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Portugal’s Big Decision: The Politics And Logistics Behind Lisbon 2018 Written by on July 29, 2017 | 1 Comment

It’s Lisbon! While fans may have thought it was a foregone conclusion, there’s been a lot going on Keith Mills looks at the politics and logistics of Portugal’s decision to host the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon.

On Tuesday 25th July, Portuguese broadcaster RTP hit the first of its Eurovision 2018 targets by announcing the host city and dates for next year’s contest, but it was the heavy hints in the press conference and subsequent interviews that may give us a better insight on what to expect next May.

No Surprises

Anyone who knows the EBU’s shopping list for the Eurovision Song Contest will not be surprised that the Portuguese capital saw off the other challengers to win the honour of becoming Portugal’s first host city.

The suggestions from RTP in the days after Salvador Sobral’s victory in Kyiv, indicated that Lisbon’s hosting was already a done deal. After all, the 20,000 capacity Atlantic Pavilion (MEO Arena) had been earmarked as Portugal’s venue of choice since it opened back in 1998. So why was there a two month delay in finally confirming the venue and date?

One reason is that in June, RTP had to react appropriately to the appalling wildfires which claimed over sixty lives in the Pedrógão Grande area. Dealing with such a distressing tragedy, clearly was RTP’s priority and as the national broadcaster it played a major role in organising the “Juntos Por Todos” (Together For All) benefit concert which was staged at very short notice in the MEO Arena on June 27th. The concert included live performances from leading Portuguese music acts including Ana Moura, Rui Veloso, David Fonseca, Camané, Amor Electro, Carlos de Carmo, and Luisa and Salvador Sobral. The concert was broadcast on all Portuguese TV channels and raised over a million euros for victims of the tragedy. It also gave foreign viewers a chance to look at the likely Eurovision venue as well as a likely presenter, Katarina Furtado, who hosted the show.

The second issue causing the delay was the host city bidding process and to understand why that was required, you need to appreciate something of the politics of Portugal and how they impact broadcasting.

Since its foundation in 1935, the Portuguese national broadcaster has been headquartered in Lisbon. This year the television service celebrated its 60th anniversary, making it one of the longest established television channels in Europe. While its services cover all the Lusophone countries, it has always been based in Lisbon. Indeed RTP’s headquarters are only a ten minute drive from the Eurovision 2018 venue.

Being based in the capital means that RTP is seen as being close to national government and part of the Portuguese establishment. It also opens it up to charges of being too focussed on Lisbon, at the expense of Portugal’s other regions, a charge that local politicians can use to appeal to their support base.

Consequently the Eurovision Song Contest hosting choice risked becoming the rope in a Portuguese regional tug-of-war if other cities were not considered as potential venues for one of the biggest international events ever to be staged in the country. While it was almost always certain that Lisbon would host, RTP had to be seen to give consideration to other cities, lest it be accused of being too Lisbon-centric.

It also has to be remembered that in 2016 Lisbon became the venue of the highly lucrative Web Summit, which caused envy in other cities, not just in Portugal.

Rosa Morta Pavillion, Portugal

Rosa Morta Pavillion, Portugal. Maybe next time?

The Lack Of Alternatives

The most obvious alternative Eurovision Song Contest host city was Porto in the north. It’s the only city with the required number of hotel rooms and an international airport (albeit with far fewer connections than Lisbon).

However with its only large arena, the Rosa Mota Pavilion, being upgraded and unavailable, the bids from nearby towns Gondomar and Santa Maria Da Feira faced huge logistical challenges and the proposed venues were just too small to be considered. Two other northern cities, Braga and Guimarães also expressed interest, but with smaller venues, challenges on hotel rooms and the distance from an international airport, they always struggled in comparison to Lisbon. Portimão in the Algarve’s token interest had more than a ring of ‘me too’ about it.

When it came to a choice, one option stood head and shoulders above the others. It was always going to be Lisbon.

The 21st century Song Contest is a very different beast to the Contest which was staged in the tiny Irish town of Millstreet in 1993. In the quarter-century that has passed the event has doubled in terms of competing nations, and the size of the live audience and travelling press and fan entourage is several multiples of what it once was. The idea of bussing people from hotels in nearby towns on a daily basis now seems rather quaint and by contrast, Lisbon is likely to the biggest Eurovision related tourist boom in the history of the Contest.

Lisbon Gets Ready

With a state of the art 20,000 capacity venue, an international airport offering flights to over 120 cities, a modern efficient public transport system and one of Europe’s most popular city break locations offering a huge variety of accommodation options, Lisbon ticks every Eurovision box for the perfect host city. Then you get to consider the good weather, nearby beaches and famous nightlife.

It was notable that the city’s mayor was one of the dignitaries at the press conference which confirmed Lisbon as host and already the city authorities are providing one of its major public spaces, Terreiro Do Paço (Palace Yard) also known as Praca do Comercio (Commercial Square) as the site of the Eurovillage.

Lisbon's TerreiroDoPaco, this could be our EuroVillage.

Lisbon’s TerreiroDoPaco, this could be our EuroVillage.

This downtown square on the banks of the Tagus is an iconic Lisbon landmark with a chequered history  will become a magnet for visitors next May when it is transformed into the Eurovillage for ten days. The square regularly hosts big events such as the Earth From Above exhibition and live screenings of big football games. It is planned that those who want to watch the live Eurovision shows but who cannot get tickets for the arena will be able to see them on big screens in the square. Though it has yet to be officially confirmed, the nearby Pátio da Galé (Gale’s Courtyard) or Praça do Município (Mayor’s Office) may be used for the Eurovision Red Carpet welcome event.

Lisbon Tourism is already heavily involved in the Eurovision planning, so visitors can expect the city to be brightly dressed for the event as well as having many exciting options for tours and special events. With a commitment to spread the organisation of the contest throughout the city, many visiting fans may wait to see the location of the venues for the Euroclub and Eurocafe before deciding where to stay in Lisbon.

The National Tourist Board is also helping out on this unique opportunity to showcase Portugal to the World. With tourism being such a large and growing part of the economy, it would be surprising if the Eurovision postcards did not feature the attractions that Portugal offers, just as Austria did in 2015. Expect everything from painted tiles and custard tarts to ocean surfing and the internationally famed Port wine.

Pavilhão Multiusos de Guimarães.

Pavilhão Multiusos de Guimarães, Fesitval Da Cancai 2018’s venue.

Festival Da Cancao 2018

As well as the Eurovision Song Contest dates and venue and Eurovillage location, RTP made a number of other significant announcements.

As already speculated, Portugal’s Eurovision selection will not be in Lisbon. Festival da Canção will be moved from Lisbon and hosted in the northern city of Guimarães, as something of a consolation prize for not hosting Eurovision. The Pavilhão Multiusos de Guimarães has a seated capacity of 8,000 and while that could be reduced for a large stage and camera positions, it should still allow RTP to make tickets available to the general public (unlike the 2017 show).

Interest in all things Eurovision has never been higher in Portugal and Guimarães may see a visitor boost in early March.

Next year’s Portuguese selection is broadly based on the same format as 2017, with two semi-finals and a final. For 2018 a total of 20 songs will compete in two semi-finals, staged in RTP’s studios in Lisbon with the finalists making their way to Guimarães for the final on March 4th. Once again RTP are likely to invite selected songwriters and producers, but one name that won’t be on the list is Luisa Sobral, the songwriter of ‘Amar Pelos Dois‘. Luisa has said that she wants this year’s Eurovision experience to be a one-off special memory.

Those Heavy Hints

While the official logo and slogan for the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 have yet to be officially announced, it was confirmed in the press conference that the Song Contest’s theme and branding will have a connection with seas and oceans, as befits Lisbon’s long, proud nautical history. With a Contest venue built on the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, Lisbon’s place as Europe’s bridge to the world is likely to play a big part in the event’s unique branding.

Eurovision 2018 reaches the Lisbon bus shelters.

Eurovision 2018 reaches the Lisbon bus shelters.

RTP is believed to be working with a provisional budget of around 26 million euros in total. That’s in line with Stockholm 2016 and Vienna 2015, but that money is likely to go further in Portugal due to lower costs. However when interviewed on the evening news RTP’s President Gonçalo Reis gave a commitment that the Contest “will be the most economical in recent years”. Reis said that RTP would look at transposing the values ​​that marked Salvador Sobral’s Eurovision victory in 2017 into the organisation of next year’s Contest. Values ​​such as authenticity, simplicity and elegance over excess will be core values for Lisbon 2018.

If at all possible, RTP will have to have a cost-neutral event.

This will not come as a surprise to most people in Portugal. RTP has a record of providing top quality programming on relatively modest budgets. The television licence fee which funded RTP was abolished in 1992 and was replaced with a direct government subsidy and advertisements. A radio licence fee was introduced in the early 1990s to fund public radio channels which are advertising-free, and which is charged through electricity bills under the name ‘Taxa de Contribuição Audiovisual’ (Portuguese for ‘Broadcasting Contribution Tax’). The radio licence fee is approximately €33 per year, but this money cannot be used for Eurovision.

MEO Arena from the sky.

MEO Arena from the sky.

What Next As RTP Prepares For Eurovision 2018?

RTP’s next main challenges are commercial and technical. As the third most watched TV channel i the country (behind commercial broadcasters TVI and SIC) RTP will have to raise much of the money to fund the Eurovision Song Contest from commercial sponsorship, so as not to impact other programming demands.

As well as input from the tourist board, negotiations with some of Portugal’s major companies have already begun and large international brands are also likely to want a piece of the action in a young and growing economy. Interestingly the press conference did not refer to the MEO Arena directly. This is primarily because the venue is likely to go through name change for the Song Contest, just as happened with the Düsseldorf Arena/Espirit Arena in 2011 due to advertising restrictions. No doubt RTP is still negotiating with a telecoms network sponsor such as MEO. Expect sponsorship announcements to be made later in the year as this money will fund much of the infrastructural costs until ticket sales are generated.

Unlike the confusion and chaos in the ticketing arrangements in Kyiv, RTP is likely to engage with a major international ticketing organisation and it is likely that Eurovision Song Contest tickets will go on sale before the end of the year as the venue has a long history of staging big events, which lessens the logistical challenges.

The technical challenges come with staging such demanding live shows and making them look good on screen, as well as in the arena. Back in May the Portuguese Eurovision delegation suggested that they would use the long-established German & Swedish technical teams that have worked on most of the recent contests. However the RTP President’s comments on the values that they would use for next year’s Contest may throw that into doubt… RTP may yet choose to go with its in-house expertise. Indeed many Eurovision watchers might suggest that a fresh insight and less ‘off the shelf’ production values and concepts is just what the Contest needs to break the deja-vu nature of recent years.

One way or another, it’s clear that RTP has its own ideas and values that will take precedence in 2018. This is Eurovision, Portuguese style.

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One response to “Portugal’s Big Decision: The Politics And Logistics Behind Lisbon 2018”

  1. Orange Vorty says:

    Interesting article. I do think that the bidding process is more of an EBU addition to lengthen the Eurovision year and to create press interest in the low points of the Eurovision year. Despite drawing on the Swedes and Germans, I thought Kiev was more distinctly of its place than many other contests of late – I only hope that Portugal wants to further place a sense of national identity in the contest.

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