Last Saturday was the end of the national final season: Iceland, Norway, Lithuania and Sweden all selected their entries for Kyiv. The first national final was held in December 2016…it has been a marathon rather than a sprint. But we’re done for this year: as of 13 March all entries were submitted to the Reference Group.
Having work-related travel to Europe in early March meant I would be able to attend two national finals—a new experience for me. My first choice was easy: Eestilaul, since I love Tallinn, have friends there and Estonia has proper winter. By the time I had to confirm my travel plans my only options for the following weekend were Melodifestivalen or Söngvakeppnin. Iceland turned out to be too expensive for flights and accommodation, plus the flight timetable would have been tortuous. Thus national final number two became Stockholm by default.
As heretical it is for a Eurovision fan, all things being equal I would not have chosen Melodifestivalen. I appreciate the resourcing and bandwidth the most polished national selection entails. Yes, Melodifestivalen attracts top Swedish artists and yes it always has at least a couple of strong entries that will do well in most any Grand Final. As well, it is much more diverse musically than the relentless schlagerfest of a decade ago. Still, much of the music—or, more precisely, the staging—leaves me cold (including this year’s winner).
Admittedly, on one level, the ‘Plastic Paddy’ in me wishes RTÉ would take ten percent of the Melodifestivalen juju and reboot Eurosong. Even better, they could do what ERR has done with the transition from Eurolaul to Eestilaul, making Eesti one of the best national selections several years running.
In hindsight, however, as a dollar store social scientist I could not have picked a better pair of shows to contrast. They have a fair bit in common but are fundamentally different in important ways. They are among the best run national selections and both use a musical Darwinist semi-final system to weed out weaker entries and converge towards potential winners with broad appeal. And they also both play as much to their domestic television and music markets whilst trying to find a strong entry that will garner support come May.
Each’s method for selecting their entries for 2017 bears particular scrutiny: this article will focus on Eestilaul’s and Melodifestivalen’s methodology for choosing a winner. As we have zero data about the substantive process by which each broadcaster reduced a plethora of possibilities to a manageable, multishow suite of songs (though Ben Robertson’s epic series on his experiences helping Melodifestivalen willow itself down to 28 entries for 2016 here, here and here), we will start with the shows before the big shows: the semi-finals.
The Heats are On
Both ERR and SVT use a semi-final system in their selection. Each has its own approach. The differences are important.
For this season’s Eestilaul, there were two semi-finals, each with ten entries. Both juries and the public vote and the top four combined vote getters are announced as automatic qualifiers. From the remaining six entries, a second round of televoting is held, with whichever entry securing the most televotes in that round getting a wildcard slot.
The Estonians combine raw jury and televote scores by converting them to the douze points system and adding the two score components. That produces a range between two (nobody likes you) and 24 (everybody love you) points. With two semi-finals this method produces a 10 song national final, where two of the songs are presumed to be somewhat disadvantaged since we know they did not appeal to jurors very much. Like all clever broadcasters, ERR does not release any semi-final scores until after Eestilaul’s work is done and we have a Eurovision entry.
Our friends at SVT have more semi-finals (four) with slightly fewer (seven) entries in each. Unlike Eestilaul, there’s no jury involvement—the semi-finals are 100% televote driven. The televoting is done in two stages. After the first round, the bottom two entries are eliminated and there’s an additional period of voting for the remaining five entries: both the early televote (7 entries) and subsequent televote (5 entries) are aggregated. The second ranked televote entry is announced as first direct qualifier to the grand final. Two more entries are announced as going to the Andra Chansen (second chance) round. Finally, the most popular qualifier is announced. The remaining entry, like the two eliminated in early televoting, are finished. Four semi-finals with two qualifiers to the grand final makes up eight spaces. But there’s more!
Andra Chansen has changed its format over the years. The current iteration pairs songs from the various rounds to compete in a knock-out round. The four songs that win their knockouts progress to the grand final and the other four go home. That gives us a 12 song Melodifestivalen final. Andra Chansen entries are terribly disadvantaged, with none winning Melodifestivalen…until 2013.
However, Robin Stjernberg managed to build up enough momentum for ‘You’ to eke out a narrow victory in 2013. Which proved problematic for SVT that year (when they were hosting the Contest after Loreen’s win): if your entry needed multiple listens over several weeks to convince its compatriots of its worthiness, how likely is it that the wider Eurovision public—whom will mostly only hear it on Saturday night for the first time—will find it instantly appealing? They won’t, it turns out: 14th place on 62 points, mostly due to juries ranking Stjernberg third (televoters had him 18th).
Bear in mind that Melodifestivalen—and, to a lesser extent, Eestilaul—is arguably as much a showcase for the domestic music market as a Eurovision selection. That which does not make a great Eurovision entry may well still be a domestic chart hit: it is likely many artists aim to win, but measure success in terms of what happens on the national charts. As national selections that attract a large number of high profile domestic artists, Andra Chansen also offers something of a face saving opportunity: ask Loren.
Eestilaul brings juries in at the semi-final level and integrates its wildcard selection into each semi-final. Melodifestivalen is all about the public vote through its preliminaries. What about the final battle for the golden ticket?
The Final Countdown
The preliminary rounds are done, and we have our slate of final entries. Both SVT and ERR use a producer-led draw: they choose who sings when, mostly to ensure the final builds towards an exciting finish. Arguably this also allows producers to put entries they think less well suited to the Eurovision in a less desirable (read: earlier) slot, in the hopes that televoters will “forget” them. Both Eestilaul and Melodifestivalen also use both jury and televote scores to determine their winner.
The Eestilaul final on 04 March featured a strong selection of entries: no less than five Eurovision alumni performed, three of whom had achieved a Eurovision top 10 result. There were also two previous winners of the Estonian “idol” franchise. The voting started with a range of domestic and international jurors award their one through twelve points to each entry. These scores were aggregated to produce a global jury score of one through twelve points. It is totally transparent: everyone knows every juror’s votes for the 10 songs.
The concurrent televote scores were converted to the douze points system and added to the jury scores (in secret), producing preliminary result. However, only the top three were announced, with no indication where the entries are ranked.
But you could somewhat ascertain that one of the top three was only 6th with jurors: Koit Toome and Laura must have had a very strong televote. Since Kerli and Rasmus Rändvee were first and second with juries, there was no way to know if both were equally popular with the public or not. Regardless, at this point the scoreboard is erased and a new televote begins: no juries anymore, it is down to the Estonian public.
The wildcard in this was Ivo Linna. Aside from giving Estonia its first top 10 Eurovision result, he is a legend of the Estonian music scene, including having played a prominent role in Estonia’s singing revolution. While for sentimental reasons Linna was an appealing figure, bringing a legend into a national final where televotes are won in tens of thousands (rather than millions) becomes tricky rather quickly. Third place in the televote and a similar ranking from the juries would have put Linna into the televote only super-final (at 16 points he would have tied Rändvee, but Linna’s higher televote score would have been the tiebreak). Instead the jurors had ‘Suur Loterii’ a distance seventh.
The super-final had two of the entries garnering much of the pre-selection buzz, ‘Verona’ and ‘Spirit Animal’. Kerli was signed to an international record deal when she was 16 and came back for Eestilaul 2017 with the requisite prodigal daughter narrative aimed to lift her towards victory (two dodgy vocals on Saturday night derailed this, alas). Toome and Laura have both previously represented Estonia at the Eurovision, though neither’s entry troubled the scoreboard. Laura’s appeared in two subsequent super-finals in recent years.
In the televote super final the scores were:
Turns out that ‘Verona’ led in the televote every stage of the competition—even with only tepid jury support. Had there not been a super final, ‘Spirit Animal’ would be heading to Kyiv instead, thanks to it being the jurors’ favourite.
Unlike Eestilaul, Melodifestivalen only introduces jury scores in its grand final. This fundamentally changes the nature of what essentially had been a popularity contest (of song, singer, or perhaps backstory) at the semi-finals and Andra Chansen stages. It almost certainly increases the second chancers odds, since they only need to get a small number of international jurors behind them to convert their solid televote performance into greater success. You might be the only Melodifestivalen winner through Andra Chansen, but several second chance songs have ended up in the top three in the big show—and huge hits in the Swedish domestic market.
In the Melodifestivalen final there are two equally weighted scoring components; 473 points from international juries. and 473 points from the Swedish voting public.
If there is a tie, whichever entry has more televote support is the winner. The jury points are announced while the public are still voting. Speaking of which, the specifics of how SVT combined free app voting, cheap SMS and televoting (SEK3,90), and premium SMS and televoting (SEK13,90) “based on the demographics of Sweden” we must take on faith for now. All figures below are based on percentages provided by SVT.
During the dress rehearsal we were chortling in the press room when they reported entry after entry garnering 27 or 31 points. None of us expected a public vote distribution this flat. Only four entries accrued more than 10 per cent of the total vote—most were around 7 per cent! The top three jury scores had a range of 40 points (56 to 96 points); conversely, the top three public vote scores had a range of 8 points (49 to 57 points). Robin Bengtsson’s victory was far from comprehensive: third with the public, it was the international jury votes that the difference. So ‘I Can’t Go On’ (co-written, by the way, by Robin Stjernberg) will go on to Kyiv, which is something of a paradox, based on the song title.
Both Melodifestivalen use a system with both jury and public votes, albeit somewhat differently. This year the song with much stronger televote support triumphed in Tallinn; conversely, the song with much stronger jury support vanquished all others in Stockholm.
There are, broadly speaking, six methodologies for selecting a Eurovision entry:
1. Internal selection of artist and song
2. Internal selection of artist with song selected by public, jury or both
3. Public only
4. Jury only
5. Combined ranked public jury
6. Aggregated with tie-break rule
The Eurovision Song Contest properly used the aggregated with tie-break rule for the first time in 2016: they will be using some version of it in Kyiv. Whether the two components will be weighted equally again is something the Reference Group can alter – the 2017 rules are specifically ambiguous about this – but the expectation is another 50/50 equal weight.
After having public vote winners finishing third for two years in a row, some think the public vote should be weighted more heavily than the jury vote. Others think they should stay balanced equally. I also think equally balanced is the right tack. All sorts of things sway public votes that have little to do with the performance given. The equal jury vote sits on the other end of teeter tot: professionals connected to the music industry are asked to use their expertise to assess the entries, whereas the public is merely asked to vote.
What is needed now is for the jury scores to be submitted during the live Grand Final, rather than after the previous day’s dress rehearsal (a/k/a the “Jury” final). Because sometimes what happens on Friday is significantly different than what happens on Saturday, which both confuses fans and encourages conspiracy theories about corruption, vote fixing and the like. If the producers needs to use the backup rehearsal during the Grand Final, juries would be equally able to vote during this as the public would be.
But what should countries running a national selection do?
Combing both sorts of scores as close as possible to the method to be used in that year’s Grand Final seems like the obvious strategy for broadcasters running an Eestilaul or Melodifestivalen. However, since we won’t know the precise way the two score components will be aggregated in May 2017, broadcasters could not do that this season. Which is why the specifics should be confirmed by the EBU well before the national final season begins in December—ideally in September when the eligibility period for songs to be publicly performed begins.