site banner

Eurovision Song Contest: A 9-Point Explainer

I posted about the ESC in the Friday Fun thread, and then started thinking about it more deeply in the sense of "Can it even be explained?", so I jotted down 9 different aspects of it.

In 2023 there were 37 countries sending an artist or a band performing one song, with the assorted light show and/or pyrotechnics. Apart from the Big Five – France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and UK, which automatically participate – and the last year’s winning country, i.e., the host country, most of the other nations will have to first pass a semifinal, organized on the Tuesday and Thursday of the ESC week, to participate on the Grand Final, which is on Saturday. The results of the semifinals and the Grand Final are decided by a combination of televoting and juries, using a complicated scoring mechanism partly explained below.

ESC has gone on for 67 years now, starting from a contest for a few West European Nations and suddenly exploding in size when the Wall fell, Yugoslavia and Soviet Union crumbled to pieces and suddenly tens of Eastern European nations poured in. It is this Eastern explosion that fully set the stage for how Eurovision evolved, as these nations brought in a lot of new interesting political interrelations and a new sense of showmanship and extravaganza, quickly embraced by the Eurovision community.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Twelve. Don't try to use the British "fanbase" or UK broadcast as a language-friendly gateway to understanding Eurovision. Although we all watch it, there is some combination of the British not quite "getting" Eurovision and treating it as an opportunity to point and laugh at the wacky Continentals, and us being jaded because the politics of the voting means that we don't normally stand a chance. Part of the problem is that this causes us to not take the national contest to choose a song seriously (given the quality of our domestic pop music scene, we send shockingly poor acts), but the worst bit is that it makes the British broadcast and the culture of watching it with drunken Brits unfortunately cynical. The most obvious symptom was Terry Wogan's commentary from 1971-2008 - he started drinking when the curtain went up, got ruder and ruder about the songs as he got drunker, and then said the quiet part out loud at every opportunity when it came to complaining about biased voting.

Thirteen. The host (who is normally the previous year's winner) is responsible for meeting all the costs of the event, and gets very little back from the broadcast. (the ESC is shown ad-free on state-owned broadcasters in most EBU-member countries). For small countries which do well, this leads to a different sort of jadedness where the national broadcaster is trying to ensure that their country loses deliberately for financial reasons (but is generally not able to say this to its viewers, who like winning). Ireland is the most famous example where eventually the cynicism got through to the viewers.

If you want an English-language introduction to Eurovision that captures what Eurovision-watching should be, I recommend the Australian broadcast. But the best way to watch it is as a noob to join an existing Eurovision-watching party hosted by someone who grew up in Continental Europe.

Fourteen. The culture of Eurvision-watching is gay in every possible sense of the world, including the old-fashioned one of being gratuitously, flamboyantly happy.

Fifteen. The final scores at the end of the voting are never read out (in English or French), so "nul points" as a metaphor for getting no votes at all is a "Beam me up Scotty"/"Play it again, Sam" misquote.

Yes, like with many things about Europe (such as the popularity of EU on the continent - the debates and the attitudes are quite different as in Brexitland), it's not a good thing that America's premium window to things is the British opinion. Wogan greatly aided in the creation of the quintessential British Eurovision attitude, ie. affected cynicism and oh-aren't-we-better-than-the-Eurotrash attitude before the votes and barely disguised bitterness when the crap British acts get nul points for being crap.

Hey. Ireland always threw us a few pity points. Norway and Austria are the global leaders of nul points.

Germany thinks they are the zero leaders:

Damn, even though it was a common joke how much we suck in Eurovision before 2006 (and to some degree even after it), we've only received 0 points three times.

For small countries which do well, this leads to a different sort of jadedness where the national broadcaster is trying to ensure that their country loses deliberately for financial reasons (but is generally not able to say this to its viewers, who like winning). Ireland is the most famous example where eventually the cynicism got through to the viewers.

Can you elaborate on this point?

Ten. Ireland used to be an ESC juggernaut in the 90's, winning contest after contest. There was no "host can't win" rule back then, so they had to send Father Ted as their next act to decisively lose.

Eleven. Russia had a really big inferiority complex about their ESC results, especially after sending the local equivalent of Frank Sinatra or Celine Dion in 1997 and coming in 15th. For eight years I had to listen to the presenters complain about not getting a win, even with all the "dooz pwuh" we could count on from Russian speakers and Russian diaspora in other countries, until somehow we got a win in 2008 and everyone finally could relax and enjoy the show.

Yeah, that's one of the reasons why ESC songs tend to be mediocre - of course it's even more pronounced if you are Russia, but even being the biggest artist in Finland and not even getting through the semifinal, which is what happened in 2004, is going to be embarrassing. (Though the same artist later got caught for child porn, so losing the Eurovision currently ranks quite low on the list of things for which he is remembered anyway.)

Lol that was absolute the same with Turkey. Many big stars trying to mimic the European pop music of the time and just getting absolutely trashed. Led to a lot of resentment and inferiority complex and accusations of unfairness even though the Turkish diaspora was giving us many undeserved votes. Then we joined literally with a belly dancing show and won. The inferiority complex chilled out afterwards. Until all the LGBT stuff started and we quietly withdrew to avoid broadcasting that on public TV..

You can best describe the attitude most professional artists have towards participating when you see it as a talent show. It makes no sense for big names to participate in shows such as Britain's got Talent or Idols. Eurovision is a bit more prestigious but not enough to draw actually big names.

The national Eurovision entry contests are probably the part of the process best described as a talent shows. Often the best-case scenario for a band is to place second or third in the national contest but not actually have to go to Eurovision to experience a potential humiliation (or, in case of winning, being slotted as "that Eurovision band" for the rest of your career).

Zero. Eurovision is BIG. Super Bowl live TV audiences are generally 110-115 million. Eurovision has an official audience (based on ratings data from EBU-member countries) of around 140 million and an estimated total live audience including streamers in non-participating countries of 180 million. The biggest annual sporting event for TV watching is the UEFA Champion's League final which runs 200-400 million depending on who is counting and how globally popular the competing teams are.

(For comparison, less-than-annual mega-events like the FIFA world cup final, the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and major British royal weddings and funerals probably run around a billion viewers, but it becomes increasingly hard to keep count).