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Estonia’s Expensive Televote And How It Changes The Contest Written by on May 2, 2023 | 1 Comment

It costs €1.70 for Eurovision fans to vote in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest….if they live in Estonia. This is a cost ten times greater than in other parts of Europe. Ben Robertson asks the broadcaster why the cost is so high, and also wonders what impact that high cost has on Estonia’s televote.

It was the collaborative efforts of members from the ESC Discord surver that managed to collate data about how televoting at the Eurovision Song Contest differs from broadcaster to broadcaster. According to the data collection while most broadcasters allow fans of the show to register their votes through both calls and SMS, some allow only one or the other method, while a small collection (Australia, Israel, and the upcoming Rest of the World vote) uses the EBU run web platform as well.

What is also notable about this data is the cost of voting. Voting costs are not uniform across Europe but vary wildly. The cheapest cost to vote is in Denmark, capped at one Danish krone or about €0.13 but this is many times less than the average (mean) of €0.66. However, two outliers push this voting cost to a new level. The second highest cost, at a cost equivalent to €1.22, is from the notoriously expensive country of Switzerland. The most expensive voting in Europe, at a cost of €1.70 per vote, is from the nation of Estonia. This is over ten times the cost of voting in Denmark.

Liam Clark, Head of Press for the Estonian delegation at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, gave us a statement about the high cost of televoting within the country.

“In Estonia, this is the standard cost for entertainment televoting across public and commercial broadcasters alike. We have been charging roughly the same amount for the last five years or so. While we can’t speak for the other Estonian broadcasters, as the public broadcaster we do not run any advertising and we only receive a set amount of government funding. So for us the reality is that we do rely on income generated from televoting in Eesti Laul and Eurovision in order to fund multiple projects across the broadcaster, and this absolutely includes the cost of participating in Eurovision.”

“While our costs of participation vary from country to country that does not mean the same in terms of the cost in actually going to Eurovision, as we have to pay the same in flights, accommodation and food wherever we are. As a smaller nation we have less money available to do that, so we do rely on that money to a degree. There is no profit in it, it is literally just to help us subsidise some of the costs for various projects, not just Eurovision.”

The Estonian broadcaster is honest enough to admit that the reason their televoting cost is so high is that it is part of the puzzle to help fund the entertainment programming that the broadcaster puts on. Without this support there would be a black hole in their budget meaning Eesti Laul would likely have a stripped-back budget or the Eurovision performances from Estonia would be downscaled, as well as other entertainment productions ERR would put on. This is not about profit making, Liam was clear to point out that there is “no profit in the public broadcaster”, but instead the model here is that televoting revenue is a type of crowdfunding for the project.

ERR publishes the televoting data available from each show of Eesti Laul after each season. Through a simple calculation of cost per vote multiplied by the number of votes, we are able to work out that the gross income from Eesti Laul televoting in 2022 came to €281,000. Of course, not all of this goes to the broadcaster, but it is fair to say that should a large percentage of this money filter its way to the broadcaster that would be a significant contribution to the Eurovision funding. Ireland’s RTÉ, a broadcaster of comparable size to ERR, revealed that their 2022 participation in total cost around €350,000, of which the participation fee to the EBU was just shy of €100,000.

The problem for Estonia’s public broadcaster is that this is an unreliable income stream. This year’s contest in Estonia saw some of the show’s lowest viewing figures in its modern iteration and televote numbers dropped significantly alongside them. Last year’s €281,000 crashed in 2023 to just €167,000.

The Cost Of Voting As A Barrier

Regardless of viewing figures, one would perhaps anticipate a drop in the number of voters in Eesti Laul this year, with the Estonian economy expected to shrink this year and inflation going over 10% on the backdrop of global economic uncertainty. There is a hypothesis here that the more expensive televoting costs are, the more a viewer is likely to be more cautious about how they vote, and how often they vote. The Eurovision Song Contest imposes a limit of 20 votes per phone. In a country like the United Kingdom, where one vote costs 15p (€0.17), twenty votes would cost £3 (€3.40). For an Estonian user, twenty votes would cost a staggering €34.

This type of cost would be a barrier for even some of the Contest’s biggest superfans. Cameron Clare from the United Kingdom is somebody who has voted twenty times in every Semi Final and Grand Final since 2017. “BBC voting lines are so cheap I’ve never had to think of the cost as being significant,” explains Cameron in an interview. Indeed Cameron acted in this way once he learnt that the 20/voters/user system was inbuilt into the Eurovision voting system, as it meant he “wouldn’t be competing with people voting hundreds of times.” This limit gave him “maximal sway on the outcome” as to who would win the Eurovision Song Contest.

I ask Cameron if this voting behaviour would change if the cost was to increase to approaching €2 per vote.

“I’d probably then limit myself to 4 or 5 votes per Semi Final and Grand Final, and only vote for my two favourite entries.

“That’s because anything more than £20 on the phone bill for voting in however many stages of a televised competition does seem exorbitant even for someone in a Western European country.”

Martin Palmer of the Let Me Be The One Eurovision blog is also a member of the 20 votes club, and agrees that the low cost of voting “encouraged” him to vote the maximum twenty times. He spread these votes each time amongst his top three in each Contest.

However, Martin is also price sensitive, claiming that while he is happy to spend £3 on voting each year from the UK, he believes if he was living elsewhere in Europe he would “limit expenditure to £10 maximum”. Martin goes on to add that, in a case such as in Estonia, where £10 would equate to 6 votes, he would likely focus those votes on just one entry.

And this is where we wonder. Is there evidence that the cost of voting changes voting behaviour? And what impact does that have on Estonia’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest?

Re-creating The Estonian Televote

From 2014 to 2022 we have data on the full televote rankings from each nation in the Eurovision Song Contest. This is not perfect as it gives us a ranking (i.e. first place, second place etc) rather than the actual number of votes awarded, but we can look to see if there are any unique trends within the Estonian televote compared to other nations.

But which other nations should we compare the Estonian televote to? Our starting point is to compare Estonia’s televote to the other nations within Estonia’s pot for the Allocation Draw. Each year the songs are divided into two Eurovision Semi Finals to roughly ensure no country has too large of an advantage by being surrounded by their countries they share a strong voting relationship with. Since 2014 Estonia has been paired with the following countries:

6 times: Finland, Iceland.
5 times: Denmark, Norway.
4 times: Sweden.
3 times: Latvia, Lithuania.
Twice: Poland.
Once: Belgium, Moldova, The Netherlands, Romania.

To approximate the Estonian televote, I will create a score that is an average of all of these televote rankings of the above nations. As Finland has shared the same Allocation Draw pot as Estonia on six occasions, I will make the weighting of this average six times larger for Finland rather than Moldova, and so on.

Once complete, the average ranking of different televotes combined will be compared to the actual Estonian televote, to see where the differences lie.

For example, here is a table of those results for the 2022 Eurovision Grand Final

Average Calculated Estonian Televote Actual Estonian Televote
Czech Republic 17.9 20.0 -2.1
Romania 14.7 18.0 -3.3
Portugal 13.3 11.0 2.3
Finland 12.3 3.0 9.3
Switzerland 16.9 17.0 -0.1
France 15.4 21.0 -5.6
Norway 4.0 7.0 -3.0
Armenia 17.0 14.0 3.0
Italy 13.8 15.0 -1.2
Spain 6.7 10.0 -3.3
Netherlands 10.2 8.0 2.2
Ukraine 1.0 1.0 0.0
Germany 17.2 9.0 8.2
Lithuania 6.9 4.0 2.9
Azerbaijan 22.0 24.0 -2.0
Belgium 16.8 19.0 -2.2
Greece 18.6 23.0 -4.4
Iceland 15.7 16.0 -0.3
Moldova 5.3 5.0 0.3
Sweden 2.6 2.0 0.6
Australia 15.5 22.0 -6.5
United Kingdom 5.3 6.0 -0.7
Poland 8.5 13.0 -4.5
Serbia 7.1 12.0 -4.9

This table highlights which songs did better or worse from the Estonian televote than the anticipated score using our model based on the Allocation Draw pots. Finland and Germany are big gainers here, placing 3rd and 9th respectively when otherwise expected to be far lower down the leaderboard. Poland and Serbia are negatives, not scoring from the Estonian televote whereas top 10 results were expected, and Spain and Norway placed lower than anticipated as well, only scoring 4 points and 1 point respectively from the Estonian televote.

How does this play out across all eight Eurovision Song Contests? The following tables shows the songs that have had the biggest gap between the expected points received (as calculated from using data from the other countries and Estonia’s televote.

Firstly, the climbers:

Country Name Year Calculated Estonian Televote Actual Estonian Televote Points Difference
Russia 2019 8.97 1 +12 pts
Russia 2014 13.74 2 +10 pts
Finland 2018 13.88 2 +10 pts
Lithuania 2018 8.97 1 +10 pts
Finland 2022 12.33 3 +8 pts
Finland 2014 10.75 4 +7 pts
Latvia 2016 10.69 4 +7 pts
Italy 2018 9.51 4 +7 pts
Slovenia 2019 12.72 4 +7 pts
Russia 2015 4.72 1 +6 pts
Hungary 2015 16.62 6 +5 pts
Hungary 2017 7.82 3 +5 pts
Denmark 2019 8.94 5 +5 pts
Russia 2021 10.1 5 +5 pts
Russia 2016 4.00 1 +4 pts
Lithuania 2021 5.1 2 +4 pts

The biggest notable outlier here is the successful results of the Russian entries during this period. This can be attributed to the demographics of Estonia, where 24% of Estonia’s population are ethnically Russian and around 30% have Russian as their mother tongue.

Furthermore the numerous examples here from Finland show Estonia’s other strongest bias, that towards their Baltic Sea neighbours where capital to capital travel is a three hour ferry ride. We can speculate this could be due to musical style – many of those Finnish acts working well here have been in varieties of rock music that we have seen have impress local Eesti Laul audiences.

It’s the other examples beyond these two blocs that are interesting. What common traits do ‘When We’re Old’, ‘Heartbeat’, ‘Non mi avete fatto niente’, ‘Sebi’, ‘Wars For Nothing’, ‘Origo’, ‘Love is forever’ and ‘Discoteque’, you may ask, all the tracks that got a better than calculated televote score from Estonia.

Think about that while we show a table of those that fell the most from Estonia’s televote.

Country Name Year Calculated Estonian Televote Actual Estonian Televote Points Difference
Israel 2018 4.38 16 -10 pts
Iceland 2021 3.3 8 -9 pts
Australia 2016 3.54 7 -8 pts
Austria 2014 2.66 8 -7 pts
Poland 2014 5.84 17 -7 pts
Germany 2018 7.36 15 -7 pts
Poland 2016 4.47 10 -6 pts
Italy 2019 5.28 11 -6 pts
Denmark 2014 8.97 16 -4 pts
Sweden 2018 8.41 17 -4 pts
Sweden 2019 4.91 8 -4 pts
Norway 2022 4.03 7 -4 pts
Spain 2022 6.74 10 -4 pts

As a nation straddling often a Scandinavian bloc and a Baltic/Eastern European bloc, it’s not a surprise to see five of the above list being countries from the Nordic nations that this model would weigh heavily. However what we are looking for is a pattern that we could use to compare a list of songs including ‘Toy’, ‘Sound of Silence’, ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, ‘You Let Me Walk Alone’, ‘Slavic Girls’, ‘Color of my Life’ or ‘Soldi’ to the songs we listed previously which had overperformed with the Estonian televote compared to expectation.

I have a possible theory. Now I’ll be the first to admit that one has to squint quite hard to see this, but hear me out. Those songs that underperform with the Estonian televote are the types of songs that one may vote for in a more casual or impulsive way, such as ‘Toy’ or ‘Slavic Girls’, or songs that could easily be voted for many times by fans captivated by their performances (‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ or ‘Soldi’ could fit this mentality).

On the flip side, the songs that overperformed with Estonia’s televote had a more serious side to them, and, I dare suspect, as a generalisation appeal more to the older fan taste – and with that those with more voting power compared to other nation’s due to Estonia’s high televote cost.

The difference is small between the two groups which correlate very well to each other (the average correlation is above +0.8, a very strong link between the calculated televote and the actual televote), yet we dare speculate that there is a certain type of song that offers up that small difference between the calculated and actual Estonian televote.

The Impact On Estonian Song

This high cost of televoting exists not just within the Eurovision Song Contest, but also as we have discussed in Estonia’s national selection, Eesti Laul.

If I extrapolate the slight trend I see further, I can see Eesti Laul is not immune from the same bias itself. I would argue that there is no National Final more conservative in its Eurovision selection than Estonia, where familiar names triumph again and again over newcomers. Part of this might be that difference between those newer acts are still building their fan base, and in other countries they can be lifted by newer fans prepared to vote en masse for their next superstar. In Estonia to do well you need your fanbase to have the capital to vote for you, and that’s a liberty few younger fans can justify. One will struggle to imagine hordes of Tallinn teenagers casting twenty votes for their favourites.

One may at this point look at 20-year-old Alika representing Estonia this year and question all the above logic. But Alika is the 2021 winner of Estonia’s Idol equivalent, in a show judged by former Eurovision representatives Birgit and Koit Toome, and as such has that dedicated voting population behind her. In an alternative universe of cheaper televoting, I can fully imagine Ollie representing Estonia this year.

Estonia has a high televote cost for an honest reason. Without this revenue, they would not be able to put on the entertainment broadcasting they are proud of, both inside and outside of the Eurovision bubble. But that extra income does impact the way the Estonian nation votes compared to other nations, with the voting from Estonia shifted just a fraction to a more mature and considered palette than its comparable nations.

That tiny shift also impacts Estonia’s selection process for the Eurovision Song Contest. Sometimes it is these little adjustments to the structure of the competition that change our human behaviour enough to force completely alternative universes.

About The Author: Ben Robertson

Ben Robertson has attended 23 National Finals in the world of Eurovision. With that experience behind him he writes for ESC Insight with his analysis and opinions about anything and everything Eurovision Song Contest that is worth telling.

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One response to “Estonia’s Expensive Televote And How It Changes The Contest”

  1. zolan says:

    Nice work uncovering a fresh area of study/speculation.
    20 votes allow a few flippant/misjudged/coerced votes with little consequence, but expressing your intent with five votes requires some discipline.
    Imagine what a 100 comment annual quota would do on YouTube. (Ignoring propaganda farms)

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