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Why Junior Eurovision Needs A Dedicated Children’s Ambassador Written by on November 24, 2018 | 2 Comments

A record twenty countries are set to take part in the 2018 Junior Eurovision Song Contest in Minsk for what will be a fantastic show. However Junior Eurovision needs to be more than just a great show, it needs to be a great educational experience for every single participant involved. Ben Robertson argues why the EBU need to have a dedicated children’s ambassador as part of the Junior Eurovision team. 

“You have been many times before, maybe you should write an article about it,” said Jon Ola Sand, Head of Live Events for the European Broadcasting Union, at the EBU’s press conference to the ESC Insight team. (Check it out on this video)

So we did.

Why are we talking about this issue right now? Is it as simple as a show putting young people on television screens means that Junior Eurovision is always going to be under the microscope of scrutiny?

It is because the 2017 edition once more got social media comment boxes full with so called fans commenting on how inappropriate competing song lyrics and stage costumes are. From there the ethics of the show get questioned and if it’s right for children to take part in such adult games like what the Song Contest is.

Malta’s backing dancers drew criticism from press and fans alike in Tbilisi (Photo, Thomas Hanses, EBU)

But those people are not just the fans and the internet reaction brigade; they even include EBU member broadcasters putting down their very creation.

Commenting how these young people were ‘playing adults’ instead of being the children they are was actually Danish broadcaster DR, describing it as ‘fundamentally wrong’. The very broadcaster who started off this entire concept in the year 2000.

Both EBU and the Belarussian broadcaster have invited DR back into the Junior Eurovision family, but they have refused since 2006 as the show now doesn’t follow ‘Danish values’. Denmark isn’t any country on planet Earth; this is Denmark that repeatedly tops world tables for happiness and child protection.

Jon Ola Sand said in above press conference that if the EBU “see the need to strengthen the ethical side of this (contest) we will of course do so.”

Jon Ola Sand at the EBU/RTP Press Conference in Lisbon (Photo: Andres Putting, EBU)

With DR not just absent but actively criticising how Junior Eurovision portrays itself, I believe it is time the EBU actively strengthened their role in ensuring an ethical Junior Eurovision experience.

What Are These Danish Values?

It therefore seems paradoxical that Denmark still runs their precursor to Junior Eurovision, MGP, and even more that it’s a big deal for the broadcaster.

From the visual production there’s little to differ the two at first glance. MGP recycles the stage from the Danish National Final, meaning this is no small production and the YouTube views for the performances are well in the hundreds of thousands. This is also a big deal.

However watching clips side-by-side alongside those from Junior Eurovision makes those small differences seem like chasms.

Melissa and Viktoria performing ‘Jag Elsker Deg’ at MGP 2018 (Photo: DR)

There’s a overly-youthful innocence to the Danish children, and not just down to them being on average a handful of months younger than their European counterparts. They also dress down, looking more like kids going to a birthday disco. The song lyrics are simple – no heavy hitting here; with the best friends singing ‘I Love You’ on repeat the best example of a genre only found on children’s television.

Russia’s Junior Eurovision winner from last year isn’t just leagues more mature, it’s packing a combo of an emotional jab at the heart with a forceful vocal hook and a sombre message that plows deep into your stomach. It’s a story that many have said doesn’t have place in a children’s setting, but the authenticity of Polina’s delivery says otherwise. Children know what hurt is, after all.

The cosmetic approach to this question of Danish values is to judge this purely by the types of songs on show. That would be unfair for numerous reasons. Firstly we have seen that in Junior Eurovision usually it’s adults who award more points to the more child-like performances whereas child voters favour big impressive and more ‘adult’ acts instead. Secondly that ignores what else happens off the stage at MGP.

Jan Lagermand Lungme, the Head of Programming for DR and also a Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group member, surmises there “should be more focus on the kids” rather than making Junior Eurovision a mini-me of its bigger brother. Look for example at MGP’s website – heavy on vlogs, games and quizzes to tap into their target audience. In comparison is the same serious frontage as the main and full of content aimed at broadcasters rather than the 13-16 audience the EBU are targeting.

Jan Lagermand Lundme was also DR’s Head of Show for Copenhagen’s hosting in 2014 (Photo: Sander Hesterman, EBU)

There’s also the fact that the young artists in Denmark get so much more education through their national final process. Songs are written by the children themselves and songwriting sessions are run around the country, meaning hundreds of young people benefit. We can see the artists and their songs slowly transform over the weeks and months and the students gain skills that are not just used in a three minute performance window. That isn’t visible at Junior Eurovision and, no, I don’t want to return to the unpoliceable minefield of children wrote their own songs. However in comparison to the Danish experience Junior Eurovision lacks the chance to make the experience educational – viewers at home will only ever get three minutes on stage.

Finally, there’s a relaxed freedom to MGP that isn’t there at Junior Eurovision. The Danish green room is a candy paradise with kids bouncing off their sugar-highs at each other having a whale of a time. I’m not saying that the kids in Junior Eurovision are not having fun, but the toil of the voting sequence and the ‘smile at the camera’ preparation is perhaps too much like what happens on a Saturday night in May. I love my statistics like everybody else, but perhaps Junior Eurovision should stop being a testing ground for gimmicky voting ideas and should not have such tense voting sequences played out to the cameras. We can focus on celebrating the successes not the failures at the after show party.

Those Danish values don’t mean we have to dress up our performing children in braids with songs only about love, love, peace and peace. They mean we make Junior Eurovision a style in its own type and celebrating what they want to do. Ratings are not the biggest driving force. Neither is making hit records. Making an educational and safe experience is.

Submissions to MGP 2019 opened on July 1st and closed on September 1st

When Your Green Room Isn’t A Safe Space

I have been proud to attend many Junior Eurovision contests as accredited press and have investigated previously the roles of young people in the Song Contest. I’ve seen them have the time of their lives.

I’ve also seen some of the lows.

I’ve written about one performer and her visible tears in the green room on a previous ESC Insight newsletter, and don’t want to echo the full story here. All we need to know is one child was left in an unsafe space, stuck, without an adult who could spot this or be turned to for help. That is completely unacceptable.

The EBU have made it a requirement that a parent/guardian is now a part of the delegation team, and as Jon Ola Sand says, “who better to take care of the kids than the parents.”

He’s not wrong. The problem here is that the parents can not and should not be everywhere in the production.

Parents will never pop up in the green room with a tissue to cry into. Parents comfort on stage if the lights go out. Parents won’t be there to check the child understands what to say or do in a press conference which for some is a significant challenge.

There’s also the issue of what actually happens during Junior Eurovision week itself. Now I’ve been on many of the tours and excursions and they are generally excellent, the countries that host really enjoy showing the visiting young people great parts of their culture. However there are still parts of the programme that would never be acceptable to the eyes of child-centric broadcasters.

Take for example the after-party or the opening parties – the most fun occasions of them all. To keep spirits high at these events I have often witnessed adults welcome to partake in a glass of wine or two or four, until all of them have enough liquid confidence to take over the dance floor from the teenagers. Children in this setting should never be exposed to the combination of free-pouring alcohol and adults. Those adults can go and party afterwards or elsewhere or frankly while still being sober and responsible if they still insist.

As another example take the scheduling that took place in Sofia 2015, with a jury final late on the Friday night. With clothing to change out of, a fake voting to sit through and delays waiting for buses acts arrived at the official hotel in the early hours of Saturday morning. They were also hungry, and many trotted over the road to the only location open…McDonalds. The duty of care levels have to be higher.

Big Macs were the only thing available to fill up the little stomachs in Sofia

While feeding and looking after the delegations should absolutely be a broadcaster responsibility the EBU need to have insist on greater guarantees on what and when the pieces come together. The backstage arena should have healthy, nutrious food available whenever for example, and I would argue that no events, rehearsals or activities should take place after a set time in keeping with the body clocks of children. The children go first.

Who Is There To Help?

It’s not only the Danish broadcaster that has been discussing these issues in recent months. Gert Kark, EBU’s Project Manager for Junior Eurovision expanded at the press conference that the welfare of young people was an agenda point at a recent meeting of the EBU Steering Group in Minsk. The conclusions from that were that the Belarussian broadcaster was going to put in special measures and that as always there are support staff and volunteers.

To their credit, Jon Ola Sand followed up in their Press Conference in Minsk saying there is a reduced schedule for the acts for this year. That helps to give the acts enough downtime to chill, relax and prepare for the show.

I also have much time to say thank you to the many thousands and thousands of volunteers that have helped the Eurovision Song Contest bubble year upon year. However we are looking here for a qualified expert, not just some enthusiastic young people or television executives.

In terms of the duty of care required Junior Eurovision is comparable to a school field trip and the organisation surrounding that. Now to go on a school field trip requires the school to plan accordingly and be aware of any risks that are involved. The school would be in this sense take up the role of the delegation. The camp would be filling in the role of the host broadcaster and the EBU.

So for a school to prepare for a trip they have to fill in a standard form where possible risks are identified and steps presented to reduce any risks. Pre-trip visits are essential to get approval for any trip outside of the school. Even small details such as working out where the toilets are and how to cross the road need to be thought out and included. Yes this might seem like overkill, but it is the reality of 21st century child care. I should know, it’s my day job.

The side of the organising team also has these requirements to upkeep. For example I have been looking through Kingswood Adventure Centre from the United Kingdom for an equivalent understanding, advertising all of their risk assessments for activities on their website. Even the very low risk activities such as craft making are full documented to assist schools in ensuring all safety checks in working with young people have been up kept. Furthermore they ensure centrally a 24 hour first aid worker and a Duty Manager to help any of their schools or youth groups in need. If Junior Eurovision has even one of these things I have never seen evidence of that in my experience of four years of attending as press.

Kingswood’s risk assessment template for a simple session of percussion

And this is part of the problem. Junior Eurovision as an event should be seeing itself at the pinnacle of children’s entertainment programming. That means the best stage production and the most fun, but also the highest standards of care. And if those standards of care are so high, Junior Eurovision needs to be shouting about them to ensure that every broadcaster and media representative knows what a good work they are doing. Only then is there any chance of putting a halt to the comments that kids shouldn’t be taking part.

That is one side of what the EBU need to ensure happens, the other of course happens during the frantic week itself. Being an ambassador to those young people means being there for them. Being at their events, driving their karaoke night, mini-disco, homework catch-up and whatever gaming competition they love. Somebody who loves being the heartbeat of the ‘Come Together’ community. Within the EBU team there isn’t a role for anybody to actually get to interact with these children, and most of the time I’ve witnessed adults and artists stand well apart from each other and exchange only the most polite of handshakes.

You may argue that the loving community of Junior Eurovision runs by itself, but so much would be a trifle naive. I have witnessed enough in my time to know that it is absolutely fabulous, but just sometimes things happen that are not. Having parents to turn to is one thing, but there needs to be a contact centrally to deal with such matters and who can be there to support the welfare and the coming together of everybody. Somebody who knows the troubles a teenage life can bring, and can step in and make sure such issues are able to be addressed. Prevention is far better than any cure.

Only This Role Can Make Junior Eurovision Grow

They might be ‘Danish values’ stopping Denmark from entering, but they are far away from the only country not entering based on how Junior Eurovision operates. Sure we may look at the record number of entrants and countries like France and Wales entering this year as a sign that things are improving, but in reality both of those moves are far more likely to be to do with getting more exposure to one of the EBU’s big events than anything operational.

We need a focal point of stability to improve the trust of everybody in the set up. Somebody with years and years of experience in working with children, especially those with less native English experience and with those who have spent lots of time on stage. Somebody who is able to work alongside host broadcasters in planning their events so that the welfare of children is put first, and for ensuring each broadcaster can get all the risk assessments and documentation they need. Somebody who will dedicate their Junior Eurovision week to those contestants as their ambassador – to be the person leading the support for each and every act while also being there in times of need.

And yes, to make being there so much more…as the Danes put it…focus on the kids.

So Jon Ola Sand, that is your answer. Junior Eurovision needs to move in that direction. We are not just looking for smily faces on the camera for one hundred and fifty minutes of programming, we are looking at the highest levels of care for the children involved from start to end.

Junior Eurovision should be that best example.

The job description is outlined above, the question now is…will you make it happen?

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended over twenty Eurovision's, Junior Eurovision's and National Finals from places as bizarre as Ventspils, Chisinau and Tirana.

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2 responses to “Why Junior Eurovision Needs A Dedicated Children’s Ambassador”

  1. Eurojock says:

    Different countries have different cultures and I don’t think anyone can or should try to impose on them what an appropriate song or performance for Junior Eurovision is.

    But on the child protection and welfare elements I wholeheartedly agree. In the UK we know from the experience of shows like Jim’ll Fix It and Top of the Pops that the music and entertainment industries are not necessarily the safest places for children. I have often wondered what goes on back stage at JESC and whether measures are in place to protect the young performers from exposure to alcohol, drugs and inappropriate sexual advances.

    I am pleased that parents/guardians are required to be present but it would appear that more needs to be done and that responsibility has to be shared between the EBU, the contest host and the delegations.

    Well done Ben for putting this on the agenda. I hope you are going to forward your article to Jon Ola and that it is taken seriously!.

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