So after almost a year of speculation (at least since about 10pm on the 18th May) we now know who will represent the United Kingdom at the Eurovision Song Contest for 2014. It’s the new talent of Molly Smitten-Downes, with the song ‘Children of the Universe‘.
Revealed through the BBC’s interactive ‘Red Button’ service this evening, Smitten-Downes has been discovered through the network of ‘BBC Introducing…’ radio shows which discover and air new talent across the BBC regional and local stations. Thanks to a blog post by Guy Freeman (the new UK Head of Delegation), we know a little bit more about the selection process, notably “We discovered that simply by and large they’ve been very good songs that have deserved to win” and “there’s a disconnect between what kind of songs and artists are now winning Eurovision, versus the stereotype that many people – including much of the music industry – still hold in their minds“.
Before you can address a problem such as the UK’s performance at the Song Contest, you need to understand the problem.
This is something I talked about on ESC Insight after the 2012 Contest. I suspect that a lot of the negative coverage of the UK’s 2013 coverage was because the BBC were trying the same approach – an older ‘experienced’ singer had been drafted and was trading on their name for points and prestige – and expecting a different result.
To summarise, the points that I felt had to be addressed were ‘good songs win’, ‘political voting does not decide the winner’, and ‘people vote for the UK when the BBC sending something worth voting for’. While I didn’t go so far as to call for BBC Introducing to act as a behind closed door National Selection committee, I did suggest Vic Galloway, host of the BBC Introducing In Scotland…
It’s fair to say that I’m in agreement with Freeman and the BBC’s approach. So far. Because now the real work begins.
Keep The Focus On The Copenhagen Stage
Short term, the goal is relatively well. The UK Delegation need to support Smitten-Downes all the way through to her appearance in Copenhagen. The stage performance needs to be modern and fresh, look spectacular, and have no nerves at all. A solo singer with a backing band can look drab and boring on the Eurovision stage (Natalie Kelly did not ‘Shine‘ last year), or it can be inventive and infectious (Think ‘Tomorrow‘ by Gianluca for Malta last year).
I’d be interested to know when the single is going to be released in the United Kingdom. In previous years the Eurovision single has come out just before the Contest airs, in the hope of charting on the back of the Contest. That’s a valid strategy, but if we’re building up PR, using Eurovision as a platform, and looking for promotion in the run up to the Contest, a mid-April release would make more strategic sense.
Smitten-Downes’ workload should be high throughout April and May.. Lots of training and rehearsals, lots of PR, and all of it balanced against her own health. The Eurovision Song Contest is a chance for her to represent the United Kingdom on a worldwide stage, and it should be treated as such. If I could offer one suggestion to the delegation I would suggest bringing in a sports psychologist and personal trainer to create a holistic approach to get Smitten-Downes to peak singing fitness for May 9th. And make sure to explain to her well in advance that the second Dress Rehearsal is the Jury Final, and counts for 50% of the score.
The key to a good result is planning, promotion, and performance. Even though the BBC have done this fifty-six times before, every year should be considered a brand new challenge
Molly Needs More Than A Return Ticket
What happens on May 11th? When the flight back from Copenhagen arrives in London, should the BBC’s responsibility end when Smitten-Downes reaches the Heathrow Coach Station and given her bus fare home? Strictly speaking the engagement for Eurovision is over, and the delegation would be perfectly within their right to do so.
But entering the Eurovision Song Contest is a big gamble for any artist, especially one in the United Kingdom where the press can be cruel and the music business can be unforgiving. If the BBC want to attract the best new song-writers and singers to the Contest for 2015 and beyond, they need to show a level of care above and beyond the call of duty.
That means ensuring Smitten-Downes is not abandoned to market forces, the whims of her record label, or ignored by the other departments of the BBC simply because she has #Eurovision around her neck. She should be supported through the summer and the BBC Delegation should work to have her featured on BBC properties after the Contest.
That might be a difficult sell after the first year, but If not on the main channels, then the BBC Eurovision team could follow Smitten-Downes via the red button service or even their own website at bbc.co.uk/eurovision in the months after the Contest. Funding should be put aside from the Eurovision budget now to ensure the online coverage can continue over the summer.
If the Song Contest is seen by the industry and the public as something that builds careers and leads to long-term exposure, that can only be a good thing. The hardcore fans know that Eurovision is not just for one night (heck, even the BBC asked me to write about that topic), it’s high time the rest of the UK understood that.
Simply put, Smitten-Downes must not be a one-night wonder, and it’s the Delegation’s responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen.
This Could Hurt In June, But It Will Get Better
Guy Freeman should be ready for a backlash after the Contest. Either because “he’s only gone and won the thing and now the BBC has to pay for it” or “we sent an unknown singer and look what happened.”
One of the few advantages of sending known names such as Bonnie Tyler and Blue to the Song Contest is their appeal to the general public. With a big name the media in the country will be more inclined to write about the Contest, promoting the broadcasts, and helping boost the audience. There’s also been a tendency in the past to focus the PR efforts in the United Kingdom to promote the Song Contest on BBC 1, rather than go out to Europe and promote the artist and help her get a better result.
Actually, I think Freeman will both be ready for that, and will work to minimise the impact of the lower ratings – witness the subtle efforts to steer the thinking of the media to a ‘new’ artist in the days leading up to the reveal. The choice to focus PR on the UK or on Europe delivers a different type of result. Do the BBC want a strong result in the ratings, or the scoreboard? I suspect they want the latter, in which case the former will likely suffer. I expect the viewing figures for the 2014 Contest to be lower than in previous years.
This Is What We Are Going To Do For The Next Decade
Historically the BBC’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest is decided annually, along with the contracts and staffing. It’s very very unlikely to withdraw from the Contest for a multitude of reasons (the low cost-per-hour, the number of Charter requirements it meets, and it is a huge ratings draw). The strategy put in place by Guy Freeman to discover the 2014 performer is a sound one and there is no reason why BBC Introducing… should not be employed in future years.
For that to happen though, a few things need to happen. There needs to be support for the artist before, during, and after, to make it an experience that other artists want to be involved with. There needs to be a good result, and that means the UK delegation need to work to make that result happen because it will not be presented to the BBC on a silver platter. And both the mainstream media and the music industry need to be brought into the fold to firstly stop hating on the Contest, and start to appreciate the opportunity that it can offer a new artist.
Today’s announcement and the thinking behind it could mark the first step in a process that brings together the United Kingdom in the same way that the Olympics, the Royal Jubilee, and events like the World Cup manage. The blocks are all there, and if Guy Freeman is ready to build a bridge, I think he can bring together the media, the music industry, the fans, the viewers, and the country with him.
Maybe not this year. Maybe not next year. But Soon. Because for the first time in the twenty-first century, I can see a long-term and sustainable plan for the Eurovision Song Contest from the United Kingdom.