Let’s go back one year to 2019. Back in the days when the United Kingdom still had a National Final. The three songs that took part in that competition were released on January 23rd, put on social media and shared to the world. That was the reveal.
It succeeded in some of its mission, which was surely to get plenty of the Eurovision community to listen, share, and discuss the music.
But that was it for pre-match build up. The show was another 17 days away. There was no sneak peek inside rehearsals, no build up of releases over time, no rumours about staging or gimmicks.
I’m not picking on the BBC here. Most of the countries who select in a National Final format reveal to the world only a list of songs that are going to compete. The rest of the production waits to become a big surprise on show night.
In following Melodifestivalen on its six week tour I’ve had time to reflect on how it does it differently and why it does it differently. In conclusion I believe their media strategy to be one of the key reasons it is Sweden’s biggest media event.
Let me tell you how it all works.
Months Of Preparation
A National Final on the scale of Melodifestivalen takes almost a full year of preparation. Throughout the summer songwriting camps commence in time for September’s deadline, and host cities for each of the six shows are secured. However we don’t hear anything about who the runners and riders are until the end of November, with each artist obliged to come to Stockholm for a big press conference and meet and greet with the journalists.
That starts conversations already about which established or up-and-coming Swedish superstar will be sent to the Eurovision Song Contest.
The show starts in February, yet one month before the smallest of announcements is made. A running order for the 4 heats, which is live streamed by SVT through their dedicated Melodifestivalen app. Running order has been shown to have a huge statistical effect, and it gets conversations kick-started once more about who is bringing something special to the party.
We then approach the week of the first heat, and a regular cycle starts that continues as the contest tours the country. This year that cycle of drip-feeding information begins earlier this year, now on the Monday of each week, when we hear the names of all the people involved with each song production, followed by song lyrics on the Tuesday.
There’s information to be gleamed from these releases. Will somebody be alone on stage or be surrounded by other singers and dancers or does the song follow a verse-chorus format or something more alternative? There’s usually stories too for the mainstream media to pick up on, be in Nanne Grönwall’s lyrics about James Corden or if familiar faces to the bubble like Isa or Erik Segerstedt are helping out with any of the performances. Even this far away from Saturday night there is something to talk and write about.
Wednesday is when speculation really kickstarts. At 18:00 the press get the chance to listen to the songs in a closed hotel conference room. I’ve written more about that experience in a separate piece, but for now just note that those words and reaction kick start a whole level of what ifs and generates a huge buzz about those songs and their chances.
Thursday sees that power then go to the people, as firstly short audio clips and rehearsal snippets are released to the public. These clips say so much but so little. So much is judged on just 30 seconds of a first rehearsal, where technical fine-tuning is more important than being charismatic.
Friday’s evening rehearsal is a huge test, as a paying audience come in to see the songs for the first time. Thanks to the work of press members of Melodifestivalklubben, OGAE Sweden, we have an audience poll that evening. I helped out with this in Luleå, asking audience members as they left the arena who their favourite act was. It’s great data collection, but naturally biased by the kind of people who would geek out at a rehearsal, be it local schlager obsessives or families appreciating the earlier start time. Usually the poll skews young, especially important as Melodifestivalen’s app has shown huge differences in taste between old and young.
It’s only then that we get to Saturday, and get the show and two of these seven songs book a place in Andra Chansen.
Promotion, Drip-Drop Style
This journey from Monday to Saturday, with this drip-feeding of information, has one simple purpose when I asked SVT. ‘Promotion’. They know that gossip about Melodifestivalen is so newsworthy that each of these little pockets of information makes headlines not just on #melfest twitter feeds but also in the relms of professional journalism.
It creates what I call the ‘Spectulation Storyline’.
Melodifestivalen is constantly full of headlines for wide varieties of potentially scandalous drama each week. The front page of Sweden’s Aftonbladet this past Saturday, for example, was all about the horrible bout of flu that was spreading between artists and SVT staff within the confines of the Malmö Arena.
The drip feeding of information like this from SVT builds up a narrative that even in clean, healthy Melodifestivalen weeks there is still a story to tell. Some of the acts sound better on paper than they do played out on TV. Some of the songs sound better in a hotel conference room than they do on the stage. Some acts have smooth first rehearsals, and some don’t. Some perform twice at the Friday night dress rehearsal (that is decided by random) and then secure more votes in the Friday night poll. Because as exciting as all the other stories are, the battle for who will qualify is always high on the list. How each event through the week shifts the goalposts, favouring different styles of songs in different environments, paints an ever more progressively exciting story.
One good example from this year’s show would be in heat 3 from Luleå. Mariette and Mohombi were the biggest names in the lineup and expected to qualify from the day they were announced. And that they did is little surprise to anybody. However during the week the studio versions felt flat, planned gimmicks were dropped and the fan club poll suggested Anis Don Demina and Drängarna would rise above Mariette. It was only during the series of events in the week that the other two lifted themselves from outsiders into contention, and gave all of us plenty of doubt if the expected result would happen or not.
We even have a great proxy for this ’likeliness-to-qualify’, the betting odds. This year sees no sponsorship of Melodifestivalen from any betting companies after it was deemed inappropriate for the Swedish public broadcaster, but that hasn’t reduced the amount of speculation those odds create. Each of these little moments in the build up changes the odds in Melodifestivalen week – and how those numbers move gives a quantifiable and comparative figure of success and hype, they become just as much of the story as anything else on show.
You’ve Read The Book, Now Watch The Movie
As we now approach the final week there’s a whole new level of speculation about who is ultimately going to win Melodifestivalen. This show is so big there is so much data that can be deciphered in the quest to work out what the nation thinks. YouTube views, likes, dislikes, comments are all valid data points, as are iTunes sales and Spotify streams. And these statistics fascinate – unlike some other National Finals we have no idea which of these finalists outscored the other in qualifying, and which Andra Chansen songs are building up momentum. And some of these proxies disagree with each other. This year Dotter appears highest in terms of YouTube likes but Anna Bergendahl has the iTunes top spot and Hanna Ferm has more launched with more Spotify streams.
I spoke briefly to Gustav Dahlander about this. Gustav is SVT’s resident ’Melodifestivalen Expert’ who regularly blogs about the statistics and is also responsible for revealing the mass of information to the world each day during the Melodifestivalen season. According to him he feels this new style of Melodifestivalen buzz began with Melodifestivalen’s expansion to six weeks of competition. This was the era when reality show TV had burst onto the scene, and the tabloid press were experts in making mountains out of molehills, creating drama where there was none.
In a sense Gustav’s role is akin to Melodifestivalen’s narrator. Each week he reveals what is going to happen in the show and, with a completely neutral tone, he explains the reactions of others around to show to what is happening at each level. He can end up writing hundreds if not thousands of words about each song, but rather than make you want to listen less, you want to hear more. In this sense there is a similarity between Melodifestivalen and the Harry Potter series. You may have read the stories, but you still want to watch the movies.
And this is what Gustav believes is Melodifestivalen’s biggest strength. The music is kept under lock and key until the live show. If you want to hear the newest hit music in Sweden first you have to tune in to SVT 1 each Saturday night for the big reveal. Croatia is the only other country with a dedicated National Final format that keeps their songs a secret until the show itself. Italy’s Sanremo adds Eurovision participation as an optional extra for the winner, but it too keeps the songs under warps until the first TV broadcast.
There are arguments for allowing an earlier release of the music. For a start you allow the songs to flourish on its own merits and their release may bring more people in to actually watch your show. But SVT’s approach is to give you everything but those three minutes, and all this tantalising information is designed to make the reveal on Saturday night even more exciting.
Riding The Many Waves Of Hysteria
There are many reasons Melodifestivalen is such a big event. The six week touring circus around Sweden. The primetime viewing. The great songs, stage and staging. However one of the main reasons is that it constantly provides so much content to write about, to engage with, to scandalise and sensationalise, that if it isn’t on the front page of the newspapers this week it’s certainly going to be very close.
But the best story is always going to be the battle to victory. In many National Finals the songs are revealed, a favourite is decided, and it remains that way up until the live show. In Sweden each song has to ride the waves created by all these little mini-battles before the performance has even played down the camera, heightening the suspense and drama.
If you want to make your National Final a bigger event, attracting media attention and viewers, you could learn a lot from how SVT run Melodifestivalen. The ‘Speculation Storyline’ that develops through the drip-feed of information by SVT makes every single week of programming one that can’t be missed.