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Time To Shine, Time To Change Eurovision’s Starting Time Written by on September 21, 2017 | 6 Comments

As the self-styled favourite TV show of Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest manages to miss peak time Saturday night and runs well past midnight for the majority of viewers. Lisa-Jayne Lewis looks at one simple solution to this problem… change the starting time.

Following their victory in 2015 with Måns Zelmerlöw’s ‘Hereos’, Swedish broadcaster SVT asked the EBU’s Reference Group to adjust the start time of the Eurovision Song Contest to start one hour earlier at 8pm Central European Time. This request was denied by the Reference Group and the Song Contest continues to this day to fill the 9pm CET time slot. This means of course that the Contest, which is well known for sailing past the three hour thirty minute running time (and closing in on four hours in some years) does not finish until well past midnight for the majority of its audience.

It’s time to revisit that decision.

Many consider the traditional peak time for Saturday night broadcasting to be between 8pm and 9pm – arguably this isn’t the case anymore, but I’ll come back to that – but taking this time as a starting point we can look at which countries appear to be holding the reins in regards to airing the Eurovision Song Contest at peak viewing time, and why the timing needs to be reconsidered.

But What Is Peak Viewing Time?

There are only three countries who broadcast the Eurovision Song Contest to begin at the traditional peak viewing time of 8pm; the Republic of Ireland (RTE), Portugal (RTP), and the United Kingdom (BBC). Of these three countries it won’t come as any surprise to you to know that the UK has by far the biggest audience, averaging around the seven million mark. In Portugal it hovers around 600,000 though it shot up to 1.5 million this year as RTP’s  audience must have had an inkling that something special was going to happen. And in Ireland we are looking at a rough average of 320,000, well down from the 1.1 million who watched Jedward in 2012.

It’s the UK that has the largest audience volume of the traditional peak of the Song Contest, but I do question the idea of the BBC seemingly driving the start time of the Contest. It represents around four percent of the total audience. If we divide the audience up into viewing zones we can clearly see how this falls across the continent.

Whe does Eurovision Start across Europe?

These are rough figures based on published viewing figures and audience share commentary following the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest; using historical data to include Russia, and grouping the non-participating countries who watch in the ‘remaining audience’

As you can see the largest bulk of the audience comes from the CET-based Viewing Zone 3. In Song Contest terms that’s a 9pm start time outside of the traditional peak time definition. Zone 3 also guarantees a post-midnight finish for most of the audience.

Does Peak Exist Any More?

I said I would come back to the traditional view of peak times, starting with the UK perspective. Indeed 8pm-9pm used to be considered peak time on a Saturday night, with a strange zone known as ‘shoulder peak’ kicking in around 7pm. However over the years, this has quite clearly changed. We need only look at the other entertainment shows that dominate the UK’s Saturday viewing schedule to see proof of that. Let’s take the six most viewed entertainment shows for 2016/2017 in the UK and look at their statistics:

UK Peak Time Shows

UK Peak Time Shows.

Only two of the top entertainment shows begin at 8pm, and what is arguably the BBC’s flagship entertainment show ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ begins at around 6:40pm and is watched by more than 13 million people.

Peak time has shifted and stretched, Saturday peak is now the 7pm – 9pm viewing window, with shoulder peak having travelled forward to about 6pm, and being the new home slot of the BBC’s flagship drama programme ‘Doctor Who’ which is usually aired with a start time of between 6:15pm and 6:30pm. Incidentally weekday peak time remains at 8pm, along with Sunday peak where other flagship BBC shows are to be found such as ‘Call the Midwife’.

What does all this mean for the Song Contest? Simple. Eurovision is on too late.

It’s too late pretty much everywhere and for everyone. SVT led the charge in 2016 to try and change this on behalf of the other twenty-one countries in their time zone, bringing it in line with their other key broadcast ‘Melodifestivalen’, in which Sweden choose their entrant for the Song Contest, which starts at 8pm – still considered peak time in Sweden.

Taking another broadcaster in Viewing Zone 3 and we can conclude that peak time Saturday across remains at 8pm. If we look at the most popular entertainment shows broadcast in Austria. The ‘Opernball Opening’ which is broadcast on ORF2 attracts an audience just shy of 1.5million (for a nation of 6.5million people, that is some going!) and ‘Dancing Stars’ which is part of the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ family finds its start time on ORF Eins at 8:15pm. The recently aired ‘Wiener Festwochen’ hosted by and starring Eurovision winner Conchita started at 9:20pm. This was held on a Friday, suggesting that European peak time pattern across the week as well as Saturday sits an hour behind the UK.

I have spoken to TV professional in participating countries and looked across the European TV audiences (where figures are available) and you can also see that the most popular TV shows for Saturday night viewing start at around 8pm (8:30pm in France).

Current Peak Time compared to Eurovision start time (Image: Lisa-Jayne Lewis)

Current Peak Time compared to Eurovision start time (Image: Lisa-Jayne Lewis)

It makes for an interesting spreadsheet, but we can quite clearly see at the moment with the 9pm CET start time, the Song Contest hits only four broadcasters within 15 minutes of the start of their peak time (taking Australia out of the equation, as the Contest is broadcast on tape delay in peak time). For a further three broadcasters the start of the Contest falls between 16-30 minutes of the start of peak time.

That leaves a whopping thirty participating countries which see the Song Contest start more than 30 minutes (mostly an hour or more) away from the start of peak time viewing. I cannot find figures for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but as they sit in the same time zone as Georgia I think we can probably add them to the third group as the show starts there at 11pm which points to being a long way outside the start of peak time.

There is another, and completely related illustration of this, in fact you only have to look to National Finals season, and those of us who watch as many livestreams as we can know that by far the most popular start time for National Finals is 8pm; it’s the reason we have to have one on the laptop, one on the iPad and one on the TV some weekends, just to make sure we see them all!

Other countries too have made noise in the past about the start time and the show running over time. Measures such as having announcers now only giving the 10 and 12 points vocally and cutting the ‘chat’ to the show’s hosts, this then moved to only 12 points being announced in 2017. This may have shortened the voting sequence but the running time remains significantly over 3 hours meaning that the Contest ends after midnight in over thirty-nine participating countries, and in many it’s gone 1am.

Voting after midnight

Voting after midnight

Practical Decisions

Now, I do realise that it’s a bigger thing than someone just saying, “right let’s start it a bit earlier, so we can all get to bed sooner.” Changing what has essentially become the ‘way things are done’ is tricky when you have more than forty participating broadcasters in the mix along with a sizeable chunk of non-participants too.

But if, as is hoped, newer, younger audiences are to be attracted to the Song Contest then surely making the Contest as accessible as possible is key to its success, in this instance access refers to start time. A new start time of 8pm in central Europe, that being 7pm in the UK, seems to me to be a wholly sensible move for pretty much everyone concerned… except Iceland, I know, I’m sorry, but Icelanders are ingenious people who will figure out a way round it! It would also marginally affect working viewers in Spain who, because of average the Spanish working day finishing at 8pm, would have to race home and may miss the start of the show (I’m sure they’d catch up pretty quickly!)

If we run that spreadsheet again and adjust the start time to 8pm in the CET zone we begin to see a different story being painted. In this ‘new world’ the Eurovision Song Contest now hits twenty-one participating countries within 15 minutes of the start of peak time, a further eight have the Contest starting 30-60 minutes away from peak time, all of which except Spain and Iceland now have the Contest starting in ‘shoulder peak’ time, and only eight countries where the time is still more than 30 minutes away from peak time, but using Georgia as an example it would move the contest from a 11pm start to a 10pm start. There are some counties, who simply because of the geography of the continent will always fall outside of the core.

Peak Time compared to proposed Eurovision start time (Image: Lisa-Jayne Lewis)

Peak Time compared to proposed Eurovision start time (Image: Lisa-Jayne Lewis)

I would love to hear the rationale behind keeping the Eurovision Song Contest at a time convenient to a fraction of its audience, when that same fraction, quite clearly, are perfectly happy and in fact prefer, watching shows that start an hour earlier.

The Eurovision Song Contest starts at a time that is outside of modern day family viewing habits and finishes far too late for an entertainment and variety show. These both conspire to make it harder to attract a younger audience and a new generation of fans.

It’s time to move our Song Contest.

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6 responses to “Time To Shine, Time To Change Eurovision’s Starting Time”

  1. Martin says:

    Lots of work has gone into this, Lisa-Jayne!

    I think that there are three main factors why the EBU Reference Group discounted this change in timing…

    Iceland starting at 6pm – it would be 90 minutes before their peak time in a country where the Contest gets 99% market share…

    The biggest factor in my eyes would be pushing the start time back an hour takes half a dozen countries out of their peak times – three of those are France, Italy and Spain (these nations would have Eurovision starting 45, 75 and 150 minutes respectively before their peak time). I am sure that having three of the Big 5 ‘inconvenienced’ in this way possibly killed SVT’s suggestion stone dead…

    Looking at your first chart, most of the countries already have the start of the Contest within the their peak viewing times, admittedly some of them only just towards the end of that time but that might be enough for the EBU to have considered keeping the starting point the same. Broadcasting a show across four time zones must be a logistical timing nightmare and someone is always going to be given a bum deal, almost always the far eastern nations of Eurovision. Being a sports fan, I am used to seeing the rights owner always starting their events timewise to appeal to the biggest audience – in the case of Eurovision, the Big 5 being in Western and Central Europe will always dictate the start time…

    It will be interesting to see what comments you get from those fans who aren’t in the UK, as I totally get that the start time does favour viewers in the west of Europe – maybe there are some cultural tv differences across the continent. Do viewers in Russia and Ukraine ‘get used’ to late starts and early morning finishes? Has everyone who watches Eurovision been ‘conditioned’ to the times it is on? Does it matter that much, seeing it is a ‘one Saturday in May’ experience for the vast majority of viewers and therefore one late Saturday night isn’t considered that big a deal?

    It is an article that should spark a debate, that’s for sure!

  2. Oliver Rau says:

    Speaking as a German fan, moving the begin of the show to 20:00 would prove an almost impossible task for our broadcaster. As your spreadsheet points out, peak time starts at 20:15 in Germany, as the 20:00 spot has been reserved for the main TV news, and it has been this way since the beginning of time. This TV news spot at 20:00 is somthing of a sacred institution, it comes on every day at 20:00 sharp regardless, some people use it to set their clocks after it. Under no circumstances whatsoever (well, except, of course, a major league football game, but surely not a frivolous music show) will be cleared. No, even not only for a single day. Because otherwise, Germany would fall apart.

    This peak time slot of 20:15 has also been branded deeply into our society’s core. Any attempts of the past of rivalling TV stations to program their peak time programmes before 20:15 have fallen flat. People simply watched the news and tuned in later, after 20:15, or, more often, didn’t tune in at all. All other channels had moved back. In other words: in Germany, the evening starts at 20:15. It’s the law. 😉

    So I am pretty sure, ARD would never agree to move the show to 20:00. They would without a doubt most happily agree to move it to 20:15, but then you would have the churches complaining, because they own the right to a five-minute-spot at the saturday prime time, which usually comes after the movie or prime time tv show, but in case of ESC evening right before Eurovision starts, at 20:55, giving them their best viewership quote of the year. This slot would then have to move to the end of the evening. Still, this would be doable. Starting at 20:00 sharp – no no never, as the Germans say. 😉

  3. Robyn says:

    During the last time the time change was debated, I remember seeing comments from British fans who were furious at the idea of having to start their Eurovision party an hour earlier. Some of them complained they wouldn’t even be home at 7pm. (And I’m pretty sure the BBC’s contribution to the EBU had something to do with the time not being changed.)

    Also, the start time effects the way ESC is perceived. In Iceland, it’s seen as fun family entertainment, while in more eastern countries it’s seen as more suitable for adults. That’s why Iceland sends acts like Pollapönk and Maria Olafs, while eastern countries break out their dramatic divas and sexy dancers.

  4. Shai says:

    As Dutch fun, I agree with Oliver from Germany.

    8pm also won’t work here as 8pm is reserved for main news on channel 1(who also broadcast Eurovision), which is always in the top 10 of the most watched program per week.

    I think the the Dutch will be happy with an 8.30pm start, as right now they have to fill the space between the news and the contest with programs leading to the contest itself.

  5. Matt says:

    I do love a good spreadsheet! So, by changing the time we see a jump from 12% to 51% of participating countries viewing ESC within that prime-time bracket. I’d be interested to know what this jump is in actual viewing figures.

    Imagine the mess we’d have if the US and China ever had a real and significant (financial) stake in ESC!

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