Imagine the scene. The Eurovision Song Contest is just around the corner. We are not in the EBU’s scenario D and artists and delegations are on site in Rotterdam. As part of the regulations in The Netherlands, every delegation must be COVID-19 tested on each arrival at the Ahoy Arena.
Then disaster strikes. Two of the artists, one in a girl group and one soloist, test positive just days before the Grand Final despite both being asymptomatic. The decision is made that the remaining members of the girl group will perform, and the soloist and their song will be withdrawn.
This is not a work of fiction, but a reality that played out this September. The Rotterdam Ahoy was the host venue for the 2020 edition of Junior Songfestival, the four-song selection process to select the Dutch representative for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest 2020. The show was held without an audience, but the acts were nevertheless required to have tests for COVID-19. Soloist Robin tested positive, as did Demi from the girl group Unity.
Unity performed minus Demi, and Robin with her song ‘Mee’ was disqualified from the competition.
Thankfully both of those individuals will still be involved in Junior Eurovision 2020. Unity with the song ‘Best Friends’ managed to win Junior Songfestival and will therefore represent The Netherlands, with Demi back in the team. The Dutch broadcaster has also ensured that Robin will have the honour to give out the Dutch jury points in November.
Why We Must Plan For History Repeating Itself
Despite the broadly positive outcome, this incident is a sad one, especially when considering that we are dealing with children. Robin posted on Instagram about feeling ‘disappointed’ in not being able to perform her song to the Dutch TV public as planned; disappointed not just for herself but also the four dancers who planned to be with her on stage.
The stakes will be higher as we go through both National Final and Eurovision season into 2021. We will then be dealing with artists for whom performing their song is not just an educational experience and highlight of their youth, but a bonafide part of their career. We will be dealing with songs that could well be huge radio hits and potential Eurovision winners… only to be scuppered by a positive test. Should this continue through to Rotterdam next May, we will then be dealing with songs and performances that encompass not just the soul of an artist… but the hopes and dreams of an entire nation.
Considering these stakes, a disqualification due to a positive COVID-19 test result is not an acceptable solution. When the new Executive Supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, Martin Österdahl, presented that “it is important to make contingency plans” – situations like this are very realistic for not just selection shows over the next few months but likely a reality for a contest next May. We need to have a plan that would deal with this and ensure that each country can take part.
But how? We at ESC Insight have discussed a few potential strategies, all of which have their own particular challenges in the less-that-ideal world that the COVID-19 pandemic has created.
Take From The Rehearsal Footage
The simplest and most obvious method would be to replace the performance with footage shot at a previous date. In normal circumstances the first rehearsals on the Eurovision Song Contest stage takes place in the week prior to the live shows, meaning artists may have already performed and recorded their number earlier in the week. The three minutes of glory could be taken from that time.
While the advantage here is that there is continuity with the stage and the performance, it is likely to be blindingly obvious for the audience at home that the performance was pre-recorded unless we have the most intimate of stagings. This is not a foreign concept to the EBU, albeit in very different circumstances, such as replacing footage on the DVD of the stage invasion during the British performance in 2018 to that from the previous evening’s rehearsal.
This solution does not cover some scenarios. For example, if delegations arrive in Rotterdam and receive a positive COVID-19 test, they would likely be expected to self-isolate and avoid contact with others. But self-isolation takes time (it’s also worth noting that as I write this, current arrivals into The Netherlands from some countries require a 10 day isolation period). At best, they could self-isolate for the rehearsals and return for the live show, but that would create a playing field that is unfair and unwieldy. At worst, the artists would be sitting in a hotel room watching on TV as the show side-steps the fact they were meant to be performing on that stage as well.
Could Somebody Else Stand In?
The Eurovision Song Contest has had numerous examples of artists not taking part in all of the rehearsals due to illness. Most notably in recent times Luisa Sobral stood in for her brother Salvador for the first week of rehearsals in Kyiv to allow him to rest as much as possible. However we can go back further in Song Contest history and note Py Bäckman, the composer of ‘Stad i Ljus’, standing in for Tommy Körberg in rehearsals to let his voice rest.
Going back even further, in 1971 Belgium had to change their artists at the last minute due to illness, with Nicole and Hugo replaced by Jacques Raymond and Lily Castel. While we are blessed that in more modern days we have not had artists needing to withdraw due to illness, we have come close. Most notably we can recall Alexander Rybak who had his tonsils removed soon after his performance in Lisbon, reducing his media work to rest his voice as much as possible.
While all of these cases show that there is flexibility in who can appear on the Eurovision stage, they don’t truly escape the same issues as above. Other delegation members could step into the role if there is a positive test result- but then it would be likely that these delegation members would have been in close contact with each other and at high risk of cross-contamination as well. An alternative is that each delegation had a back-up singer available in a separate bubble, reducing the risks but increasing the costs while also being undesirable for such a back-up artist in question.
Another possible option in this case would be to ask for a non-delegation member familiar with the song to step in at the last minute. It so happens that the modern Song Contest does have stand-in rehearsals take place before the show itself happens, usually with local up-and-coming musicians who recreate the Eurovision act from each nation faithfully. Some of these performances have been excellent, but there is no guarantee that will be the case. For many delegations the idea of an unknown artist from a different nation representing your country would not be welcome. One may look at professional sport, and how there are numerous examples of other sportspeople filling in for others who have had positive tests. But the Song Contest isn’t a sport in this case, and substituting one artist for another is a much more difficult task to get right.
Have A Remote Backup
As part of the plans laid out by the EBU, one of the proposals for May involves some countries performing in Rotterdam, but some who can not travel performing in their home country. While this situation would be far from ideal, this would maximise the number of artists who get to stand on the Eurovision stage.
For the Junior Eurovision Song Contest this November all acts need to be performed remotely. Each delegation has been given lighting and staging requirements that are to match as closely as possible in a TV studio. The aim here is that ‘continuity’ and ‘fairness’ still exist within the show despite hopping from one country to the next.
Perhaps one thing we request from each participating broadcaster is that a back-up tape exists of their performance in good time. Before flying out to Rotterdam, could we ask each artist to perform at home on the EBU’s designated stage requirements in a studio, and keep that film as a back-up in case the artist could not compete in person in the Ahoy?
There’s an obvious issue of cost here, with broadcasters required to produce more content and create a stage that, one hopes, will never need to be seen by anybody else. It’s also likely to be a less vibrant stage than what one would get in person in The Netherlands, so this would become quickly undesirable from a production perspective. This is where we may need to discuss where our boundaries lie. Would it be acceptable in this scenario to use a clip from a National Final or a concert if there is a late withdrawal from the competition? We certainly need plenty of flexibility in keeping the show on the road for 2021, but where the threshold for that flexibility should be is difficult to determine.
Could They Perform Regardless?
COVID-19 is a terrible new virus that official figures now have at crossing one million deaths worldwide. Many of the people who test positive for the virus have mild to no symptoms. Some may wonder if an artist could still perform on stage following a diagnosis?
The main issue with this is clearly the risk of transmission to others, however there are ways that could be reduced in the Ahoy. Depending on the scenario that Eurovision 2021 takes place in, the numbers of people in the live audience may be reduced. This offers the possibility that there could be numerous entrances and exits into the arena that would otherwise not be used. Artists could use these entrances that lead straight to the stage without heading through any of the normal backstage areas, reducing exposure risk.
That risk would still be there. Singing and performing is far from a low risk activity due to the risk of spreading droplets in the air. Questions would need to be raised about how the technical staff on the ground deal with any props, microphones or even the stage itself after a performance to reduce contamination risk. It’s far from unusual to also need tech crew to work in close proximity to performers in numerous ways, for example in steadicam shots or attaching of microphone packs. Would the EBU and host broadcaster offer hospital levels of PPE to those on the Eurovision front line, and would that even be practical for such roles? Studies have shown, albeit in laboratory settings, that COVID-19 particles can remain in the air for hours on end.
Performances at the Eurovision Song Contest have seconds between them, not hours, meaning even if surfaces are clear a risk of infection can not be eliminated from the air for our other contestants.
And all this would likely be in vain. An artist who tests positive without symptoms may be physically able to perform on day one, but may get weaker as time progresses. The real danger exists that somebody who contracts COVID-19 gets seriously ill, making all of these plans and adaptations eventually futile.
Thankfully We Don’t Need To Decide Today
With the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in November deciding to be fully by distance, time is on the side of the EBU to work out the solutions to all of these ‘what if’s’. But the situation that has unfolded from Junior Songfestival in September was heartbreaking and undesirable. It is paramount that we learn and adapt from that so a solution is found and that every song and every participant can compete in Eurovision 2021.
With that time perhaps we can try and learn best from how this is dealt with in other shows. One can point out for example how Sweden’s version of Idol is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak – as performers who have tested positive performing remotely as others perform on the Idol stage. Dancing With The Stars in the United States has decided that each competing couple should form their own bubble, as well as have to provide dedicated support staff for each couple, for example their own hair and makeup provider. This reduces the risk of spreading across the entire crew. The Masked Singer used drones to reduce the need for close camera shots and provided the tools for artists to attach their own microphone packs, amongst other adaptations.
Time will also provide more examples and more possible answers. The world of entertainment is just one source for inspiration, solutions will appear from the worlds of politics, sport and travel as society changes to make what is currently impossible possible. However the unique problem for the Eurovision Song Contest is that the content in question can not easily be changed or altered – and each broadcaster chooses what will be performed, who will perform it and how it will be performed. We want to do all we can so that all the expected 40+ participating contestants can perform the show of their life on the stage in Rotterdam next May, but the challenges of this and the huge scale of this currently seems daunting in today’s environment.
Finding a solution is difficult, and no matter what will require an uncomfortable compromise, but each compromise is ultimately far more preferable than excluding the song and artist entirely.