Following their victory in 2015 with Måns Zelmerlöw’s ‘Hereos’, Swedish broadcaster SVT asked the EBU’s Reference Group to adjust the start time of the Eurovision Song Contest to start one hour earlier at 8pm Central European Time. This request was denied by the Reference Group and the Song Contest continues to this day to fill the 9pm CET time slot. This means of course that the Contest, which is well known for sailing past the three hour thirty minute running time (and closing in on four hours in some years) does not finish until well past midnight for the majority of its audience.
It’s time to revisit that decision.
Many consider the traditional peak time for Saturday night broadcasting to be between 8pm and 9pm – arguably this isn’t the case anymore, but I’ll come back to that – but taking this time as a starting point we can look at which countries appear to be holding the reins in regards to airing the Eurovision Song Contest at peak viewing time, and why the timing needs to be reconsidered.
But What Is Peak Viewing Time?
There are only three countries who broadcast the Eurovision Song Contest to begin at the traditional peak viewing time of 8pm; the Republic of Ireland (RTE), Portugal (RTP), and the United Kingdom (BBC). Of these three countries it won’t come as any surprise to you to know that the UK has by far the biggest audience, averaging around the seven million mark. In Portugal it hovers around 600,000 though it shot up to 1.5 million this year as RTP’s audience must have had an inkling that something special was going to happen. And in Ireland we are looking at a rough average of 320,000, well down from the 1.1 million who watched Jedward in 2012.
It’s the UK that has the largest audience volume of the traditional peak of the Song Contest, but I do question the idea of the BBC seemingly driving the start time of the Contest. It represents around four percent of the total audience. If we divide the audience up into viewing zones we can clearly see how this falls across the continent.
As you can see the largest bulk of the audience comes from the CET-based Viewing Zone 3. In Song Contest terms that’s a 9pm start time outside of the traditional peak time definition. Zone 3 also guarantees a post-midnight finish for most of the audience.
Does Peak Exist Any More?
I said I would come back to the traditional view of peak times, starting with the UK perspective. Indeed 8pm-9pm used to be considered peak time on a Saturday night, with a strange zone known as ‘shoulder peak’ kicking in around 7pm. However over the years, this has quite clearly changed. We need only look at the other entertainment shows that dominate the UK’s Saturday viewing schedule to see proof of that. Let’s take the six most viewed entertainment shows for 2016/2017 in the UK and look at their statistics:
Only two of the top entertainment shows begin at 8pm, and what is arguably the BBC’s flagship entertainment show ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ begins at around 6:40pm and is watched by more than 13 million people.
Peak time has shifted and stretched, Saturday peak is now the 7pm – 9pm viewing window, with shoulder peak having travelled forward to about 6pm, and being the new home slot of the BBC’s flagship drama programme ‘Doctor Who’ which is usually aired with a start time of between 6:15pm and 6:30pm. Incidentally weekday peak time remains at 8pm, along with Sunday peak where other flagship BBC shows are to be found such as ‘Call the Midwife’.
What does all this mean for the Song Contest? Simple. Eurovision is on too late.
It’s too late pretty much everywhere and for everyone. SVT led the charge in 2016 to try and change this on behalf of the other twenty-one countries in their time zone, bringing it in line with their other key broadcast ‘Melodifestivalen’, in which Sweden choose their entrant for the Song Contest, which starts at 8pm – still considered peak time in Sweden.
Taking another broadcaster in Viewing Zone 3 and we can conclude that peak time Saturday across remains at 8pm. If we look at the most popular entertainment shows broadcast in Austria. The ‘Opernball Opening’ which is broadcast on ORF2 attracts an audience just shy of 1.5million (for a nation of 6.5million people, that is some going!) and ‘Dancing Stars’ which is part of the ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ family finds its start time on ORF Eins at 8:15pm. The recently aired ‘Wiener Festwochen’ hosted by and starring Eurovision winner Conchita started at 9:20pm. This was held on a Friday, suggesting that European peak time pattern across the week as well as Saturday sits an hour behind the UK.
I have spoken to TV professional in participating countries and looked across the European TV audiences (where figures are available) and you can also see that the most popular TV shows for Saturday night viewing start at around 8pm (8:30pm in France).
It makes for an interesting spreadsheet, but we can quite clearly see at the moment with the 9pm CET start time, the Song Contest hits only four broadcasters within 15 minutes of the start of their peak time (taking Australia out of the equation, as the Contest is broadcast on tape delay in peak time). For a further three broadcasters the start of the Contest falls between 16-30 minutes of the start of peak time.
That leaves a whopping thirty participating countries which see the Song Contest start more than 30 minutes (mostly an hour or more) away from the start of peak time viewing. I cannot find figures for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but as they sit in the same time zone as Georgia I think we can probably add them to the third group as the show starts there at 11pm which points to being a long way outside the start of peak time.
There is another, and completely related illustration of this, in fact you only have to look to National Finals season, and those of us who watch as many livestreams as we can know that by far the most popular start time for National Finals is 8pm; it’s the reason we have to have one on the laptop, one on the iPad and one on the TV some weekends, just to make sure we see them all!
Other countries too have made noise in the past about the start time and the show running over time. Measures such as having announcers now only giving the 10 and 12 points vocally and cutting the ‘chat’ to the show’s hosts, this then moved to only 12 points being announced in 2017. This may have shortened the voting sequence but the running time remains significantly over 3 hours meaning that the Contest ends after midnight in over thirty-nine participating countries, and in many it’s gone 1am.
Now, I do realise that it’s a bigger thing than someone just saying, “right let’s start it a bit earlier, so we can all get to bed sooner.” Changing what has essentially become the ‘way things are done’ is tricky when you have more than forty participating broadcasters in the mix along with a sizeable chunk of non-participants too.
But if, as is hoped, newer, younger audiences are to be attracted to the Song Contest then surely making the Contest as accessible as possible is key to its success, in this instance access refers to start time. A new start time of 8pm in central Europe, that being 7pm in the UK, seems to me to be a wholly sensible move for pretty much everyone concerned… except Iceland, I know, I’m sorry, but Icelanders are ingenious people who will figure out a way round it! It would also marginally affect working viewers in Spain who, because of average the Spanish working day finishing at 8pm, would have to race home and may miss the start of the show (I’m sure they’d catch up pretty quickly!)
If we run that spreadsheet again and adjust the start time to 8pm in the CET zone we begin to see a different story being painted. In this ‘new world’ the Eurovision Song Contest now hits twenty-one participating countries within 15 minutes of the start of peak time, a further eight have the Contest starting 30-60 minutes away from peak time, all of which except Spain and Iceland now have the Contest starting in ‘shoulder peak’ time, and only eight countries where the time is still more than 30 minutes away from peak time, but using Georgia as an example it would move the contest from a 11pm start to a 10pm start. There are some counties, who simply because of the geography of the continent will always fall outside of the core.
I would love to hear the rationale behind keeping the Eurovision Song Contest at a time convenient to a fraction of its audience, when that same fraction, quite clearly, are perfectly happy and in fact prefer, watching shows that start an hour earlier.
The Eurovision Song Contest starts at a time that is outside of modern day family viewing habits and finishes far too late for an entertainment and variety show. These both conspire to make it harder to attract a younger audience and a new generation of fans.
It’s time to move our Song Contest.