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When Things Go Wrong At The Eurovision Song Contest Written by on September 23, 2020

With the confirmation of various options to put on Rotterdam 2021 in mind, Ewan Spence looks at the history of ‘backup options’ throughout the history of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Last week saw the EBU and AVROTROS hold a joint press conference to talk about the various scenarios being considered for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2021. These range from ‘everything looks like it did in 2019’ through to ‘everyone stays at home and we do it over the broadcast equivalent of Zoom’.

As we write this, the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 is eight months away and a lot can change in that period of time. The EBU’s announcement is welcome, but as anyone who has organised live events knows, you plan for as many eventualities as possible so you can find the best outcome possible.

The ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic means that these alternative hosting options for Rotterdam 2021 have come to the foreground and the public can get a flavour of the difficulties in planning for the Song Contest in a disruptive time.

It’s worthwhile considering the live broadcasts as a smaller representation of the whole process. The Contest has many alternatives and back-up options that can be used in the lead-up to the Contest, or on the nights of the broadcast. Having a fall-back position is the mark of any good broadcast, and the Eurovision Song Contest has a lot of experience in this area.

While we wait to see what will happen during this Song Contest season, let’s have a look at the options available during Eurovision itself.

When Things Go Wrong On The Night, They Go Right

One of the biggest safety nets that the Eurovision Song Contest community is familiar with is the back-up tape. Recorded on the nights before the Semi-Finals and the Grand-Final, this final dress rehearsal is performed as close to the scripted show as possible. Following the rehearsal, edits are made to the tape to bring it into line with expectations; for example a slow changeover of props will be edited out.

The tape (yes, we still call this 4K digital video file a tape) is then copied to various locations, including the local control room, the control room in Geneva, and to the individual broadcasters. When the live show starts, the backup tape is also started, and is kept in sync with the live broadcast. If there is an interruption, then the broadcast can be switched over to the tape and the audience at home will still get their show.

This final rehearsal is also the show where the Jury will cast their votes, which makes it the all-important first-leg in the two night competition. We’re focused on the broadcast plans in this article. ESC Insight has taken a look at the implications of scoring over two nights when we plotted the various paths to victory for a song.

We’re not aware of the backup tape being used on a live TV broadcast in recent Contests. There have been pre-recorded moments that have given the illusion of live, such as the Artist drop-in moments for Dublin 1996, but these have all been scripted.

A Backup Tape Is Not Just Show

There have been occurrences where the backup tape has been used for other purposes.

One notable incident was in 2003, with Russia’s entry of ‘Ne Ver’, Ne Boysia’ by the musical duo t.A.T.u. Their reputation for disruptive performances saw Julia Volkova turn up a day late for rehearsals, and the worry about something happening on the night grew over Eurovision week, stoked by the band and ed by the media. The backup tape would have likely kicked in if the planned performance had been diverged from.

This was in the 100 percent televote era, except for viewers in Ireland. The televote in Ireland was not delivered on time to broadcaster RTE, and the backup jury who had watched the backup tape recording the night before was used – another example of having a fallback in case of unforeseen issues.

And no, the theoretical televote points would not have altered Sertab’s victory with ‘Everyway That I Can.’

In recent times, perhaps the closest moment for the backup tape to be used was during Surie’s performance in Portugal’s Altice Arena. No doubt there were many producers across the continent who were prepared to quickly cut to the backup tape during the stage invasion, but thankfully the incident did not escalate further.

Here we have another situation where the backup tape was used, but not as a live broadcast safety net. If you watch Lisbon 2018 back, be it on the retail DVD or through the official Eurovision YouTube channel, you will not see the stage invasion… the production team has edited in the footage of Surie’s performance from the Friday night rehearsal.

From a ‘this is what we wanted the show to look like’ angle, this is the only choice. But if that was the authorial intent, why keep in the ‘we can’t go onto the next song yet, Filomena can you cover and interview the first person you- yes, Melovin, interview him! We’ll tell you when to stop’ part of the broadcast?

There we have an illustration of another backup in the form of the host. Filomena Cautela’s impromptu interview was not in the script, but there would have been production discussions along the lines of ‘if something happens on the night we will do this action following this sort of event.’ The backup here was producers understanding the whole situation, knowing what tools were available, and having the confidence and authority to use them when needed.

Watch carefully at the end of Basim’s ‘Cliche Love Song’ as he sings on home soil at Copenhagen 2014. The massive flag of love was expected to drop to the floor at the end, unfortunately one corner stayed attached high up in the rigging. Once the postcard for The Common Linnets had played out, the stage wasn’t ready for the Dutch act. Cue Lise Rønne filling in for what turned out to be ten seconds before a genuine ‘Calm After The Storm.’ That ten seconds of unexpected television required the host to be ready just in case, a camera and lighting crew in position, and the situational awareness from all to know that one of the smaller back-up options was needed.

It’s not just in front of the camera where back-ups and quick thinking have been needed during the Eurovision Song Contest. As the first Semi Final of Dusseldorf 2011 started, electrical issues high up in the arena killed the power going to the commentary booths level, taking out both the primary and the backup channels.

Much of Europe was left without their guides to the Contest, as various broadcasters fell back to their own options. For some this was to run the Contest without commentary until it was restored. Others had their commentary team not in Dusseldorf but in the broadcasters’ studios, so the issue did not affect them. There were also commentators that simply called up their own control room and broadcast to their country through their mobile phones.

A second back-up option was put in place for the next Semi Final.

It’s All About Planning

Expect the unexpected may be a touch cliche, but it is one of the best rules of event planning. Things will not unfold in a perfect way, there will be issues along the way that need to be addressed to ensure the smooth running of the event. Some are expected unexpecteds, and can be planned for. The unexpected unexpecteds are a little bit more tricky, but with a strong team the right decisions can be made quickly and the actions implemented.

The Eurovision Song Contest can cope with the unexpected during a show. And the Eurovision Song Contest will cope with the changing landscape driven by COVID-19.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (facebook.com/ewanspence).

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