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15-Year-Olds Not Welcome On The Eurovision Stage Written by on November 16, 2016

There’s a group of rule changes that have happened this year to coincide with the return of Junior Eurovision to Malta. One of the more prominent is about the age of contestants, with new age limits of 9 to 14. Where does that leave the 15-year-old talents of Europe? Ben Robertson investigates.

The age of Eurovision contestants has always had an awkward history. Many will recall that once upon a time a 13 year old Sandra Kim won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1986. However despite victory years later Sandra Kim expressed ‘regret’ about taking part in the competition so young. Nevertheless she had started a trend with even younger acts being thrown into Saturday night primetime against professionals from across the continent.

In 1990 came the rule that has remained unchanged to this day, you can be no younger than 16 years old to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest. What has changed in the meantime is that the Junior Eurovision Song Contest began, with the first edition taking place in Copenhagen, 2003.

How To Balance A Contest Like Junior

The age rules for Junior Eurovision have previously been tinkered before this year. The show began as an eight to fifteen competition, then moving up to a ten to fifteen contest in 2007. However there have been local rules in different preselections, for example Sweden’s Lilla Melodifestivalen recently used a 12 and over rule due to the ‘pressures’ of representing the country internationally. Former Executive Supervisor Vladislav Yakovlev told me previously how the discussion on what the age limit should be had ‘gone back and forth‘ during his tenure.

The decision to change the age group downwards this year was made by the Junior Eurovision Steering Group. This group contains previous show producers, elected representatives from participating broadcasters and chaired by Jon Ola Sand from the EBU. This is Jon Ola Sand’s first experience in charge of Junior Eurovision despite his many years co-ordinating the larger Song Contest, yet after Sietse Bakker and Vladislav Yakovlev left the role he’s been asked to co-ordinate both events. Paul Jordan, Communications and Online Manager for the Eurovision Song Contest, elaborated on why the Steering Group decided to alter the changes for this year’s edition.

The argument from the EBU is that this rule change will make the show ‘more balanced’. Their aim is that this rule change will ‘attract more boys to the competition…in turn mak[ing] the show more appealing to broadcasters’. Obviously, and we’ve seen this at Junior Eurovision before, the perils of teenage boys and the problems of voice breaking are not what anybody wants to hear squeaking out their TV set, not least the boy in question himself.

Sadly it appears the EBU’s grand experiment isn’t any overnight success. Only three countries are represented by male contestants, with 2 solo acts and one male/female duet. Last year in Sofia there were five countries had male performers on stage singing and the year before that our winner was Italian Vincenzo Cantiello. He may have been the only male on stage that year but the 14 year old boy had not just generous toppings of Italian charm but a power vocal to match.

If you look at the early years of Junior Eurovision where 8 and 9-year-olds were allowed to enter you will find far more boys than we’ve seen in recent years, in fact more acts (52.9 %) had lead artists that were male than not. However only a handful of these would be the eight or nine year olds you would expect. A significant number in fact were older making Junior Eurovision a far more diverse programme than it currently is. The main factor behind this instead is that songs had to be written, and performed on stage, by the children themselves. While there might be a shady history of children’s names incorrectly being attributed to songs adults had written, this alone explains the how early Junior Eurovision had a more equal gender balance. As well documented amongst other National Finals, there are usually far more males involved in songwriting than females. Early Junior Eurovision mirrored this as much as the younger age limit.

We haven’t seen any improvement in boys being on stage this year at Junior Eurovision, and I don’t think we are about to see a step change in the future either. There are great boy and girl singers out there, but as any child musician knows school-aged choirs and singing groups are almost invariably female dominated. Gender parity from just changing the age limit is wishful at best.

Another Theory For The Age Shifting

One of my lasting Junior Eurovision memories was in the EuroClub of the Excelsior Hotel in Malta during the 2014 edition. During the midweek chill out you had table tennis, pool tables and all the chill out space young superstars need. What I noticed though was how the older kids dominated the dance floor being all teenager-like in their gossip circles, while little Alisa from Russia played around with loom bands in the corner. Even with an age range of 10 to 15 the entrants seemed a world apart from each other socially.

The same effect can be had as an audience member watching the show. Compare in last year’s show the impressions such ‘mini-me’ characters like Lena Stamenkovic from Serbia and MIKA from Armenia with the 15-year-olds representing The Netherlands and Montenegro. At 180 cm tall Jana Mirkovic towered above some of her competitors last year. I argue her presence in a show dominated by kids could surprise and startle the casual viewer. Instead of being about getting more boys into the competition, I believe a more realistic if less PR-friendly answer is about culling the awkward teenagers from the audience’s eyes.

Why in particular would 15 be troublesome age for broadcasters? For many countries, 15 is the age when many people turn from being treated from children to adults. Sure the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child apply up until kids are 18, three other UN organisations classify the term ‘youth’ as starting at 15. Also the age of sexual consent differs across the continent within the European Union 15 is the average. From a marketing perspective there is a clear divide at 15 across the continent. Norwegian broadcaster NRK highlighted some acts and their ‘undressed sexy’ look as one reason for their withdrawal. 15-year-olds are children, but also not children depending on the criteria we are applying.

The other problem is that over the last couple of decades puberty has been hitting earlier and earlier. For measuring something as personal as puberty undoubtedly is, the science is naturally sensitive. Factors like obesity and chemicals in the water supply have been sighted factors, but no definitive cause has been found. It means that, on average of course, it’s not just that the 15 year old performers are not just taller, they are more adult in a whole manner of different ways. There’s nothing at fault which the acts themselves, far from it, but there is a viewing imbalance in having such near-adult characters compete in a children’s show. Plus we’ve had plenty of male performers under 15 suffer the problems of voice breaking, in fact with puberty starting earlier it’s probably worst for most boys around 13-14. Even this year in some National Finals we’ve not been able to avoid its curse.

Last year I wrote about the image of teenagers in Junior Eurovision, comparing how often the older acts came from Western Europe. One rationale behind this was that in Cyrillic-based languages there is no direct translation for ‘Junior’, meaning it is known as Children’s Eurovision. Acts from countries like Russia and Bulgaria are consistently very much children, with songs about dreaming and magic commonly used themes. They also tend to score quite well too. Despite his Russian heritage our previous Executive Supervisor was following from his experience with the definitely teenage friendly formats of Young Musicians and Young Dancers. The result was a growing up of Junior Eurovision into something marketed as a teenage show, complete with heavy hitting on all social media channels.

Junior Eurovision may have grown up, but maybe the participating broadcasters were not ready for that, and neither was their audience. Sweden is a great example, withdrawing in the Vlad era as the show got too old for SVT’s dedicated children’s channel. Maybe the inclusion of fifteen-year-olds, for whatever reason, was just a little bit uncomfortable for people watching at home. I wonder if there was a fifteen-year-old I could speak to about this…

May I Introduce Sofia Yaremova

Sofia may have never graced the Junior Eurovision stage, but she’s as much a veteran of the circuit as anybody else could be. She is a four time participant in Ukraine’s National Final for the competition and scored an 8th place finish last year with ‘Salsa’.

As a stalwart within Ukraine’s Junior Eurovision circles, Sofia was preparing for performance number five. She had been invited by the host broadcaster to take part once more. The song was written, the dance routine perfected, the sequins sewn onto the dress. However the bombshell came from Ukraine’s broadcaster NTU just a few weeks before the National Final. Sofia’s invitation had been withdrawn. The reason why? The new rules meant she was too old by just a couple of months as she celebrated her 15th birthday on September 28th.

Sofia told me via video interview she was ‘really disappointed’ in the decision.

‘Junior Eurovision for me is a big part of my life and it is the beginning of my own career,’ said a passionate Sofia. ‘This is the one contest where children can perform their own songs.’

The song we’re missing out on wasn’t a piece of fluff either, with a central theme to knock homophobia on its head across Ukraine and Europe. Perhaps too grown up for a kids contest, but certainly a political issue 15-year-olds have the capability of performing sincerely. She’s holding off releasing the song for now, toying with the option to send it through to Eurovision 2018, but as a young artist she realises the odds are stacked against her.

Sofia told me more about how her participation previously, especially in 2012, opened doors to a fledgling career. On the back of National Final participation she has now performed to audiences of thousands not just in Ukraine but also across in Russia. Now though she has to sit out, not able to enter either preselection Ukraine offers, just as she wants to release new, brave music through the medium she loves. All fifteen year olds have a year to sit out in bemusement at the hands of the Steering Group gods. In Sofia’s case this means her hard work this spring and summer has to stay locked up under secrecy for at least another year at least.

A whole year is a long time when you are 15…

A New Administration, A New Direction

Let’s remember as well that Junior Eurovision is very much in new hands this year. Not just has Jon Ola Sand taken the reigns at EBU, but the team from PBS in Malta are brand new as well. This change to the age limit comes alongside tweaks in the format such as the Sunday afternoon start time and the 100% jury voting. From both PBS and the EBU one can see a determined attempt to tweak how the competition works and set their own mark on the competition.

The earlier start time takes Junior Eurovision away from primetime audiences which are booked out intensively by many broadcasters across the continent, so much I understand. I also understand that televote numbers are lower and more susceptible to manipulation at Junior Eurovision, so a full jury vote might be preferable. However I don’t understand what older entrants to Junior Eurovision have done to be refused entry, especially with an announcement so late to scupper their plans for the trophy or to develop their own careers.

The no-man’s-ground of age 15 is awkward. Just what is wrong with performers so old? Growing up is hard enough to fit into with your still-developing body and your voice that does things it shouldn’t. Teenage life is awkward enough without being stigmatised as unwelcome by a bunch of TV executives. While seeing Jana Mirkovic and her marathon-distance legs skip across the stage may appear wrong at the end of a contest called Junior, it is also reality. Martija Stanojkovic representing Macedonia this year may seduce the camera in a way that may defy your opinion of what 12-year-olds can do, but again that is simply her reality. If that looks wrong to you then I’m afraid you are the one with the problem.

If there was any show on the planet that had to hold the moral high ground that competition would have to be Junior Eurovision. That moral high ground has to apply to rules that give everybody as much chance as possible at taking part and doing the best they can, not stigmatising people based on their age. Getting more boys into the competition is not a suitable answer from the EBU and at any rate is doomed to fail.

The main frustration though is that this show is still being officially targeted for a TV audience aged 13-16. It’s farcical, short-sighted and demeaning to young people themselves. If part of your target audience is not allowed to take part there’s already far less of them able to engage with the show and spread it across their networks. I can’t fathom how you market the show as being cool enough to 15-year-olds when they are already far too mature to be taking part.

I haven’t seen anything in this rule change to demonstrate this is a well-developed plan made by the European Broadcasting Union. Rather this sounds like an instinctive backlash to try and bring more countries into the fold to make Junior Eurovision more ‘safe TV’. We have some returnees, Poland, Israel and Cyprus, but Italy remains the only Big 5 despite rumours of Spain and Germany making an appearance. Slovenia has withdrawn because of the new rules, but did not publicly specify which rule in particular was the problem for them. It would not be out of the realms of possibility that Slovenia had an artist ready and waiting…but then was informed in May that artist would no longer be eligible to take part.

Junior Eurovision should be safe TV, in that it should be safe space for young performers to express themselves and to enjoy the limelight in a brilliant TV production. However it shouldn’t hide itself away and filter those young people. We shouldn’t filter the awkward body images but show young people for who they really are. We should encourage the songs about homophobia, social media or real world issues, not just the kiddy fluff about magic rabbits and the like. 15-year-olds are not going to be able to enter the bigger adult competition, so we have to make them welcome in the world of Junior.

Some of the previous administration’s best work was to really make Junior Eurovision look and feel like a teenage show. I fear a Junior contest where all the kids are innocent puppets-on-strings of masterful composers and we essentially get a talent contest, not a part of the Song Contest we all love. That’s already a delicate balance teetering on the edge of falling down. I wouldn’t be surprised for this to turn around into ‘Eurovision Kids Singing Talent Show’ or something else ghastly in the future. It certainly would create the sterile programming such mindless and discriminatory controlling would suggest.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended over twenty Eurovision's, Junior Eurovision's and National Finals for ESC Insight. He uses statistics to explain the Song Contest aims to educate readers about what the Song Contest means to do many different people.

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