The first rehearsals are always an exciting time for us covering the Eurovision Song Contest. The tradition is that you get to the arena in plenty of time to head over to the accreditation centre, nervously holding your passport and letter and praying that you filled everything in correctly. Then, armed with your piece of plastic of unimaginable value (well, actually you can usually buy a replacement for €50 if you lose it), you scan your way into the press centre and enter your new home for the next fortnight.
Usually the first job is to head into the main press centre hall and find a good spot. For us on ESC Insight it’s vital to have plenty of power access and good viewing angles for the various televisions dotted around the 1500 capacity venue. Whoever is in first has the job of claiming our space on our chosen table, using flags like beach towels at a holiday resort, so that we can gather all of the voices you love to hear on the daily podcast on one table. And, it will surprise few of you who listen, that we are one of the noisiest tables in the press centre as we play tennis with our opinions.
Yet we all fall silent when the first song appears on stage. At that moment all our visual and auditory senses are transfixed on not just the artistry, but the stage, the colours, the lights – the new Eurovision before our eyes. Suddenly all of the predictions and expectations come to fruition and you have something to pitch your all the 40+ songs against.
From there the bubble of the press centre truly begins. Predictions and polls fly around, promotional material builds up constantly and artists jump in and out on a conveyor belt of interviews and press conferences. As working environments go there are few that are as noisy, crowded, excited and simply as fabulous as this one.
That is, in a normal year.
The Health and Safety Protocol
To make the Eurovision Song Contest be at such a high level of safety against the pandemic, the European Broadcasting Union together with the host broadcasters revealed a 46-page Health and Safety Protocol. This document outlines the rules and guidelines not just for us as press, but also for delegations, staff, crew and volunteers.
It will be little surprise that these protocols are a “top priority” for the EBU and Martin Österdahl, the Executive Supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest. In this first year of his stewardship over the Eurovision Song Contest he takes the view that it is key that the Eurovision Song Contest “unites Europe on one stage”. To make that happen, this document was an essential piece of the puzzle, to ensure the plans would be signed off and approved by the local authorities in the Netherlands.
The press and press centre falls under these strict regulations. Not only are the press travelling from around the world to be in Rotterdam, but many of the press will be in closer proximity to the artists and delegations through interviews and therefore can be a risk to spread COVID-19. The obvious is that, despite the Press Centre remaining the same physical size as originally planned, it will now only accommodate 500 journalists rather than the 1,550 that were expected. Each press member will be allocated their own individual desk each day when they arrive at the press centre, and all are spaced out 1.5 metres away apart from each other. One-way routing also exists and artists and journalists will enter interview rooms from doors on opposite sides. In addition, all people entering the press centre and arena need to take a test for COVID-19 at least once every 48 hours at the testing centre on-site, with the EBU advising the press to budget an extra 30 minutes of time to take their test.
And all of the above the EBU plan to strictly enforce. The rules may not be “centrally policed” by the staff at the Rotterdam Ahoy, but enforcement of these guidelines has been delegated to team leaders and Heads of Delegation to ensure they are followed. Furthermore, security personnel on-site are to monitor compliance with the regulations, which all accredited individuals must sign off on when they first enter, and any violations must be reported to Health & Safety Managers. Violating the guidelines can ultimately lead to the loss of an individual’s accreditation, and, no, you can’t then pay €50 for a new one.
And if you think this is extreme, the restrictions on the delegations are incredibly more strict. Each delegation is required to stay in the hotel at all times – except for official trips or daily exercise. Even at the hotel, the recommendations are to remain in your hotel room as much as possible, with the Health and Safety Protocol explicitly asking delegations to avoid using public toilets or loitering in public areas of the hotel.
It’s fully understandable, given the pressure on everybody watching this year’s Song Contest to ensure it goes smoothly, to have such strict working environments this year. What I want to investigate is if this switch in how the press centre works changes the atmosphere in Rotterdam, and, ultimately, if it hinders artists, and the Song Contest itself, from sharing their stories with the wider world.
“The Only Thing I Miss Is Everyone I Know”
Neil Farren is one of those 500 journalists on the ground in Rotterdam, writing for Eurovoix. He previously attended both Eurovision events in Tel Aviv and Gliwice in 2019. Attending the first day of rehearsals, Neil’s routine was to head to the Ahoy, pick up his accreditation, and then saunter over to the on-site testing centre. At the Eurovision Song Contest the default testing method is a breath test, where you must breathe deeply out onto a device to see if COVID-19 is detected.
While it is not intrusive and can save time, according to Neil for both himself and the vast majority of attending journalists the results were inconclusive, meaning the antigen test was required afterwards. Either way, soon enough the result is emailed to the accredited attendee, and, if negative, they are permitted to enter the venue.
Inside your first task is to register your attendance and be assigned a personal table in the press centre – and you can not switch your table after you have chosen it. The process worked smoothly, but it meant people lost the ability to switch where they were to collaborate or meet others, which Neil said was frustrating for some attendees.
Yet most importantly the room felt safe. The big massive hall was designed for three times the number of attendees so social distancing was easily achievable, and should areas get too crowded the Flockey app reminded people to spread out and leave that area. Furthermore, medical-grade masks were being distributed inside the Press Centre and used by all when they were not at their desk.
And this took away from none of the core elements. Press meet and greets took place with the same enthusiasm, interviews took place and rehearsals were streamed for the attending press. And yes, Neil confirmed that despite the distancing whooping and cheering did still happen when Day 1 Press Poll winner Manizha popped out of her dress, Russian doll style. He summed it up well when we spoke on Saturday evening that “the only thing I miss is everybody I know”, as all his other colleagues were at home following via the online press centre.
All this said, the press centre experience couldn’t escape being sterile.
Look Who’s Calling!
The reason for the sterility is that all of these interactions taking place are formally organised. My first Eurovision on the ground was in Malmö. The press centre, even in the first week when located at the EuroClub venue, was noisy, bustling, with action everywhere. In today’s press centre artists are kept separate from the press, and just wandering through in mingling is not on the cards. The overall interaction of press and artists is therefore way lower.
If I go back to Malmö, one of the biggest stories of the press centre was that of Krista Siegfrids, performing the song ‘Marry Me’. Yes, there was the shock factor of the lesbian kiss that got journalists talking, but the abiding memory from Malmö is that of Krista and her team ding-donging her way around the press centre from table to table. It was annoying, but her love of being there and being in the bubble was infectious.
Where’s Krista now, you ask? Well she’s been such a good sport with all things Eurovision that she’s had opportunities to take part in Melodifestivalen, and then to host Finland’s selection Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu. It’s all led to her now being the face of ‘Krista Calling’ the short series of backstage videos produced this year by the European Broadcasting Union. It is a huge exaggeration to say she wouldn’t have been here today without her press centre…annoyance back in Malmö, but without that Krista would have just been an artist with a song, rather than a whole personality that we grew to love.
Of course, the Eurovision Press Centre is fulfilling all of the requirements that it should this year, and everybody should be applauded for their work to make it work out. But, even if all the press can still cover the press conferences, still book the interviews, those interactions have a formality and distance to them that makes it hard to…open up. In a normal year, with thousands in the press centre, events around the city and EuroClub open until the wee hours, there’s so much more chance for the interaction that helps an artist get beloved by the community and beyond.