This week the 60th Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Austria and we thought we would mark the anniversary for the contest with a look back over Eurovision’s history as captured in Jisc MediaHub.
The first Eurovision Song contest took place in Lugano, Switzerland with only 7 countries taking part, each performing two songs. This quite genteel first “Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix” began what would become both a cult and mass media phenomenon. But that event also marked a significant moment in international event broadcasting. In fact behind all the glitter and high camp of Eurovision is a sophisticated broadcast network which works together to provide the infrastructure for broadcasting and negotiating the rights to large scale broadcasting events such as the Olympics, the FIFA World Cups, and, of course, the Eurovision Song Contest.
Before the glitter: the emergence of Eurovision
The European Broadcast Union began life in 1950, and saw a group of broadcasters working together to exchange news and current affairs footage. Initially, that exchange took place through physical copies being swiftly transported around Europe by plane but in May 1959 an experiment began trialling use of the “Eurovision Network” to exchange news even more quickly between 10 participating countries. A 1959 Roving Report (ITN Source, 1959), hosted by Robin Day, shows how that network worked, and the kinds of live events being broadcast in parallel across Europe, including the State Opening of Parliament and the coronation of Pope John XXIII.
Every day during the experiment a large scale conference call would take place at 3pm to discuss the footage to be exchanged, and this would then be broadcast over the “Eurovision Link”, using relay links (requiring support from some 500 technicians) which literally relayed the broadcast signal from region to region at scheduled times of day. The Eurovision Link enabled the exchange of key broadcasts or news footage from across Europe, whether being broadcast live or transmitted as a daily digest of footage to all of those broadcasters participating in the network. Whilst it is now commonplace to watch events as they happen, live on TV or the internet, the Eurovision Link was a huge achievement at a time not only before the internet, but also prior to the use of Satellite dishes for television broadcast. As Jan Rengelink, the Programme Commissioner of Netherlands TV, puts it in a live interview over the Eurovision Link (between London and Holland): “it is an enormous but also expensive achievement”. Rengelink notes though that daily exchanges also raises issues associated with switching from one country to another, of organisation,expectations, timing, and language.
Watching the daily conference calls (from minute 5:35) in this wonderful Roving Report is not only reminiscent of some of the complex etiquette of modern conference calls but also brings to mind the rhythm and traditions of Eurovision Song Contest voting: countries ring in and awkwardly greet each other before efficiently exchanging information – although in this case it is news footage to be shared rather than the awarding of Eurovision points.
Despite huge technological developments the Eurovision Network was still being used to distribute news footage between European news broadcasters in the 1980s, as demonstrated in a fascinating 1988 documentary, “A Day in the Life of ITN”, which looks behind the scenes of Television news reporting.
Technical standards have moved on a long way since the 1980s but the European Broadcasting Union’ s technical infrastructure are still an essential part of day-to-day European broadcasting. For instance in this 2001 edition of the ITN Early Evening News both the lead and second stories have been provided through the EBU network, as is evident from the Shotlist:
The collaborative use of news footage like this enables European broadcasters to share the burden of reporting on events that will have relevance and interest across Europe and beyond, since the EBU also includes members and associate members that extend far beyond the EU and include Turkey (since 1950), Israel (since 1957), and Egypt (since 1985). Whilst the use of these clips enables real time reporting on world events, it also means that when it comes to archive copies of programmes there are lots of different international rights holders – so if you do find yourself watching the news clip above you will see the message “For copyright reasons we are currently unable to show this section of newsfilm”, but you will hear the audio in common with clips from other agencies, this was newly created by UK based journalists and then dubbed over the footage from EBU Netherlands.
Indeed, the Eurovision Network is seen as so essential that when the Greek state broadcaster ERT was shut down in 2013 due to the Euro crisis, the EBU set up a makeshift studio the same day to ensure continuity of access to news gathering and the relaying of broadcasts. And, just as they innovated in 1950, the EBU continue to look to the future of broadcast media, as evident in this Institution of Electrical Engineers Seminar on broadcasting, from 2005, on plans for developing digital terrestrial broadcast frequencies, from Phil Laven then Director of the Technical Department of the EBU.
Important as that technical change and innovation, the support for member organisations, and the EBU infrastructure may be, this post is about Eurovision and for most of us that means the Eurovision Song Contest.
The first Eurovision Song Contest, in Lugano in 1956, wasn’t the live event that we are used to watching synchronously across Europe. The contest features two songs for each of the seven countries who were represented: the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland. The contestants wore evening dress, performed with an orchestra led by their choice of conductor, and the winner was decided by a Jury who never revealed their scores (according to Simon Barclay’s The Complete and Independent Guide to the Eurovision Song Contest 2010), nor the order that the entries came in, they just declared the first ever winner, 32 year old Lys Assia from Switzerland. To get a sense of the look of that first contest, this clip from May 1956 showing film stars leaving London for Cannes, gives a great sense of high fashion at the time:
That entire first Eurovision Song Contest was complete, with the winner announced, within 1 hour 40 minutes – less than half the length of recent Eurovision finals – partly thanks to a recommended song length of three and a half minutes. However, by 1958 that recommendation had become a strict Eurovision rule, with songs required to be no longer than 3 minutes, a move triggered by a particularly long Italian entry, “Corde della mia chitarra” by Nunzio Gallo, at the second contest. At 5:09 minutes Gallo’s entry remains the longest song in Eurovision history. By contrast this year’s Finnish entry “Aina mun pitää” (I always have to) by Finnish punk rock band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät is a mere 1:28 minutes long and the shortest entry to have ever been entered.
Sadly, Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät won’t be performing on Saturday though as it lost out on a place in the first Eurovision Semi Final on Tuesday. Indeed the growth in participant countries means that, since 1993, there have been a range of qualifying stages added into the competition from a pre-qualifying round in Ljubljana for Eastern European countries, to a relegation system, then a points based relegation system based on the previous five years performances. By 2004, as new member states were joining the EU, Eurovision was still growing with 36 countries participating. To cope with the numbers a new system was devised using semi final stages to refine the final show into something of a more watchable length (usually around 25 performances), and (with a few subsequent modifications) that is the system that remains in place today. This year, across three live shows, 40 countries will be competing, just under the record of 43 participants, in both 2008 and 2011. So, how did 7 countries become 36 and then 40+?
The EBU has welcomed new broadcasters over the years, expanding the network across and beyond Europe, but internal changes in Europe have had a particular big impact on the expansion of Eurovision. When the EBU was founded in 1950, east and west Europe were in the midst of the cold war. The EBU and their Eastern Bloc counterpart, Intervision, were both founded after the collapse of predecessor organisations International Radio and Television Organisation (founded 1946) and the International Broadcasting Union (founded 1925) in which both sets of broadcasters had been involved. Competition between the networks’ continued into the world of song, with Intervision organising a rival to the Eurovision Song Contest in 1961 in the shape of the the Sopot International Song Contest which then became the Intervision Song Contest, which ran until 1988. When the Intervision network merged with the EBU in 1993 which introduced a huge range of new contestants (hence those qualifying rounds in Ljubljana).
Complex politics and Eurovision have always gone hand in hand, from beginning revolutions in Portugal (1974), public protest over gay rights legislation in Russia in 2009, to this year’s entry from Armenia, a super group called Genealogy who have been brought together from across the Armenian diaspora. Their song “Face the Shadow” has already undergone a name change from “Don’t Deny”, in response to allegations that the lyrics are political and intended to make a statement to mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide.
And it’s not just the songs or the audience contest that gets political, it’s the contestants too. When Dana (Scallon), an 18 year old school girl, won Eurovision for Ireland in 1970 she became a pop sensation which endured until she decided to make a move into politics as an independent candidate running for President of Ireland in 1997 (she came third), then standing and winning a seat as a Member of the European Parliament. Dana isn’t the only winner to make an unlikely career switch though: in 2004 Ukraine won the contest with “Wild Dances” by Ruslana (Lyzhychko), a classically trained conductor and pianist whose Eurovision stage show included skimpy Xena: Warrior Princess style outfits, whips and flames. Ruslana supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and has capitalised on her Eurovision fame, remaining a prominent voice in politics, most recently as part of the 2013-14 Pro-EU “Euromaiden” protest movement.
Things aren’t always so serious in the world of Eurovision though so, to finish, lets address some of those eternal Song Contest questions…
Isn’t all the voting political?
One of the frequent complaints about Eurovision is that voting is politically motivated, making it an unfair contest. This argument tends to arise when the UK doesn’t perform well. And, since there hasn’t been a UK winner since Katrina and the Waves’ “Love Shine a Light” brought Eurovision to Birmingham in 1997 it’s as regular a part of Eurovision media coverage as the annual critique of the UK entry.
But is the voting really all that biased? In a recent paper for the Journal of Applied Statistics (Blangiardo and Gianluca Baio, 2014) found only a mild positive voting bias, although their findings on increased votes for English language songs may explain why so few songs are performed in any other language in recent contests.
At the first Eurovision Song Contest the jury didn’t disclose the points or placings of the Eurovision entries, but things have moved on since then. The positions of competing countries have been public since 1962, and the live points boards have been an (often unintentionally hilarious) feature of the contest for a long time, revealing who has received points from 1 to 10, as well as the highest possible mark of 12 (douze) points. No one actually gets awarded or is announced on the night as having “Nil Points”, but the phrase for losing entries with absolutely no points has become part of Eurovision legend nonetheless.
Tele voting (phone calls, texts and email votes) were trialled in 1997 and by 1998 all countries were participating although back-up juries were created in parallel, as a failsafe in case of problems with the voting system. However, the juries of music professionals (one jury for every participating nation, each with five jury members) have never quite gone away and now, as part of the rehearsal process and press cycle around Eurovision, special performances take place for the juries the day before each Eurovision Semi Final or Final. The rankings of the contestants by the juries are combined with the results of the televoting to reach the final number of points that each country awards. Those juries do make a difference to the results, as was evident in controversy around the release of jury scores following the 2014 Eurovision final as a particularly risqué presentation of Poland’s entry, “My Słowianie – We Are Slavic” by artists Donatan and Cleo, was placed far higher by public votes than by jury members.
Does Ireland really always win?
Despite the not entirely justified cynicism around voting, there are many cliches about Eurovision that are true. There really is a rule about how many people can be on stage at once: 6 people, no animals. Young female singers are disproportionately likely to win: in fact 39 of 63 Eurovision winners having been solo women – and the average age (mean, median, and modal) of those winners was 23 years old. In fact in 1969 when four songs, including Lulu’s “Boom Bang-a-Bang”, shared first place all of those winners were women performing on their own, and only one was over 30. And Ireland, with seven wins, is easily the most successful country to perform at Eurovision, with Johnny Logan the most successful Eurovision winner with 3 wins as either performer or writer to his name.
This clip captures the background to Logan’s first win (as a performer) in 1980, including an interview with writer Shay Healy and the winning song, “What’s another year”: “1980 Eurovision Song Contest – Victory for Ireland“(London Broadcasting Company / Independent Radio News audio archive, 20-04-1980). After two more wins for Logan in 1987 (as performer and writer) and 1992 (as writer), Ireland found itself in the unprecedented position of having won Eurovision three times in a row (1992-4) before winning again in 1996. That honour also proved expensive as it meant Ireland hosting the show four times in five years, starting with a venue in the unlikely rural town of Millstreet, as captured in this wonderfully odd interview: “Eurovision Song Contest venue in rural Ireland” (London Broadcasting Company / Independent Radio News audio archive, 13-05-1993), before moving the production to Dublin.
However, arguably Ireland’s most successful Eurovision contribution was actually the half time show they provided when hosting in 1994. A performance of traditional and modern Irish dance styles set to an upbeat celtic score would go on to become the (still) phenomenally successful Riverdance, which made dancer and choreographer Michael Flatley a household name and led to an explosion in the global popularity of Irish dancing.
Isn’t it all a bit naff?
Whilst Eurovision may boast cutting edge technology, complex politics and some very quirky entries it is also often accused of being a bit naff and a bit dated. Indeed this 1998 clip sees Janet Street Porter explain why Eurovision has two very different audiences: a mainstream Saturday night TV audience, and a cult audience enjoying the in-jokes, the irony, the campness.
Eurovision is consistently one of the most watched non-sporting TV events in the world with hundreds of millions of viewers each year with sponsorship, week long television coverage, year round web activity, and spin off contests from Junior Eurovision (in which all performers are under 18 and must also write their own songs!), to the Eurovision Dance Championships. Despite this popular appeal the contest simultaneously occupies a more counter cultural space most famously with LGBT communities, but also with many appreciating the event in a wholly post modern ironic way (currently the mainstream UK experience), as well as those enjoying it, perhaps most subversively of all, on an entirely earnest fan basis. That peculiar blend of mass and cult phenomenon gives the contest a unique character that persists no matter how cynical the song selections may be, no matter how much stunt staging and costuming occurs, and no matter how tactical the voting. For some of us, that character and quirkiness is a huge part of the charm which is why on Saturday night, as Charpentier’s Te Deum announces the opening of the contest, there will be parties throughout Europe with fans gathering to celebrate the Eurovision Song Contest in all of it’s strange glittery wonder.
And if you are a Eurovision fan celebrating this weekend (as I will be), or have other highlights from the pop culture year to share, why not add your images to Jisc MediaHub? For instance, I added my image of a lego model of the Eurovision 2014 venue using the My MediaHub Upload feature:
No matter whether or not you usually watch or enjoy Eurovision, 60+ years of collaboration in broadcasting is certainly an impressive achievement for Eurovision and the ambitious broadcasters who first decided to create a continent-wide network for sharing the news. It will all be about the glitter, reigning winner Conchita Wurst, and the performance of UK hopefuls Electro Velvet on Saturday night, but all year round the delivery of live events, news and sports depends on the technical collaboration behind the sequins.
- More discussion of technical challenges facing broadcasters can be found in this IET video: “I’m a broadcaster – get me out of here“, featuring David Wood, then Head of Technology at EBU.
- Hear Scott Fitzgerald, the 1998 UK entrant (performing the song “Go” by Bruce Forsyth’s daughter), comment on what he thinks is wrong with Eurovision song selection processes: “Scott Fitzgerald on Eurovision Song Contest” (London Broadcasting Company / Independent Radio News audio archive, 14-04-1988).
- Upload your own images – login to My MediaHub with your UK Federation details and go to your Uploads area.
- Explore the official Eurovision Song Contest website, which includes a history of the contest.
- Read up on the academia of Eurovision with Dr Eurovision, UK based fan and academic Eurovision expert Dr Paul Jordan whose PhD examined Estonian national identity and nation building through Eurovision.
- Blangiardo M. and Baio, G. 2014. Evidence of bias in the Eurovision song contest: modelling the votes using Bayesian hierarchical models. In Journal of Applied Statistics, pp.2312-2322. DOI:10.1080/02664763.2014.909792
- Find out if Martin O’Leary, a Swansea based Glaciologist using computational methods in his research, has succeeded in predicting the Eurovision winner – he has provided forecasts based on statistical analysis of Eurovision data since 2012.
- Read more about the history of politics around performances at the Eurovision Song Contest in Sarah Lipkis’ excellent May 2014 blog post, Eurovision: How Politics Takes Center Stage, for the World Policy Blog.
- Enjoy “My Lovely Horse” (via the Hat Trick YouTube channel), a parody Irish “Eurosong” entry created by Neil Hannon, of The Divine Comedy, for the “A Song for Europe” episode (Season 2, Episode 5) of Father Ted. The episode aired less than a month before the contest, at the height of the country’s Eurovision success in April 1996. Ireland’s real entry, “The Voice” by Eimear Quinn, won the 1996 contest.