the top 10 most viewed in Ukraine.
This year’s National Final was able to swing along untroubled because none of the staff had resigned, no foreigners had been brought in to produce and tickets were all sold out without a hitch. That’s in part because this show was shown on leading private station STB who have the clout to make this a national hit.
When Private Hands Beat The Public
Ukraine is clearly a country where money talks. The divisions in wealth between rich and poor are extreme compared to many cultures in the West. With a free-falling currency the need to raise capital is vital. The Ukrainian selection has been prime time Saturday night viewing for all four weeks in February. The qualifiers have been particularly ruthless, with just two songs from eight qualifying to the final, and no second chance for reprisal. If you are a fan you can’t afford to miss even a drop of action as your favourite could easily be dumped out.
There’s also some of the longest advert breaks in the history of a selection process. Whilst in the press working area this is a chance for us to interview the acts who have just hopped off the stage, an afterthought to fill in the seeming eternity. With some breaks totalling over ten minutes (and I can confirm that adverts were the wall-to-wall coverage in this slot) the cash cow was being milked to the extreme.
That’s not all, as key sponsors Pepsi and Kia got the centre of attention in the arena, with flashy billboards, rolling adverts on the backdrop and the swirly Pepsi logo all too distracting as we cut to the jury commentary. The level of product placement was pushed to the limit even for private broadcasting, but it’s a necessary evil to make this level of show a success.
Another feature new for the 2017 edition was to move location. The previous contest was held in one of the channels’ purpose built TV studios away from the city centre. Now the move was made to central Kyiv for a four-week stint. Sure the Palace of Culture at the local Polytechnic University was hardly glamour, but it enabled tickets to be sold for the show. Despite the drafty corridors and old school facilities there was a sell-out crowd. Those ticket sales meant extra revenue and more opportunities to generate profit.
Compare that to the state broadcaster operating on budgets collapsing in real terms as the country’s crisis continues. A state broadcaster that is looking at a Eurovision budget far higher than not only any show they’ve done previously, but indeed their entire operations. No wonder there’s been a crisis.
The Details That Make It Ukrainian
Ukraine is a successful Eurovision country up there with any other – two wins in 13 attempts, five placings in the top five and a hundred percent qualification record puts Ukraine as one of the powerhouses. While there have been many hit tracks emerge from Ukraine’s Eurovision contributions, they also are well regarded for bringing weirdly wonderful but impressively iconic staging to the Song Contest.
Be it the meaningful beauty of Jamala’s family tree, the mesmerising movements of Maria Yaremchuk’s hamster wheel or the sheer audacity of Zlata being carried on stage by a 243 cm giant, Ukraine always brings staging concepts to be remembered. No wonder their rehearsals in the first week of Eurovision are always must-watch for the journalists in the press centre.
While the winning song will get a UA:PBC makeover for May, the details and changes made from Semi Final to Final here for the selection show was as impressive as they come. I was blown away by the audacity of Tayanna’s blink-and-you-miss-it costume change as much as the countdown alarm clock and rugged outer-world platforms of O. Torvald. The appreciation of these details being important to your Eurovision selection is commendable.
The highlight package though came from opening act Salto Nazad with the song ‘O Mamo’. While the Semi Final show may have featured a backing singer chucking away her high heels and giving some crazy dancing for the last minute, instead the spotlight was stolen by a 77-year-old Swedish grandmother. The self-proclaimed b-boy explained to the press masses (a whopping 120 journalists were accredited and scrummed around the six artists) that Salto’s producer had got in touch on Friday the week before, and on Tuesday she was on a flight to Kyiv for rehearsals. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere as determined to bring in spectacle from the fringes of society to make the stage show more iconic as Ukraine constantly delivers.
The TV channel here plays their own role in this entertainment circus with their interval acts. There’s no Melfest shebang but instead a serious nod to the outside world. Rather than sourcing entertainment in-house Ukraine takes the approach of inviting confirmed Eurovision acts from other countries to perform. Kasia Moś from Poland and Alma from France turned up for their three minutes in front of the cameras for the Final, following in the footsteps of Georgian and Belarussian representatives in the heats.
France’s entrant Alma was joined by her nation’s Head of Delegation, Edoardo Grassi. The new face on the circuit began his role for the 2016 and after Amir’s success has returned with a song by the same songwriter as ‘J’ai Cherché’. He explained how he got the email request from STB and jumped at the chance to bring Alma along, and he’ll be travelling around the many preview events with her as well.
Being able to road-test Kyiv might be an advantage, but Edoardo is ‘not scared or afraid’ by the preparations for May, recalling many of the last minute preparations needed for Copenhagen in 2014.
I find it particular noteworthy that a broadcaster not even involved in the EBU would seek out entrants from outside Ukraine’s borders. Extending invites as far afield as France shows that the competition is looking outwards. This is very much in the ‘song for Europe’ category of show rather than ‘find our best Ukrainian song’ approach. This isn’t just another show, and it helps. O. Torwald after winning the selection, were particularly thankful to STB for their work on the stage show. The host team’s attention to getting the most out of each act is a vital part of any successful show.
Onwards To Across The Dnieper River
In many a sense the results part of the show ended up in one big anticlimax. Just like Jamala’s victory last year, the winning song finished 2nd in both televote and jury to take victory by the narrowest of margins. The results announcement was one of the most torturous parts of any Eurovision selection I’ve ever witnessed. Not for the tense drama of a dramatic result reveal, but for the convoluted explanations and methodology of the three person jury to mythically critique each act as they stood awkwardly on stage. As live TV it was excruciatingly painful to see.
You Need To See Everything
However it’s at moments like this when I remembered we were in Ukraine. Modern day Ukraine is a country committed to transparency at all costs, to be seen to be doing the right thing. The fear of doing anything that could be seen as corruption is so real that this tedious process is a part of everything connected to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
It explains the parade of city presentations and marathon length discussions on where Ukraine would host, the multitude of tender processes that have to survive legal challenges and hair-pulling bureaucracy that may be driving the EBU round the bend. The National Final voting process merely mirrors the current state of affairs in this country.
As a National Final though, one can’t complain with the end results and with the steps that made it successful. That doesn’t mean Ukraine will be able to survive criticism if the eight hours of broadcasting in May run without a hitch, as we have all seen recently stories with Ukraine and crisis generate easy headlines for the mainstream media.
It’s worth noting that the only other Western journalists at the show, other than team ESC Insight, were from Bloomberg. Make of that what you will.
Ukraine can produce a good show, and just like 2005 it’s probably going to be completed with lots of external pressure and last minute preparations. Try as the country might to do the right thing there’s plenty of reasons that it’s not plain sailing, and plenty of people ready to shoot bullets at their final outcomes. Eurovision 2017 is a well-documented challenge, but no matter what Ukraine deliver the headlines are probably already written.