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National Velveteen: The BBC’s Revamped Eurovision National Final Written by on January 18, 2016 | 2 Comments

The BBC has announced plans for the UK’s first televised National Final since 2010, and still the fans aren’t happy. Guy Freeman and his team are on a multi-year plan to build ‘Brand Eurovision’ and 2016 is just one more step forwards. There’s a lot of progress on show… but there are still many dangers.

Let’s start with a quick question. How many tickets do you think would be sold if the BBC hired six different arenas around the UK on six consecutive weekends to hold a multi-date selection show to find ‘A Song For Europe‘?

Not only would the tickets not sell out, I doubt you would find enough competent artists ready to sing in an arena, with enough backing from the industry, that would be willing to give it a go. The idea that all the BBC needs to do to find Eurovision success is to copy SVT’s Melodifestivalen is a popular refrain by many, but it’s demonstrably false, at least from the current state of affairs.

There needs to be a long, slow, burn on the Song Contest’s Candle before something along the lines of Melodifestivalen or even YLE’s UMK, could be considered by Head of Delegation Guy Freeman and the BBC. Which makes the recent announcement of a National Final by the UK Eurovision broadcaster all the more interesting.

Free As A Bird

Guy Freeman’s approach to the Eurovision Song Contest started with a similar budget to previous years, a relatively blank sheet of paper, and a desire to go back to the basics (He’s spoken in-depth to ESC Insight on these issues) and for his first two years went with an internal selection process where the BBC chose the act and the performers. That’s caused a lot complaint from fans, the mainstream media, and the public.

It would be easy to ‘go negative’ on the plans that have been announced, and many online fans have done so (it feels like nothing less than a ‘British Melody Festival‘ will satisfy them). If you look closely at the plans from the BBC, everything has processed from previous years. Steps have been taken in a direction that Freeman and the BBC believe is the correct way.

Things Are Getting Better All The Time

The National Final is not going out on either of the mainstream channels, it’s going out on BBC 4. Given that the last two years have seen the launch on the Red Button interactive service, this is a step forward in the right direction. BBC 4’s remit is to “reflect a range of UK and international arts, music and culture… that is intellectually and culturally enriching, taking an expert and in-depth approach to a wide range of subjects.” Which is exactly the approach that many have urged the BBC to take.

It’s also worth highlighting that the Friday night show goes out in BBC 4’s ‘Friday Music’ spot so it’s less about hiding the National Final on a smaller channel, but more about taking Eurovision into one of the points in the schedule where music is a key factor.

And while the logo might be spookily similar to ‘Eurovision’s Greatest Hits’, the inclusion of ‘BBC Music’ branding on the graphics is a subtle but important sign.

BBC Eurovision You Decide (image: BBC)

Some of these things are right… Some are wrong… You decide (image: BBC)

The songs selected have come from three main areas; the UK branch of the OGAE fan club working through the open submissions, from a songwriting contest organised by the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA), and Hugh Goldsmith acting as a liaison between the BBC and the music industry. If someone wanted to submit an entry, then there was a clear route to the starting line. Over 600 acts did so, with more submissions to the UK than received for the 2016 Contest in Albania, Belarus, Estonia, France, or Latvia.

Interest from the creative community is on the rise, and while there might not be an Adele (or even a Nina Nesbitt) in the mix, the foundations are there and growing. The secret is to nuture these early roots to foster respect and appreciation on all sides. There’s no artistic harm in coming last in a Melodifestivalen heat (in fact most Swedish arts would likely take that deal for the career boost) and in time that should be the BBC’s goal.

But It’s Not All Coming Up Roses

Flag waving aside, there are a number of short-term issues that could drag down the public perception of this National Final. Mel Giedroyc is not known for incisive commentary or musical knowledge (her comment of loving “The Eurovish” in the press release is painful). There’s an almost pathological desire to remind everyone that the public will decide the song and not a darkened committee room in the BBC (the show is called ‘You Decide’, the clue is there in the title).

Focusing on the past with ‘special musical guests’ does nothing to promote the Song Contest as one of the biggest musical events of the year, and I think we can all safely place bets that the ‘memorable Eurovision Winners’ section will recycle all the usual humorous clips of Bucks Fizz, Abba, and Johnny Logan to show what was needed to win in the early eighties when there was no public voting (Thankfully Nicole and Hugo weren’t winners, but you never can tell what VT will get slipped in).

And why is there no mention of the most valuable resource of a National Final, the performers? If musical credibility is to be built up, then every opportunity should be taken to push the performers and the songs.

We Can’t Turn Any Faster

You can’t turn around a ship as large as ‘The UK at Eurovision’ in a single night. It’s going to take years. Thankfully, it looks like Guy Freeman is happy to take time view and slowly build up all the elements required for long-term.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (facebook.com/ewanspence).

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2 responses to “National Velveteen: The BBC’s Revamped Eurovision National Final”

  1. John Lucas says:

    On the one hand, I can see potential in this format – BBC4 suggests a serious show at least, rather than one populated by desperate reality TV celebrities and outright novelty acts.

    My concern is that Guy Freeman and his team missed the mark so very badly with Electro Velvet. Any faith I had in his judgement evaporated when I asked him about the thought process that led to their selection, and he replied that “after Conchita won, I knew we needed something people would remember.”

    To me, that said that he looked at Conchita and only saw the beard, not the context. It also represented such a failure of nerve after Molly’s well-received entry didn’t do as well as expected. I can’t help but feel that this is yet another example of the BBC team throwing something new at the wall and hoping that it sticks, with no real sense of a long term strategy to rebuild the brand.

    Also, they’re still asking their artists to write “a song for Eurovision”. A more credible internal selection along the Dutch lines where an established artist is chosen early and given the freedom to come up with a song and performance that plays to their strengths would be a far sounder decision in my humble opinion.

    But we’ll see. We’ll see.

  2. Ben Cook says:

    I see what you mean about losing faith in Guy after last year, John. But we did hear rumours that the other songs they were submitted were just completely useless and that Electro Velvet were chosen in a last minute panic. I think it’s almost understandable that they felt it was worth taking a punt on it in the absence of any genuine quality.

    And with regards to “a song for Eurovision” – I do think, from listening to his past interviews, especially the one he did with Ewan, Guy DOES get it.

    I’m OK with the NF and semis being on BBC Four. From what Guy said on the radio earlier, it sounded like BBC One weren’t too happy with the rating for the Greatest Hits show last year and whilst there is an audience for the Saturday night final, the interest in the others shows isn’t there to justify the expense of a big shiny-floor show in the middle of Saturday night primetime.

    As I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, it wouldn’t have been a case of “ok we’ll do a NF but bury it on BBC Four”. Each channel has its own budget and I would imagine BBC Four was the only channel who would consider it.

    I’m not too happy about the choice of Mel as presenter, but like Ewan says, it’a a step forward.

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