Sunday, May 25, 2008

Eurovision - the money could be better spent

Another year, another embarrassing Eurovision humiliation.

The United Kingdom came last with just 14 points, a position truly undeserved as Andy Abraham gave a great performance of a pretty good song. I assure you that this is not sour grapes. This is the triumph over politics over an ideal.

For my more exotic readers overseas, let me explain. Eurovision - or the Eurovision Song Contest as it used to be known - was created to build a sense of harmony, unity and forgivenness following the end of World War II. The name 'Eurovision' actually denotes a network of communication channels created in the early '50s that links state TV stations across Europe. The system minimizes the cost to each member of transmitting pan-European news and sports footage. In an effort to justify the cost of the network, members came up with the idea of a song contest (they got the idea from Italy's San Remo Music Festival) and the first was held in Switzerland in 1956. The winner is decided by televotes cast by the populations of all participating countries.

Since then, it has been televised across the whole of Europe once a year and has made stars of bands and artists like Celine Dion, Abba, Cliff Richard, Bucks Fizz, Lulu and Julio Inglesias. It also gave Riverdance to the world as this was originally just a 'cultural filler' between segments of the show put on by the Irish hosts in 1994. It was such a huge hit, it spawned a worldwide phenomenon.

Eurovision is one of the most watched shows in the world; regular viewing figures top 400 million. Initially, just a few countries took part and the show was quite manageable. However, as more and more countries entered the European Union, it started to become clumsy. Then, with the fall of the USSR, the many Balkan states became part of Europe, bolstering the numbers even more. Suddenly, the contest became too big and unwieldy. Therefore a semi-final was brought in for the 2002 show so that only the top 25 songs went through. This year, we had two semi-finals for the first time as a staggering 42 countries took part.

As the biggest financial contributors, the 'Big Four' - UK, France, Germany and Spain - are always guaranteed a place in the final, as is the previous year's winner (whose country will be the current hosts). Next year, I say keep the money and take our chances with the rest. The happy excitement of Eurovision has gone, replaced by cynicism and political posturing.

There has always been an element of 'political' voting within Eurovision. Regular viewers are aware of this. Greece, Turkey and Cyprus have always voted for each other. Turkey has given Germany the maximum 12 points in the Eurovision finals every single year since 1990. Germany has reciprocated for the most part, giving Turkey an average of 10 points over the same period. The Scandinavian countries also usually vote for each other. In the past, this could have been explained by viewers voting for music from countries with similar musical tastes. But no longer. Whereas songs used to be sung in their native languages and in some way reflected their country of origin, these days most are in English and are homogenous pop songs that you could expect to hear anywhere in the world. It's just politics now and it's got so bad that some countries don't even bother to enter any more. Italy became so fed up with it all that they opted out.

With the entry into the competition of the former Russian states, things have now gone from bad to worse. We rarely get a point these days. The UK always managed to get a score that truly represented how good our act was. But, for the past few years, we've struggled to garner any points at all. In fact, during the 2003 contest, we scored a big fat Nul Point. I'll be the first to admit that it was a pretty poor song and Jemini could have performed it better. However, there were far worse acts on stage that year ... the year, incidentally, that we entered the Iraq war despite opposition from most of Europe (and, indeed, most of the British public). As long-time Eurovision commentator Sir Terry Wogan said at the time, 'I think the UK is suffering from post-Iraq backlash'. Here's how we've fared in the past six years:

2008 - Andy Abraham, 25th place
2007 - Scooch, 22nd
2006 - Daz Sampson, 19th
2005 - Javine, 22nd
2004 - James Fox, 16th
2003 - Jemini, 26th (out of 26)

Talking of Sir Terry - who is as much a part of Eurovision as the dodgy songs and dodgier costumes - he has said that in the light of yesterday's terrible result, he may quit as the BBC's Eurovision commentator. He's been the show's mainstay since the early 1970s. However, as he says, 'Eurovision is no longer a music contest. Russia were going to be the political winners from the beginning. I think it's tremendously disappointing from the point of view of the United Kingdom. Andy Abraham gave, I think, the performance of his life with a song that certainly deserved far more points than it got when you look at the points that Spain got, that Bosnia-Herzegovina got - some really ridiculous songs.'

Sir Terry said his producer, Kevin Bishop, was stepping down after this year's contest. 'He and I have to decide whether we want to do this again,' he said. 'Indeed, western European participants have to decide whether they want to take part from here on in because their prospects are poor.' Winners Russia scored 272 points, receiving the maximum 12 points from former Soviet states Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia, as well as Israel. The UK got just 14 points in total (votes from Ireland and first-timers San Marino). Despite this, Sir Terry was keen to congratulate winner Dima Bilan (above with violin) for a great performance.

So what's the future of Eurovision? Do we go back to the old voting system of using a jury panel in each country? To be honest, that was just as political. But at least we got some points. Or should we break the contest into two smaller shows: a truly European contest, and an Eastern European contest? That would give every country a reasonable crack at the trophy I guess. But I suspect that that will not sit well with the whole concept of 'unity' that supposedly underpins the competition.

Again, I must stress that this is not sour grapes; I don't think that Andy' song was the winner. But it certainly wasn't the worst song, not by a long chalk. There were better performances and Dima Bilan's was one of the best. And why not? Bilan is huge in Eastern Europe and has legions of fans. He's a great performer. But who will we get to represent us next year? Six years of humiliation doesn't exactly inspire people to queue up for the job does it?

I'm tempted to say that, as a major financial contributor, we should just pull the plug until some fairness creeps back into the competition. Let's face it, the money could be better spent at home. I know that's not the spirit of Eurovision ... but all of the spirit has been kicked out of me I'm afraid.

I bet Andy Abraham feels a whole lot worse.


The Factory said...

Quite agreed, I was going to do a post making the exact same point, but you've saved me the trouble. We sat and watched the votes and just laughed through the whole thing, but by the end we were just annoyed.

Having said that I was firmly behind the Ukraine entry, which was a good song despite the politics. But Andy deserved much better, and this only goes to show how pointless it has all become.

The Spanish entry, by the way, was a deliberate joke from the outset. The fact that it did so well tells us a lot about the state Eurovision is now in.

Stevyn Colgan said...

If you fancy a laugh to lift you out of your post-Eurovision blues, have a listen to 'Zero to Hero', a superb audio documentary by Danny Wallace. It's all about when he decided to enter Eurovision 2004 as an independent with his song 'Stop the mugging and start the hugging'. Brilliantly funny stuff!

Stevyn Colgan said...

But we're not alone ... this just in:

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans fretted about being unloved in Europe on Sunday after their most popular band of the last decade got zero points from 40 of 42 countries in the Eurovision Song Contest and they ended up sharing last place.

"Why doesn't anyone like us?" asked Bild am Sonntag newspaper after Germany had yet another horrendous showing in the annual contest watched by more than 100 million viewers.

"Are we too stupid to win or is it simply we're not liked?" the Sunday newspaper said. "The fact is Germany's top recording artists have failed spectacularly in this contest. Do our singers simply have no chance abroad?"

The "No Angels", four women in skimpy dresses who sold more than 5 million albums in the last eight years, went into the contest in Belgrade with hopes of giving Germany their second victory, in the 53-year-old contest. Germany last won in 1982.

The Eurovision Song Contest might be dismissed as tacky and kitsch in some countries -- as witnessed by novelty acts such as singing pirates from Latvia and writhing devils from Azerbaijan. But it is serious stuff in Germany, where 6.5 million watched.

Aside from the highest-possible 12 points from Bulgaria -- one of "No Angels" emigrated from that country and now hosts a pop song contest in Bulgaria -- Germany got only two points from Switzerland to end up sharing last with Britain and Poland (Note: Because Poland and Germany had higher individual scores, both came in higher than the UK).

"We delivered a great performance but the viewers didn't recognise it," said Bulgarian-born German singer Lucy Diakowska.

"It was the insult at Belgrade -- what a disaster," said Thomas Hermanns, who hosted a German after-show fest in Hamburg.

"It's just unbelievable and so, so, so stupid," said NDR television's Eurovision analyst Jan Feddersen. "No Angels" were the most successful girl group in continental Europe in 2003.

"Other countries got support from their neighbours. Germany didn't get any support at all from its neighbours."

Die Welt online bluntly blamed the voting system. "As in past years the 'eastern European Mafia' at the Song Contest is stirring our blood. Russia won thanks to considerable help from its neighbours. The Russian song wasn't bad but it wasn't any better than the rest."

Even though Germany shares borders with nine countries, it has a turbulent past -- having invaded most of these nations. Six decades after World War Two, there is a lingering sense that Germans are still being penalised.

I wonder what the Poles are thinking?

willow said...

You are going to hate hearing this...I have never heard of Eurovision. But, I enjoyed this enlightening post! My daughter is constantly participating in vocal competitions (opera) and all of them, unfortunately are extremely political.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow, Willow, Willow ... of course I'm not going to hate it! I knew that Eurovision is ... well ... peculiarly European which is why I took the time to explain it. If it's any consolation, we know nothing about the Country Music Awards on this side of the pond. Country and Western Music doesn't seem to exist very much outside of the USA. I certainly can't think of the last time a C&W song was in the UK charts. Maybe Jolene by Dolly Parton?

In Italy I heard them playing something twangy about cowboys over loudspeakers in a shopping centre. Apparently, Italian kids find it such a horrible racket that they don't hang around in groups!

Just shows you that national tastes very significantly. Horses for courses I guess! Trust me ... you'd LOATHE most of the Eurovision stuff.


Stevyn Colgan said...

Of course, I meant 'vary' not 'very'. Curse you fat fingers!

BritGal' Sarah said...

Hi Stevyn found you via the lovely Willow. I thoroughly enjoyed your post and remember only too well all the political voting. You have made me fell better actually, I used to love the wackiness of Eurovision and have thought I miss it, especially Sir Terry's irony. But after reading this it sounds like I may have escaped before it truly went from the sublime to the ridiculous!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Good old Willow ... she is a bit of a Connector isn't she? Yes, I think you did get out in time. The arrival of the Eastern Bloc has changed everything, I'm afraid. To make matters worse, I read today that Eastern Europeans in the UK (the largest wave of immigrants in British history)also used their 'British' vote to bolster the Russian entry. Heigh ho. Looks like we'll be paying to lose forevermore. Sigh.

John Soanes said...

It's an odd thing all round, though, isn't it?
Most people I know pay little attention to the 'select your entry' voting bit, don't really worry that much about it until it's unveiled, then watch the show itself with little emotional involvement and more interest in 'watching the voting' than anything else. Though a few of my friends have 'Eurovulsion' parties and watch the show avidly and so on, though I'm not entirely sure if that level of irony makes them any more involved than the folks who don't really give a monkey's.
Then again, the UK rarely sends an established band, which seems to be a good move, and wasn't the Russian entry produced by Timbaland, who has something of a midas touch? That can't have hurt - then again, I thought that about the French entry, and I gather that was a bit of a mess on the night (as you'll probably have gathered, I didn't watch it - talk about a lack of emotional investment...)?

Stevyn Colgan said...

You make a good point John - I hear loads of people whigeing about the scores but how many Brits actually vote? (I did, BTW. In a sense of international fair play I voted for Ukraine). Mind you, we can't blame British apathy for our poor score ... we're not allowed to vote for ourselves, are we?

And yes, Timbaland did produce the winning entry. Maybe we should throw in a decent song with a Mark Ronson production next year?