The Eurovision Song Contest 2020 has been cancelled and without exception new songs are needed for the 2021 competition. Yet nothing stops the selected artists from returning.
The list of countries with artists confirmed comes from across the continent, from Azerbaijan and Armenia, to The Netherlands and Belgium. In total there are fourteen acts officially confirmed at time of writing, and more may be announced in the later weeks and months.
There is one region of Europe that stands out in this list. The countries of the Nordics and the Baltics have not confirmed an invitation to their 2020 artists to return in 2021. Indeed, most of them have already confirmed a return to their National Final process (with the caveat that Latvian broadcaster LTV, at time of publication, has yet to decide their plan).
The discussions within each broadcaster would be a difficult one, as this is a particularly emotive issue. Dale Roberts, writing for Aussievision, addresses why the moral reasoning to support the selected artist is particularly strong:
”The cancellation of the Contest has been tough for everyone but the artists themselves are the most impacted. Fans and delegations can always come back next year, but for artists who may have waited their whole lives to compete, that is no guarantee.”
It’s easy therefore point the finger at the Nordics and the Baltics for taking away that guaranteed chance to shine to their selected artists, and ditching them in favour of going back to the public once more. Let me explain why the process and the emotions are not so simple.
Saturday Nights In February
Of the countries who have already confirmed their artists, only two of them, Australia and Ukraine, are countries which held a televised National Final to select their Eurovision song this year. Two others, Israel and Georgia, had selected their artist through a TV talent process. The others were pure internal selections without public input.
There is a big difference between the states of play in (say) Georgia and Israel, compared to Norway and Estonia. In selecting an artist for Eurovision, regardless of the song, the voting public in those countries chose the person they wanted to represent them. What they would do with those three minutes of fame was a decision made later. It’s therefore an easier and more natural decision to let that artist continue on their Eurovision trajectory for the next 12 months.
There’s also a difference though between Australia and Ukraine’s choice and that from Sweden and Lithuania. The Nordic and Baltic regions of Europe have had a National Final tradition that is now steadfast. ‘Australia Decides’ has been running for two years. Ukraine’s selection show Vidbir has only been running since 2016. The traditions in these nations are not yet set in stone as they are further north in Europe, where the selection shows generate a new wave of radio hits and top TV ratings through the long cold winter months, and have done so for decades.
The decision is without question a sad one, but it would be an even deeper cut for these nations if they were to cancel their selection format.
National Finals Bring In Ratings
An internal selection rarely generates the same momentum as a National Final. A good comparison here is from Finland’s YLE, who in 2018 and 2019 switched their format of selection show Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu (UMK) to select a song for an already confirmed artist. A National Final of different artists was back for the 2020 edition. The reasoning being, according to UMK producer Anssi Autio, was that this process would help bring ”more energy and efficiency” to the search for a song.
This in-between format takes time and energy. The artist needs to record numerous songs and create a stage show for each of them. They need to go out and find songs to perform and produce a high quality TV spectacle even if they know, deep down, most of the songs they produce are not ’the one’ that they are looking for. The preparation can be a much more daunting requirement than just coming to present three minutes on stage.
It was also a format that didn’t prove to be successful in the ratings – or at least not a reliable rating. Saara Aalto, selected for UMK in 2018, brought in more than double the figures than Darude got the following year. Those viewing figures for 2019 were the worst since 2014 for the competition.
In 2019 UMK producer Anssi Autio commented on how it was difficult to find an established artist to represent the nation, and how this was the driver to return to the multi-artist National Final format. The names competing in 2020 weren’t artists with Darude’s long track record of success, but ratings returned strongly – with 885,000 viewers live and a reach of over 1.5 million – the largest of any YLE show that week.
If Finland went internal for 2021, with or without a UMK, they would also be sacrificing one of their biggest rating hits.
Why Ratings Goes Beyond Just Who Is Watching
I’m lucky enough that I have been to many of these countries and visited their National Finals in my time reporting for ESC Insight. These events are some of the highlights of winter programming across the board – major events that are front page news and primetime entertainment.
This year I had the pleasure of taking in each stop of Melodifestivalen’s six week tour. A special part of that tour was to witness how Melodifestivalen was embraced everywhere it went – with parties and festivals for all ages across the length and breadth of the nation. Melodifestivalen has such a huge value to the Swedish population and has more views than any other TV show here – comfortably ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest year on year. But it also brings people together – with tens of thousands attending live each year and many more heading to associated parties, concerts and festivities in each of the six stops.
Let’s be clear here that Melodifestivalen isn’t Sanremo and it was not created independently of Eurovi sion – getting that ticket to Eurovision at the end of the merry-go-round is part of the DNA of Sweden’s extravaganza. Losing that ticket, or having a tour round Sweden to select a song for The Mamas, will take Sweden down the ratings slide that Finland had in recent years. But it’s the reach slide that would be more worrying, and it is the brand of Melodifestivalen that will suffer long term damage from that year out entertaining everybody from 3 to 93.
The free chocolate from the sponsors, the touring guy in a dragon costume or the after party red carpet are all parts of the bubble and that Melfest experience, but they aren’t what makes Melodifestivalen what it is. They are the side attractions. Ultimately Melfest is simply a festival of melodies, of songs. Just like Denmark and Norway run a melody grand prix, Estonia searches for an Estonian song and Finland runs a new music competition. The Mamas were not what Sweden selected as a nation. When people voted that night in Friends Arena, they voted for ”melodi nummer 3” – ”Move”.
That song came into the competition before the artist was attached to it. I sat on the jury selecting the songs in 2016, for the first few steps of that process we were not entitled to know who the artist behind each song was. Some of those tracks we selected were submitted by unnamed demo singers, and SVT worked with record labels to find appropriate artists to perform them. The song was the first piece of the puzzle and the song was what ultimately ended the competition in Friends Arena.
Once the decision was made that 2020 songs were not eligible to compete in 2021, then it was clear that a new song must be found and all of Sweden must choose which one it will be.
Everybody Is Still Welcome
Just because artists from the Nordics and Baltics don’t have their names already on plane tickets for 2021 doesn’t mean that they may not appear. Indeed should any of them wish to compete in a National Final, I have little doubt that producers everywhere will welcome them with open arms. Furthermore the narrative in their story and return would no doubt provide the springboard to make their entry one of the most anticipated of the year. Not only have the doors been left open, but some countries have already given special dispension to their 2020 representatives – Lithuania for example have confirmed that The Roop, if they wish, can get a direct pass to the final round of Lithuania’s selection process.
The Deputy General of Lithuanian broadcaster LRT, Gytis Oganauskas, explained that this decision was based upon trying to balance two different sides – The Roop on one hand and other music composers and producers in Lithuania on the other, who Gytis would not want ”to deprive them of this opportunity”. Because even without a Eurovision Song Contest, The Roop have benefitted from their victory – millions of hits, streams and downloads so far and I would be sure plenty more exposure this week as the continent tunes into ‘Europe Shine A Light’ and other competitions and showcases that various broadcasters are holding. It’s not Eurovision and all the razzmatazz, but it may still be be of equal value in terms of commercial success. Nobody is closing the door to the opportunity that they could replicate that success on the actual Eurovision stage next year.
It is very easy for the Eurovision community to look at the decisions made in Northern Europe and feel coldness and lack of empathy. That’s too much of a simplistic conclusion to make. The traditions that make up appearing in Eurovision to these nations are as much, if not more, about the process of selecting a song than who ultimately represents them or even Eurovision itself.
Indeed there’s an argument to be made that actually selecting their National Final winner internally for 2021 would actually have been the colder decision. That would have meant cutting off opportunities for others in the industry and taking away their diverse music spectacles than entertain entire populations each year. Which group should you be loyal too, the artist with their potentially once-in-a-lifetime moment, or to the entire nation for the joy and opportunity it provides?
Here in Sweden this week SVT are organising their own Eurovision Song Contest, ”Sveriges 12:a” with jury and public voting to work out who the favourite song is of the Swedish public. It’s little surprise that this music video clip show is front page news across the TV magazines in the coronavirus-induced cultural desert. But discovering new hit music has had that place in Swedish TV culture since Melodifestivalen’s creation. The belief in this part of the world is that it is the song that is central to the Eurovision Song Contest.
And I look forward to the hype and suspense if any of the class of 2020 do return to a National Final. I am sure they would be hard to beat.