Playing the Eurovision Game

This year was another Eurovision Song Contest, and another where the ongoing pattern of the UK entry doing spectacularly badly continued, as it ended up in joint last place with 14 points. As is often the case the general opinion is that although the UK entry wasn’t perhaps a winner, “Even Ifâ€? sung by Andy Abraham certainly didn’t deserve the placing it received. Having accurately predicted a win by Russia before the show even started, Sir Terry Wogan is now questioning whether he will commentate in future years, on the basis that in his opinion it has ceased to be a song contest, with his comments being backed by a number of other notable figures.

The UK press is rife with accusations of political voting – an accusation that would maybe hold water if it wasn’t for the fact that all the scores are delivered via a national phone vote. But as the BBC highlighted earlier in the week, there still are some complex patterns at play. For example Doctor Derek Gatherer who correctly predicted a win for Serbia last year using an analysis of previous voting patterns, predicted a win for the Ukraine. Serbia were disadvantaged by only being heard in the final – as the host they do not participate in the semi-finals, a similar situation to the UK, Germany, France and Spain, all of whom were placed in the bottom half of the results. Whilst he didn’t predict the winner correctly – Ukraine came second, he said that Russia, the actual winner would do well, and also said that Turkey and Greece would do well, placed seventh and third respectively.

What actually shapes the voting is decades worth of politics. Whilst the rules stop countries for voting for their own song, there is little they can do about the significant minorities in some countries, particularly significant being the Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics, and the significant minorities in the former Yugoslav republics. Similar voting patterns have been around for years, for example the way Germany always gives a significant vote to Turkey thanks to the large Turkish minority in Germany.

The voting system itself also plays a part. By way of a quick recap (or introduction), the voting works like this. Firstly, each participating country holds a national phone vote. The result of this vote is taken and collated, and this is transferred into points for only the top ten in the phone vote, with twelve points for first place, ten for second, and then eight to one points for the remaining eight places. So for example if a song consistently scores mid-table in most phone votes, this wouldn’t be reflected in the points awarded – the voting system adds weight to songs which are locally very popular, so a song that goes down well in the former Yugoslav republics, but does really badly elsewhere, could easily have more points in the final total than a song that scored consistently, but rarely in the top ten across the whole of Europe. Along similar lines, the UK could probably do somewhat better if it participated as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as the voting system gives more power to voters in smaller countries, with countries such as San Marino, Monaco and Andorra having equal voting power to big countries such as the UK, France and Germany.

However, the UK also doesn’t seem to play the Eurovision game quite as well as some of the new participants. When you look at the top three singers we have Dima Bilan, a big star who has had multiple number one hits in the Russian market, similarly Ani Lorak who sang for Ukraine is a well known artist across a number of European countries. In common with a number of other participants including third placed Kalomoira, they went on promotional tours with their songs around Europe in the run up to the competition. It’s also worth noting that all three of the songs came through the semi-finals so got exposure through those a couple of days before the main event. Compare this to Andy Abraham who came second in X-Factor in 2005, and one top twenty UK hit, and probably has never been heard of across the rest of Europe. Being heard once, very early on in the contest, and without much Europe-wide visibility for either the artist or the song, it’s not really surprising that it lost out as it did. Of course it is perfectly possibly for a Europe-wide unknown to win – just take a look at Lordi who produced a memorable song, along with a memorable performance, and received votes from almost everybody, but by going for an establish artist, and ensuring press coverage in other nations (Lordi made the UK news as arguments about their participation raged) ensures that people are aware of your song before they hear it on the night.

So assuming that the UK doesn’t just give up next year, what should we do? First off it needs to be a good song, and certainly gag John Barrowman when he spouts rubbish about what kind of songs do well – if you look back over UK entrants, the only time we’ve been top ten, indeed top three in the past decade was with a big ballad. But ultimately it’s also about how well it is promoted, about playing the game. Once it is selected by the UK, the people who are going to vote for it are spread across Europe, so it needs to be known there to figure in the minds of the voters.

Needless YouTube gives the opportunity for some comparison. First off, here is a clip of the UK performance:

Then this is the third placed Greek song:

This song came second from Ukraine:

The winning Russian song was this:

If you want to relive the whole set of twenty-five finalists, they have a special playlist just for you…

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