Australian broadcaster SBS has been vocal for a number of years in wanting more access to the Eurovision Song Contest beyond commentating on the local broadcast. In 2014, following the inclusion of Jessica Mauboy as the second Semi Final interval act and an ‘almost live’ (delayed by only two hours) broadcast, the channel gained its best ratings for the show, breaking the one million viewers mark. It remains the 2nd most watched yearly event on SBS 1 next to the FA Cup Final, and thus represents a hallmark in its programming that many countries’ broadcasters in Europe would dream of.
The news today has certainly brought with it a lot of local excitement, and more casual fans have filled the twitter streams with joy at the news we will be part of the world’s biggest song contest. The front pages of our local newspapers feature photos of Conchita alongside our SBS commentators Julia Zemiro and Sam Pang announcing our debut at Eurovision, and the morning television is abuzz laughing over the prospect.
For now, its all fun and games in the land of Eurovision.Oz; betting is already feverish with who will represent our island nation, and every Australian news website offering up a chance to suggest an entry (which so far ranges from the big name stars to the crazy 80’s footballer-turned-one-hit-wonder Warwick Capper). But as every Australian – including our last three Prime Ministers – knows too well, it won’t take long for the the glitter to settle, the party balloons to bust, and the analysis and backlash to begin.
Budgetary concerns should and will be foremost in the minds of Australian media staff, particularly those within the two national broadcasters ABC and SBS who had funding slashed recently resulting in a cull of approximately 10% of its workforce. Under those circumstances, even with such a priority for coverage based on previous high ratings, how can one justify the expense of participating at the Contest (assuming that we are paying our fair share alongside the Big 5 nations for the automatic qualifier status)?
As a representative of Eurovision media and previously part of the SBS coverage team, my own feelings tend towards the negative on the inclusion of Australia at the Contest. When asked by reporters at the 2012 Contest in Baku about Australia being part of the event, I disagreed that we should be part of the line-up. Whilst Australia will be forever linked to Europe thanks to the large diasporas of British, Irish, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Serbian, etc populations here in our nation, and our love of the event is certainly beyond what many participating nations even have, it is an unnecessary and unjustifiable position to expect Australia to play an active role at Eurovision. Forget unnecessary quoting of the rule book, the clue here is in the title – EUROvision.
Needless to say, my views never made it to air.
However, I am not alone with my thoughts on the matter.
It wasn’t the first time that Australia has been rumoured to join the contest, but a heavy buzz first emerged last December. As per previous incarnations, this was treated with a grain of salt by most, and a novelty by others, with some interesting reactions from Australian fans on Facebook pages. Overwhelmingly though amongst the hardcore fans, even before this actual announcement, the possibility of being the 40th competitor in Austria was not one that SBS would have expected from the Eurovision-loving country in southern hemisphere. Here is just a small selection of reactions from last December from the Australian Eurovision Fanclub facebook page :
“ Bad bad bad idea.”
“I’d prefer us not to be involved, we have had our 15 minutes”
“Anytime Australia participates in any kind of contest out comes a bunch of flag-as-a-cape wearing nationalist bogans who think we are the best at everything, and you can bet they’ll be saying “we’ve been fans of that poofter-fest for years, now let’s show ’em how it’s done”. I don’t need people like that associated with Eurovision, no thank you.”
“I don’t like it, and I can see many countries not taking the news well… How will it look if they gave a country on the other side of the world a wildcard entry which does not meet the requirements for entry? It will make a joke of the contest, and I could see countries pulling out in disgust. And while it will never happen, imagine the outcry if we were to win under those circumstances? Many countries would refuse to return in 2016.”
“Terrible idea. The reason we are tolerated in such a good natured way is because we aren’t competing. Even if we’re invited in, we will seem like the boorish spectators who reckon they can do better.”
“ I loved that we were an interval act last year but that should not lead us into being part of the song contest. I also feel that Eurovision is a European contest and should stay that way”
Based on experience, and the lack of active involvement that our broadcaster has with the hard-core fans that travel from Australia to the event every year, it is doubtful that this opinion will be reflected in the lead up or on the ground during this years broadcast. SBS will have the casual fan back home believe that this inclusion, however celebratory and one-off in nature it is, is a great thing and that the revelation has been welcomed with open arms by all here and in Europe. That is because it fits within the framework of how it wishes the contest to be perceived by viewer.
So, what can you expect from Australia?
Despite the negative feedback across the fan spectrum, if betting sites are anything to go by, Australia is onto a winner already. With no announcement yet as to our competing song or artist, we can only judge from what has come before from our broadcaster.
SBS tend to take a leaf out of BBC’s book with a tongue-in-cheek approach to the contest. This is thanks to the many years enduring Wogan commentary direct from the BBC feed, followed by the now-permanent establishment of comedienne Julia Zemiro and (more-often) radio and sport commentator Sam Pang as our local guides to the event.
Whilst there have been some shining moments in their coverage, including a 2-part documentary on the history of the contest, a travelogue series journeying from Dusseldorf to Azerbaijan meeting Eurovision stars along the way, nabbing a rare interview with Englebert Humperdinck, and an excellent feature with Conchita last year, the tendency towards ridicule and celebration of kitsch remains heavy on the agenda. Interjections over songs being performed, lyric and artist slurs by both the ESC and JESC commentary teams, and most telling of all, the programming of the interval act last year where a slew of stereotypes and glittery Contest misconceptions took to the stage left many fans embarrassed, shocked and annoyed at the broadcast.
Whilst genuinely talented and top-local-charting artist Jessica Mauboy was an excellent decision on the part of SBS to send to Copenhagen, she certainly didn’t set the world alight with her song beyond a local one-day download fest via iTunes. One feels that the standard of her song was shaped by the SBS perception of what is a ‘Eurovision song’ than one that Jess herself would be truly proud of and her record company would want released as a single.
For now, Australia is pushing well above its weight worldwide in the music stakes right now; acts like Iggy Azalea, Sia, 5 Seconds of Summer, and Goyte, are topping charts in Europe, USA and beyond. Needless to say, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see these reflected on the Eurovision stage. And even whilst on the downturn career-wise, names like Kylie Minogue and Tina Arena who have the profiles are also unlikely to pop up with an Australian flag in Austria.
Instead, I believe we can expect to see a name hailing from one of our many talent shows, just like Jessica Mauboy. Whilst the talent from these shows is not in any way a bad thing (take for instance, Melodifestivalen 2015 performers JTR, who originally hail from Brisbane and were competitors in our 2013 local series of X Factor), they are also far more pliable for SBS to mould into what it expects of a debut Eurovision entry. This method also serves as an opportunity for the record company to try and launch a career internationally. We have previously sent such acts as Dami Im and Justice Crew who fall directly into this category to the Asian Broadcasting Union Song Festival for similar reasons, and I believe this is our best indication of what we can expect to see in Vienna.
Concerns to address
Most of the issues and concerns that local fans had previously surrounding Australia’s participation fortunately have been dealt with by the EBU directly on the announcement. This is a once-off inclusion to fit the theme of ‘Building Bridges’, we will be given a “wildcard” status direct to the final to avoid ‘robbing’ any other European nation of qualifying potential, and no, even if the odds are right and Australia wins the contest, we cannot host the 2015 Contest.
If Australia were to win the Contest, it has been announced that SBS will then co-produce the event in conjunction with another European nation in 2016 (so if Montenegro want to get a ticket direct to Saturday night, here’s its chance). This is actually one positive element to the nation’s inclusion, opening up the opportunity for a bidding process to host and hopefully for a smaller and previously non-winning-nation to be successful in holding the event. Add to that the promise and benefit of additional funds and production expertise provided from Australia, its a potential win-win situation for one lucky country.
Taking a more negative view however, it could just as easily be seen by some as an excuse that the contest defaults to a Big 5 nation such as the United Kingdom or Spain, which ensures continued future funding from its biggest contributors and also appears a ‘safe choice’.
The voting process is still yet to be announced, but it appears that much to the delight of Australian fans who have campaigned for years, ‘Down Under’ will finally get a live broadcast of the event running at 5am local time in order to participate – even though you would expect voting details to be sorted out and agreed on before the announcement,
However, it may be expected that the voting could take place online over a period of time rather than by phone due to the minimal numbers that would be expected to watch and vote live in the middle of the week when the actual semi- finals take place. This practice of online voting based on preview clips in the fortnight prior to the Contest has already been running successfully for some time via the SBS website, although admittedly with no consequence to any results at the actual Contest. If a decision to do this is accepted, it would open a can of worms for accountability – with potential multiple voting, possible international rorting of the system etc. This seemingly leaves SBS with little choice but to run a small phone vote on a Wednesday, Friday and Sunday morning 5am timeslot or to resort to jury-only voting.
The opportunity for Australia to vote in both Semi Finals however is the most curious inclusion. If you look back at previous results from the SBS online-voting portal, it is clearly seen that points do heavily favour the biggest diasporas present here rather than the songs themselves – not that this is anything that isn’t already evident in the actual Eurovision results. A far more natural decision would be to have Australia vote in the first Semi Final, where there is already a smaller number of competing nations, or indeed, only in the Grand Final where we are participating.
Giving Australia, a country who is not even part of the regular participants, the power to shape results across the whole contest and continent, as many European fans have been vocalising on social media, seems an unfair decision on the part of the EBU – especially when not even the host nation has that ability.
Building bridges amongst the fans
For the years of attending the contest as a fan hailing from Australia, I have felt nothing but love and inclusion from others attending Eurovision. However, having taken a break in attending last year in order to pursue to some professional interests, I believe the welcoming for Australians is starting to wear thin with some Europeans. Reports filtered through to me about aggressive behaviour towards Australians due to the feeling from some that our nation had overstayed our welcome and gained too much exposure at the expense of smaller countries and fan-groups.
Hearing about such sad experiences from friends who I had willed on to attend on the Copenhagen event last May certainly brought a downer to my viewing. After all, wasn’t this Contest built on the basis of inclusion? About music having the power to bring people closer together?
Looking across the worldwide social media reaction today, of course I am not surprised about the anger many Europeans feel towards the decision to include Australia in this year’s Contest. Yes, its pushing the envelope perhaps a bit too far for the Contest and the result may be more ‘burning bridges’ than ‘building bridges’ in the long run. Yes, its hard to justify when smaller nations struggle to find the funds to participate. Giving Australia such liberties is like a slap in the face to the concerns of the likes of Turkey or the wishes of Russia who wish to gain ‘big’ country status. And I honestly believe that time and funds would be better dedicated to encouraging the likes of Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovakia back to the contest. However it’s the personal vitriol that worries me most.
The decision to allow Australia a role at Eurovision is one that was determined behind closed doors amongst the Eurovision Reference Group, a national broadcaster, and signed off by the EBU TV Committee. It is not the decision of the fans, our country as a whole, or the artist presented. Just as the Tolmachevy Sisters and Russian fans directly (and I argue, wrongly) experienced in last year’s participation, I am concerned that a lot of anger will be aimed towards this Australian involvement.
So I conclude and also appeal to Eurovision fans, whoever you are and wherever you are, to embrace this in the spirit it is offered – a special event and another song on the stage – and to appreciate that most of us here down under love the Contest the way it is: a celebration of music and European culture. We don’t want to change Eurovision, but we do want to be part of it in some small way.
Like our European breathen, for most of us, being on the ground and amongst you all is quite enough to satisfy that craving.