Junior Eurovision has suffered some stick over recent years. The numbers of entrants have dwindled, interest has declined and many were debating if it would even continue. Continue it is doing, with a revival coming up in 2014 as Malta hosts the 12th edition of Junior Eurovision.
Ben Robertson investigates what is different about the modern Junior Eurovision, and what steps need to be taken to keep it secure for the long-term future.
“So,” he asked, “Junior Eurovision next year… yes or no?”
Ewan and I had just left the Heineken Music Hall in Amsterdam two years ago after Ukraine had won Junior Eurovision 2012 when he sprung this question on me. There the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) had managed to scrape together 12 countries to take part in competition and the contest survived on the lowest number of entrants possible to keep the voting system going.
Although Anastasiya Petryk won the contest comfortably, the Amsterdam contest did not avoid conflict. Azeri and Armenian fans hurled abuse at each other inside the arena after they exchanged zero points. Albania’s act was told to change costume due to it being too mature. The satellite links on the televoting failed on one occasion in the live show.
If Junior Eurovision was going to end there and then, it was going out with a depressing, embarrassing and sad murmur.
The truth is, when Ewan asked me that question after the show, I couldn’t answer the direct question. The Junior Eurovision Song Contest was battered, bruised, and hanging on to the ropes.
Kept Alive By A Nation In Turmoil
That Ukraine won the contest was quite probably one of the deciding factors in the success of the Junior Eurovision model going forward. Even at their winning press conference, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation made a strong hint that Ukrainian TV would want the opportunity to host the contest again.
To keep Junior Eurovision alive was going to need change not just from the internal structures of the EBU and the format of the competition, but also to reignite passion from a host broadcaster to produce a top quality program. Together Ukrainian broadcaster NTU and a new-look EBU team produced a show which turned a corner.
The new EBU team was headed by Vladislav Yakovlev, a safe pair of hands from the EBU who had experience with the Eurovision Young Dancers and Young Musicians. We spoke to ‘Vlad’ about the team and about the steps taken to get Junior Eurovision back on its feet, and he was quite upfront about the difficulties he inherited.
“In July and August last year, we were not clear if we would be able to make the show.
The 2013 edition was a change of direction and featured new elements that took the show in a direction towards an increased teen audience. I want to thank NTU for their work in being able to adjust to the format change and they did it very impressively.”
Finance is of course an obvious issue. Junior Eurovision is not a huge commercial success in most countries. The Dutch (and previously the Belgian entries) often have commercial success in the local charts, but rarely does this escape the kiddy pop world. Russia’s move last year to take the contest to a children’s channel was a failure in the ratings, and provided even more uncertainty about the structure from one of the contest’s biggest supporters and financial contributors.
The combined effort from the EBU team and the host broadcaster last year has believed to have made a difference to ensure that they squeezed out 12 countries to compete in this new look Junior Eurovision.
“It (finance) is a barrier, however it is the easiest one to get over. We can reduce the fees to participate for broadcasters who are not in the best state, which is very appreciated by those suffering. However to spend a week with hotels in a different country is still a big amount of money for many broadcasters.
Our team in Kiev had said to some delegations to come with singers, and we will provide dancers and stylists.”
This last part was essential for the debut of San Marino in Junior Eurovision last year, where Michele Perniola was backed by five local Ukrainian backing dancers who he met to rehearse for the competition in the same week as the show. It was innovative steps like this which were vital to bring Junior Eurovision away from death’s door. Even when chaos was encompassing central Kiev last November the competition ran smoothly and kept going to act as a showcase for Vlad’s model for the following year.
A Sunshine Island To Bring In The Good Times
Malta’s victory, and the excitement that took over the island afterwards, helped to further lift the excitement about the contest. It meant that after a secure first show in charge, Vlad was able to push the successful concepts further.
“With the format some key changes have been to promote the spokesperson on stage, making the experience more fun as well as the cool element that the running order draw and announcement will be at the opening party.
We want the show to appear more like a teen show, but at the same time we have to ensure that it is not too commercial. The kids look to the elderly shows as well.”
One of the biggest changes is away from the show. The creation of this teen feel to the show comes across most with the use of social media. Be it Facebook, Twitter or Russian language VK the ease of navigation to get contact about the contest brings it to a level where it is easy to interact with for young people. The focus here has ensured that the numbers of followers that Junior Eurovision has is many times higher than two years ago, and Vlad himself pops up on simple #askvlad videos to communicate directly to fans.
Furthermore Malta is also impressing as a host nation with a brand new venue for the contest, sponsorship from Air Malta ensuring delegation costs are reduced and little organisational perks such as free bus travel for accredited press and teams which just makes everything easier for all involved. Vlad points out he is ‘speechless’ by the commitment from Maltese broadcaster PBS.
“Thanks to Maltese TV for their efforts as they have provided a playground to implement lots of our new ideas. With the next edition we see the potential to grow. We have more countries as observers and even another member of the Big 5 who will come to watch the show.”
The Malta effect is much more than people wanting an excuse to visit a sunny island through the dark November months. With a growing, vibrant team around him Vlad can now use how Kiev worked to sell the brand again to delegations, who appreciate the effort, ease and care that Malta put in – the added value. Returning and debuting countries is the proof of the pudding that the package works.
Some Countries Are Still Sceptical
To say that it is all a success at this stage would not be fair. 16 countries in the contest is a good forward step, but is hardly worth celebrating when Eurovision 2015 is knocking on the door of 40 countries to be competing.
Many countries came into Junior Eurovision in its infancy in 2003 and have since left. Spain, the UK, Latvia, Greece, Romania, Poland and even host country Denmark are now former members of the Junior Eurovision circle with little discussion about returning. If the package is successful and secure now, what still puts off some countries from being a part of the show?
Charlo Halvorsen is one person who may be able to answer that question. She is responsible for organising MGP jr. for NRK as the Editor of the Light Entertainment Department. I ask about why Norway runs their big show to a packed Oslo Spectrum each year, with the winning song hitting the top of Norwegian iTunes, but chooses not to go to Junior Eurovision.
“We did not think it was necessary to have an international contest to make this event. The Norwegian final was enough for the kids. And also we thought the international final took some wrong turns – in presenting the kids more like adults. Kind of ‘undressed’ sexy like some grown up artists.
That’s not the way we should or could present kids on Norwegian television. I guess this has changed today, but it was one of the reasons why we left Junior Eurovision.”
We asked Vlad for a reply to this comment.
“Some delegations have had occasions when they have ‘overly done-up’ the make-up with the kids. We have had to say to some kids previously to change their make-up and the same is applicable to the clothes. We just want light TV make-up on our acts.
Norway and Denmark do have issues with the format. I find this strange as we have the same kind of set up and the same kind of show that you see on TV. Denmark has a wish that the children are fully in charge of the songwriting process. We (EBU) only have a wish that the kids have to be involved.”
The balancing act that EBU have to do in organising a successful continental contest for adults is hard enough with the varieties of cultural boundaries that exist, for children this level of scrutiny is even higher. What is acceptable for one country may be completely inappropriate in another. From an organisational perspective the difference between Junior Eurovision and MGP jr differs slightly at most, however the perceptions of negative role models linger with broadcasters uneasy about showing children in a light that maybe against their own ethics.
Sweden return to Junior Eurovision in 2009 was backed by no other Nordic nation, however they have changed to a rule that to enter Lilla Melodifestivalen kids have to be at least twelve years old by the time of the Junior Eurovision. Junior Eurovision though has a lower age limit of ten. The age limit is still up for debate as Vlad explains.
“I respect the view of Sweden and I understand their belief, however some countries still continue the discussion to lower the age range back to eight. The discussion goes back and forth. What is important is that we are able to take care of all of the acts equally. The age range used to be a barrier. Many journalists were saying how it was inappropriate. From the back of this we have established a strong code of ethics. We definitely take it seriously.”
This code of ethics features prominently on the Junior Eurovision website and ensures that the children are always looked after and how they are to be treated. However this alone doesn’t mask the split that the Steering Group have with this age limit conundrum. It is very easy to see how an age range from eight to fifteen years would cause problems for many countries, increase the pressure on staff and on the acts themselves, as well as making it difficult to be fair to equal to all artists.
That the age limit has not gone up, and some members want it to go down, is at odds with the idea of making Junior Eurovision more fitting into a teen image. It is likely countries like Denmark, Norway and Finland will be waiting to ensure there is no threat to the integrity of their respective contests before making a move to return.
This Is The Second Birth
Malta’s contest is seeing increased media coverage, increased turnout of competing countries and increased popularity from fans. Two years ago Junior Eurovision was ready to whimper off and die in a corner, now it once again looks like a sustainable and growing competition.
The break away from those two eras though was not clean. Lingering ideas about the contest remain, something Vlad notes are ‘strange broadcaster perceptions’ that have kept strong despite the hard work of his team.
Junior Eurovision is now reaping the rewards that will give it positive news stories of the future. The children who competed over the last ten years are now making steps up to fully fledged musical careers, sharing the successes of their youth to a new, influential generation.
Perfection is not to be achieved. I think many broadcasters would welcome Denmark’s commitment about ensuring all songs are child-written, rather than just having the artist ‘help’ with the writing, but how this would be policed is a near-impossible question to answer. Furthermore the issues of sexualisation of children will always linger because young boys and girls on a stage does make many commentators uncomfortable. The strength and the vigour of the code of ethics will be needed to ensure no cases are needed in this regard, and the EBU should feel able to step in whenever necessary.
Fans and delegations may need time to see and believe that the change makes for a sustainable and self-supporting contest which is healthy for all involved. However the news and buzz around Junior Eurovision is increasing and is certainly getting the kids excited. Julia Kedhammar’s father confirmed on our newsletter how this year’s Swedish entrant is pushing herself because she wants to be in control and she has these great ideas. It’s a healthy energy that Junior Eurovision creates which is very exciting for all involved.
It links me in to end with a quote from Charlo Halvorsen from NRK again. I asked her what her belief is of the purpose of MGP jr and Junior Eurovision. I believe her answer shows they are more similar than they are different, and the gap that Vlad and his team have to close might be quite small after all.
“To make a great show for kids and young people – where they can be taken seriously with their musical interests. And have lots of fun in their own way.”