As always at this time of year, speculation is mounting in the United Kingdom (and indeed farther afield in the wider Eurovision fan community) as to what’s going on in the deep and dark recesses of Broadcasting House concerning Britain’s Eurovision entry for Copenhagen.
Rumours (as always) are aplenty and the ‘twittersphere’ and ‘facebookiverse’ are awash with speculation, some of it ludicrously risible. Everything from a direct invitation to Jessie J or Geri Halliwell; to Olly Murs singing a Gary Barlow song; to a made-for-Eurovision heavy metal rock group; to the return to a national final are all being discussed.
Frustratingly for all the speculators, the BBC’s lips remain firmly sealed, even if the loose lips of Rylan are in overdrive.
17 New Heads and 14 New Handles
One thing that would at least appear to be true is that there will be something of a different approach this year. This is indicated by the arrival of a new broom in the form of Mr. Guy Freeman, returning to the BBC to helm the UK’s team for Denmark. Freeman has been closely associated with the contest in the past, producing the 1998 show in Birmingham and being the driving force behind the ‘Great British Song Contest’ that chose the British song for Eurovision from 1996 through to 1999.
Without appearing derogatory, it is in fact an old broom the BBC is using for 2014. That may however be a very good move.
Something went seriously awry for the UK’s fortunes in the Eurovision Song Contest and it would take a far more detailed and complex study than this article allows in order to pin-point all that may have contributed to that downturn. Certainly the free language rule introduced in 1999 is a strong factor, as was the expansion of the contest in the mid 1990’s. The UK attitude to the contest from the 1980’s onwards is surely partly to blame, but put simply, the recent UK entries to the contest just haven’t been very good. There, I said it. Or rather, I wrote it, to be pedantic.
So what should the UK fans realistically hope for in 2014? As the hopes and dreams build up that Mr. Freeman does intend to revive a televised selection process format for Copenhagen, there will be a section of British Eurovisionistas who will rejoice at that news. Those that avidly follow the various Scandinavian national finals have openly opined for the BBC to adopt the stadium-based Melodifestivalen format used in Sweden, Norway and Denmark for a long time.
The reality is that introducing a decades-old format that has been the pride of the Scandinavian music scene and television schedule to the British TV audience, is unlikely (highly unlikely actually) to register with the UK viewers. Talent shows are aplenty across all British broadcast channels, but new music is an area that is rarely explored on British television. Whereas viewers will flock to watch new talent performing songs made famous by far more illustrious artists (although ratings for those shows are dropping rapidly with the BBC’s flagship talent show ‘The Voice’ struggling particularly), history has proven that the public have precious little interest in watching wannabes sing songs they’ve never heard of before.
In a way, that’s where Mr Freeman came in and indeed exited stage left.
…Send Us Your Vote On A Postcard Or Stuck Down Envelope
By far the most successful and popular UK format for choosing their song for Europe was, er, the ‘Song for Europe’ competition run from 1964 to 1975. The BBC picked one household name to represent the British music industry, which in turn fell over themselves to submit songs for the artist’s consideration. Who wouldn’t want their latest track performed on prime TV in front of millions of viewers by a major TV or recording star (preferably both) even if ultimately the viewers didn’t send it on to the Eurovision final? I know I would.
This format (including its three year revival from 92 to 94) successfully provided Britain with 13 top four finishes in the Contest, including two wins and eight second places. In addition, all but four of the songs that won the competition were top 20 hit singles. Not a bad strike rate at all.
It was also incorporated into existing BBC television shows, resulting in minimal programme budget impact.
The format that preceded and indeed followed this highly successful period for Britain was only marginally less successful. Allowing the writers to choose their own singers, the hits weren’t quite as strong, but the results saw the United Kingdom generally in the upper reaches of the scoreboard more often than not and two further victories were scored at the Contest. There were some fairly bad results – relatively speaking – but it was more that the UK viewers were simply disengaging with the show that brought about many rethinks and reinventions of the selection format from the BBC.
Ultimately, the ‘Song for Europe’ brand became somewhat tarnished, in large part thanks to the way it was presented by the BBC’s Eurovision star turn and when the 1994 show fell to a shameful three million viewers, a rethink was needed. The 1995 relaunch brought a more respectable audience figure and put the UK entry back in the singles top ten for the first time in over a decade, but zero improvement followed at the contest itself.
It Was Like The Great British Bake-Off, But For Music
So enter Mr. Freeman and his new broom. Out went ‘A Song for Europe’ and in came ‘The Great British Song Contest’. Apart from the name change, there was little difference in the actual show, apart from the elimination of half the songs before the televised final. At least in year one. Year two onwards saw the wholesale deconstruction of the established broadcast format, with a return to ‘previews’ of the songs over weeks of prime time Saturday night viewing.
Alas, rather than culminating in a prime time Saturday night final, edited repeats of the performers were casually reconstructed in a dead Sunday afternoon spot. The fans were apoplectic. Alas for them, the audience figures actually – slightly – improved. From woeful to simply worrying. Fair cop to the BBC, though; the format was weak, but they did win the contest once more and created an absolute rarity in finding a song that did badly in Eurovision (if 8th is now considered bad) but stormed the charts all over the world.
‘The Great British Song Contest’ never really caught on, despite providing the UK with some very respectful results and hits and in 2000 Guy Freeman was gone and ‘A Song for Europe’ was back, albeit copying the format established in 1997. Eventually the UK scored the ultimate Eurovision humiliation of last place with “nul points” and some steps were taken to improve the British fortunes and improve the selection process.
All that really happened was that the show was given a new name (‘Eurovision: Making Your Mind Up’), moved back to a Saturday night and was better promoted. Otherwise it was the same format and largely the same show. Viewers interest picked up at first, but was soon in decline and finally, the BBC called time. Although there were talent shows created in 2010 and 2011 to find a singer for a pre-determined song, Britain’s song for Eurovision has been a back room decision ever since.
One Step Out Of Time
So is there any point in reviving the national final format in a country that for decades has had precious little interest in a national final stretching back for over thirty years? Probably not. Not in terms of ratings anyway.
I suspect viewers would be engaged by seeing Engelbert Humperdinck or Bonnie Tyler performing a few tracks from their new albums as part of another show (‘The One Show’ springs to mind) and then being asked to choose the one they like best, but I doubt they’d tune in in particularly high numbers for a stand-alone programme.
If Blue, Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler were competing against each other for the right to represent Britain, then I bet the viewing figures would be huge. And that’s the problem. It’s virtually guaranteed that stars (even forgotten stars from decades earlier) would never agree to compete against each other. We’d be back to amateur night, with names nobody has ever heard of.
Had the BBC invited Ms Tyler to compete in an open contest against other singers, I suspect the conversation would have been very, very brief. If the BBC ever consider a revival of the UK national final selection, it could never be as star studded as Melodifestivalen, which is what the UK Eurovisionistas are praying for. It’s likely to be from unknown acts looking for a break in the world of UK entertainment. Even if they went on to win Eurovision (or at the very least gain a respectable result and a hit single) I doubt we’d be hearing from them ever again. I’m thinking Javine, Jade, Josh. I’m also thinking Jemini, but trying not to.
Viewers Count, Not Votes
In terms of Eurovision success, the current British approach isn’t working. The fans are angry. Alas, the part they seem not to understand is that the BBC no longer invests in a show nobody watches, in order to boost the ratings for one of their biggest entertainment shows across their channels. Choosing Blue, Engelbert and Bonnie internally drew back the flagging Eurovision audience in droves. Millions of droves. An extra four million watched Blue finish 11th than saw Josh Dubovie finish last.
Ratings have remained consistently higher, even if the results aren’t good and the hits aren’t flowing. Viewers clearly want to see a star name on the stage, even if they’ve little interest in what they’re singing. The BBC’s first duty is to provide a show for the UK audience that the UK audience wants to watch and enjoys. Pleasing Eurovision fans is not their priority and never should be. If Mr. Freeman is planning on staging a national final, I suspect the delighted fans won’t like the outcome and it will be a huge surprise if the casual viewers tune in. We can but hope, of course, but my gut says it’s a non-starter.
If however, Mr. Freeman and his team really have been chatting for months with Geri Halliwell, Olly Murs, Jessie J, Boyzone and/or Gary Barlow, then I can’t imagine anyone complaining if the answer from any of them is “yes”. If in fact his invitation has extended only as far as Anita Harris, Su Pollard or Cilla Black – far more likely scenarios based on the last couple of years – then I totally sympathize with the disappointment and indeed angry reaction from UK fans that will inevitably follow.
If the BBC get the ten million viewers they want on May 10 with Dame Vera Lynn singing in Copenhagen, then we’ll just have to admit they know what they want and how to go about getting it… even if the UK are at the bottom of the scoreboard once again.
A nation waits.