ESC Insight

ESC Insight
21
March
2017

Maintaining Trust In The Eurovision Voting System

Maintaining Trust In The Eurovision Voting System

Nobody expected Russia to pull such a tactical masterstroke. We’d pictured teams of crack musical scientists and their authoritarian space robots laser cutting the Russian entry in a sterile lab and putting a host of potential singers through a punishing bootcamp in Siberia. But instead they’ve kept it simple and gone straight for the heartstrings. Whatever we might happen to think about her nation’s intentions, Yulia Samoylova’s Eurovision entry is still a contender to win this year’s Contest, and we shouldn’t go cancelling those speculative hotel bookings in Sochi just yet.

Yes, for barring the unexpected discovery of the next Abba, or a song so utterly delightful that the whole continent instantly falls in love with it (cough ‘Portugal’ cough), this Contest could still very easily be Russia’s to lose. Well, if it can, ahem, allegedly influence the result of the American election and have a hand in the dismantling of the European Union then the country is surely able to sort out the result of a funny little singing show in its favour? After all, what bigger coup would it be to win the show in the backyard of their most troublesome neighbour?

Much has been made of the effects of proximity and diaspora voting in the Eurovision Song Contest, but in all reality these effects can only ever be negligible across a continent packed with so many countries. In this increasingly technological world, the ability to tweak results to guarantee the result that you want can surely only be a couple of Contests away. And when that happens, the EBU will have to fundamentally review the way that it gathers votes, as the propaganda possibilities that come attached to winning the Song Contest are getting more attractive by the day.

Of course, we used our Russian cousins as an example for purely comedic means, but there are many countries for who a win at Eurovision could become a massively important event. Whether it be for political gain, to highlight a burgeoning tourist trade, or for any manner of other lucrative commercial reasons, a Eurovision victory could reap massive rewards for a nation, and for those with the inclination and the wherewithal, it’s a tempting target.

Baku 2012 Stage (Andres Putting, Elke Roels, Thomas Hanses / EBU)

Azerbaijan used Eurovision 2012 to promote Baku as a holiday destination (Andres Putting, Elke Roels, Thomas Hanses / EBU)

For many years, talk of the bulk purchase of simcards has muttered around in the darker corners of the press halls, and rumours of entire call centres being employed to do nothing but vote are now being voiced. With the emergence of VPN facilities, it’s never been more easy to vote for your own country from your own country. I’ve long been an advocate of keeping the results of the Eurovision Song Contest in the hands of those people who value them the most – the viewers. But it’s becoming more apparent by the day that this system is more liable than ever to deliberate sabotage and sneaky tricks.

What About Tweaking The Jury?

“So why not make it a 100% jury vote,” we hear many of the old school purists shout. But hold on there for a moment – isn’t this existing system already wracked with fundamental flaws? For a start, taking the result out of the hands of the people and throw it to the mercy of a small panel of self-appointed experts is likely to stretch the already growing disconnect between the viewers and the show. It’s almost as if we’re telling them that they can’t be trusted to select a winner, and that these serious looking people on the panels know better than them. That’s never a good thing when you’re trying to appeal to an audience and let them feel ownership over a result.

It’s also achingly apparent that the current five-person system is no longer fit for purpose. For a start they are infinitely more corruptible than the current televoting system, and the opinions of just a single forthright member in the jury room can seriously cloud the judgement of all the other panel members. On top of this, they are voting for all the songs in comparison to each other, rather than voting for the single song that they like the best. So the compromise winner from this averaged out system is almost always going to jar with the more instantly populist feel of the song that tops the public vote. There are also issues to be raised about how truly independent any judge can be. Consider country clumps like the Balkans, the Baltics, and many of the ex-Soviet states, where the music industry is small, and many of the people within it have careers that cross many borders. How can these people then be truly independent?

Indeed, over the last few years there have been suspect voting results such that a number of jury votes have had to be suspended, while many more are have the appearance of ‘not being proper’.

It’s clear that things will have to change sooner rather than later, so what can we do about it? Many people have posited the idea of having larger juries, made up of a broad range of people of many ages and walks of life. This would indeed be more representative than the current small groups, but begs the question of how you would organise them. Gathering them together in one large hall could prove expensive, and the possibilities of one or more interested parties plying them with gifts and lobbying them for votes is still a distinct possibility unless the highest possible security is enacted. But even then is that preferable to the current system?

More Public Voices?

Or maybe there’s the Sanremo model. For many years they’ve been dividing their votes between the good folks at home, a broad ranging expert panel, and the opinions of the folks in the press room. But more recently they’ve entertained the concept of the demoscopic poll, whereby a sample of 300 music fans with a broad range of tastes and buying habits are able to vote for their favourites from their own homes via an electronic voting system. Imagine if this was rolled out across the continent, and instant voting was possible. It could cut down collating time, and surely rid us of at least ten minutes of tiresome local folk dancing in the intervals. But again, with a bit of thought it could become eminently corruptible, as vigilant hackers could crack the system, or the names of panelists get out, resulting in them being showered with gifts and benefits in much the same way as the old Top 40 chart return shops from the past. But despite this, it’s a concept that’s surely worth exploring.

And while we’re at the electronics, why not have a look at giving the crowd in the hall a say? After all, they are considered to be the people with the closest connection to the contest – surely they could be trusted to contribute to the result? But how would they vote? Well if those technical wizards can give out enough glittery bracelets to effect a dazzling co-ordinated light show in the stalls, it’s surely not beyond their wit to include some manner of feedback facility on those units that could assist in helping the people down the front tell us who their faves were.

Vienna 2015 (Andreas Putting / EBU)

Can we have a vote? (Andreas Putting / EBU)

Again, it’s a lovely utopian idea, but one that could lead to single countries bulk buying tickets in order to try and influence the votes – and is that the kind of crowd that we want in front of the camera? As much as we always moan about the inflatable Israeli hammers and greek flags, we’d miss them if they weren’t there and replaced by a phalanx of sombre-faced drones waiting for the magic moment they can press their buttons and collect their five pounds (or whatever other convertible currency they prefer).

And if not that, then perhaps the Eurovision app could have a direct voting component – although the homogenous final result table of this year’s public vote at the Melfest suggest that this method also requires a little work. There are so many potential new methods to consider, but each of them seems riddled with potential problems.

Is There An Answer In The Forest?

So how else can we devise a voting system that can get the most accurate, generally accepted result in this infinitely more corruptible world? My feeling is that we are going to have to look at methods of combining all of the above into some kind of coherent whole. The organisers are surely never going to totally do away with televoting, for two principal reasons. One is that it still offers the public some sense of physical connection to the show if they are still, in theory at least, able to help select a winner. The other is a little more financial. Would the EBU really want to do away with the extra slice of revenue that the phone votes bring in?

So perhaps fractionalising the votes into a variety of distinctly different sources could lessen the effects of unscrupulous agencies attempting to influence the results. A blend of televotes, extended juries, demoscopic voting and fan choices may make the adding up time a little more protracted and complicated, but it could also temporarily halt the march of the dodgy jury and the call centre influenced televote.

One thing is for certain. Someone high up in the echelons of the EBU is going to have to take a long hard look at this very soon, or things could start to get very unsettlingly predictable around here. Oh, and just out of interest, you can still get 25/1 on a Russian win with some bookies. It might be worth a speculative cover bet, just in case, like…

Categories: ESC Insight

20
March
2017

Newsletter: Countdown to Kyiv…

Newsletter: Countdown to Kyiv…

Along with the latest news from the Heads of Delegation meeting in Kyiv, the ESC Insight look back over the National Finals in this week’s newsletter. You can read this week’s edition and sign up here, but first some highlights…

Which National Final Result Disappointed You The Most?

Ellie Chalkley
I wasn’t so much disappointed as taken by surprise by the result of the Lithuanian selection ultra-marathon. I couldn’t even remember hearing Rain of Revolution in the early stages? Why can’t we have nice Greta Zazza-type things?

John Egan
Sweden’s Melodifestivalen. I purposely didn’t watch much of the semis so I would approach the final with open ears and eyes. The most striking entry of the year (Loreen’s) didn’t make it through the televote-only gauntlets. Half of the finalists used different sequences of the same shots (changing background colour doesn’t hide it), making it clear who SVT wanted to win. How else could Wiktoria’s lame spinning bed have been vetted? And why didn’t they just leave Jon Henrik in one position and build the performance around him? But it could have been worse: Mariette could have won. I won’t be surprised if I Can’t Go On finished 12th in the GF. It’s so bloody smarmy and unctuous.

Ben Robertson
Melodifestivalen: Not for the actual winner, but for the result process itself. Unaccountable juries had decided a winner that was impossible to overturn with televotes because the app votes again made results converge in the middle. For all of Melfest’s great entertainment, the voting reveal at the end was atrocious TV.

Lisa-Jayne Lewis
Spain’s NF was an absolute shambles. As far as I could tell it was an internal selection thinly disguised as a national selection. TVE really need to take a look at the aftermath of this year, have some serious debrief meetings and not try to pull the same stunt next year.

Ewan Spence
Malta Eurovision Song Contest. The move to 100% televoting in a relatively small community meant that the artist’s name overpowered any other consideration. Even though ‘Kewkba’ was one of the best songs of the NF season, I correctly called the victor of the popularity contest on the strength of the entry list months before the broadcast, and I hate being able to do that.

Sharleen Wright
Lithuania. It ran for weeks and weeks, lost known act Sasha Song along the way, had 2 potential pop qualifiers in its final mix (including one penned by Aminata) and a massive talking point in Lolita Zero, but then produced a winner that is quite likely the most forgettable tune in the contest.

Remember, you can stay up to date with all of the latest Eurovision news and analysis on ESC Insight. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Categories: ESC Insight

17
March
2017

Who Should Win When Televoters And Juries Collide?

Who Should Win When Televoters And Juries Collide?

Last Saturday was the end of the national final season: Iceland, Norway, Lithuania and Sweden all selected their entries for Kyiv. The first national final was held in December 2016…it has been a marathon rather than a sprint. But we’re done for this year: as of 13 March all entries were submitted to the Reference Group.

Having work-related travel to Europe in early March meant I would be able to attend two national finals—a new experience for me. My first choice was easy: Eestilaul, since I love Tallinn, have friends there and Estonia has proper winter. By the time I had to confirm my travel plans my only options for the following weekend were Melodifestivalen or Söngvakeppnin. Iceland turned out to be too expensive for flights and accommodation, plus the flight timetable would have been tortuous. Thus national final number two became Stockholm by default.

As heretical it is for a Eurovision fan, all things being equal I would not have chosen Melodifestivalen. I appreciate the resourcing and bandwidth the most polished national selection entails. Yes, Melodifestivalen attracts top Swedish artists and yes it always has at least a couple of strong entries that will do well in most any Grand Final. As well, it is much more diverse musically than the relentless schlagerfest of a decade ago. Still, much of the music—or, more precisely, the staging—leaves me cold (including this year’s winner).

Admittedly, on one level, the ‘Plastic Paddy’ in me wishes RTÉ would take ten percent of the Melodifestivalen juju and reboot Eurosong. Even better, they could do what ERR has done with the transition from Eurolaul to Eestilaul, making Eesti one of the best national selections several years running.

In hindsight, however, as a dollar store social scientist I could not have picked a better pair of shows to contrast. They have a fair bit in common but are fundamentally different in important ways. They are among the best run national selections and both use a musical Darwinist semi-final system to weed out weaker entries and converge towards potential winners with broad appeal. And they also both play as much to their domestic television and music markets whilst trying to find a strong entry that will garner support come May.

Each’s method for selecting their entries for 2017 bears particular scrutiny: this article will focus on Eestilaul’s and Melodifestivalen’s methodology for choosing a winner. As we have zero data about the substantive process by which each broadcaster reduced a plethora of possibilities to a manageable, multishow suite of songs (though Ben Robertson’s epic series on his experiences helping Melodifestivalen willow itself down to 28 entries for 2016 here, here and here), we will start with the shows before the big shows: the semi-finals.

The Heats are On

Both ERR and SVT use a semi-final system in their selection. Each has its own approach. The differences are important.

For this season’s Eestilaul, there were two semi-finals, each with eight entries. Both juries and the public vote and the top four combined vote getters are announced as automatic qualifiers. From the remaining four entries, a second round of televoting is held, with whichever entry securing the most televotes in that round getting a wildcard slot.

The Estonians combine raw jury and televote scores by converting them to the douze points system and adding the two score components. That produces a range between two (nobody likes you) and 24 (everybody love you) points. With two semi-finals this method produces a 10 song national final, where two of the songs are presumed to be somewhat disadvantaged since we know they did not appeal to jurors very much. Like all clever broadcasters, ERR does not release any semi-final scores until after Eestilaul’s work is done and we have a Eurovision entry.

Our friends at SVT have more semi-finals (four) with slightly fewer (seven) entries in each. Unlike Eestilaul, there’s no jury involvement—the semi-finals are 100% televote driven. The televoting is done in two stages. After the first round, the bottom two entries are eliminated and there’s an additional period of voting for the remaining five entries: both the early televote (7 entries) and subsequent televote (5 entries) are aggregated. The second ranked televote entry is announced as first direct qualifier to the grand final. Two more entries are announced as going to the Andra Chansen (second chance) round. Finally, the most popular qualifier is announced. The remaining entry, like the two eliminated in early televoting, are finished. Four semi-finals with two qualifiers to the grand final makes up eight spaces. But there’s more!

Andra Chansen has changed its format over the years. The current iteration pairs songs from the various rounds to compete in a knock-out round. The four songs that win their knockouts progress to the grand final and the other four go home. That gives us a 12 song Melodifestivalen final. Andra Chansen entries are terribly disadvantaged, with none winning Melodifestivalen…until 2013.

However, Robin Stjernberg managed to build up enough momentum for ‘You’ to eke out a narrow victory in 2013. Which proved problematic for SVT that year (where they were hosting the Contest after Loreen’s win): if your entry needed multiple listens over several weeks to convince its compatriots of its worthiness, how likely is it that the wider Eurovision public—whom will mostly only hear it on Saturday night for the first time—will find it instantly appealing? They won’t, it turns out: 14th place on 62 points, mostly due to juries ranking Stjernberg third (televoters had him 18th).

Bear in mind that Melodifestivalen—and, to a lesser extent, Eestilaul—is arguably as much a showcase for the domestic music market as a Eurovision selection. That which does not make a great Eurovision entry may well still be a domestic chart hit: it is likely many artists aim to win, but measure success in terms of what happens on the national charts. As national selections that attract a large number of high profile domestic artists, Andra Chansen also offers something of a face saving opportunity: ask Loren.

Eestilaul brings juries in at the semi-final level and integrates its wildcard selection into each semi-final. Melodifestivalen is all about the public vote through its preliminaries. What about the final battle for the golden ticket?

The Final Countdown

The preliminary rounds are done, and we have our slate of final entries. Both SVT and ERR use a producer-led draw: they choose who sings when, mostly to ensure the final builds towards an exciting finish. Arguably this also allows producers to put entries they think less well suited to the Eurovision in a less desirable (read: earlier) slot, in the hopes that televoters will “forget” them. Both Eestilaul and Melodifestivalen also use both jury and televote scores to determine their winner.

Eestilaul

The Eestilaul final on 04 March featured a strong selection of entries: no less than five Eurovision alumni performed, three of whom had achieved a Eurovision top 10 result. There were also two previous winners of the Estonian “idol” franchise. The voting started with a range of domestic and international jurors award their one through twelve points to each entry. These scores were aggregated to produce a global jury score of one through twelve points. It is totally transparent: everyone knows every juror’s votes for the 10 songs.

The concurrent televote scores were converted to the douze points system and added to the jury scores (in secret), producing preliminary result. However, only the top three were announced, with no indication where the entries are ranked.

National Final 2017 Graphs (John Egan)

National Final 2017 Graphs (John Egan)

But you could somewhat ascertain that one of the top three was only 6th with jurors: Koit Toome and Laura must have had a very strong televote. Since Kerli and Rasmus Rändvee were first and second with juries, there was no way to know if both were equally popular with the public or not. Regardless, at this point the scoreboard is erased and a new televote begins: no juries anymore, it is down to the Estonian public.

The wildcard in this was Ivo Linna. Aside from giving Estonia its first top 10 Eurovision result, he is a legend of the Estonian music scene, including having played a prominent role in Estonia’s singing revolution. While for sentimental reasons Linna was an appealing figure, bringing a legend into a national final where televotes are won in tens of thousands (rather than millions) becomes tricky rather quickly. Third place in the televote and a similar ranking from the juries would have put Linna into the televote only super-final (at 16 points he would have tied Rändvee, but Linna’s higher televote score would have been the tiebreak). Instead the jurors had ‘Suur Loterii’ a distance seventh.

The super-final had two of the entries garnering much of the pre-selection buzz, ‘Verona’ and ‘Spirit Animal’. Kerli was signed to an international record deal when she was 16 and came back for Eestilaul 2017 with the requisite prodigal daughter narrative aimed to lift her towards victory (two dodgy vocals on Saturday night derailed this, alas). Toome and Laura have both previously represented Estonia at the Eurovision, though neither’s entry troubled the scoreboard. Laura’s appeared in two subsequent super-finals in recent years.

In the televote super final the scores were:

National Final 2017 Graphs (John Egan)

National Final 2017 Graphs (John Egan)

Turns out that ‘Verona’ led in the televote every stage of the competition—even with only tepid jury support. Had there not been a super final, ‘Spirit Animal’ would be heading to Kyiv instead, thanks to it being the jurors’ favourite.

Melodifestivalen

Unlike Eestilaul, Melodifestivalen only introduces jury scores in its grand final. This fundamentally changes the nature of what essentially had been a popularity contest (of song, singer, or perhaps backstory) at the semi-finals and Andra Chansen stages. It almost certainly increases the second chancers odds, since they only need to get a small number of international jurors behind them to convert their solid televote performance into greater success. You might be the only Melodifestivalen winner through Andra Chansen, but several second chance songs have ended up in the top three in the big show—and huge hits in the Swedish domestic market.

In the Melodifestivalen final there are two equally weighted scoring components; 473 points from international juries. and 473 points from the Swedish voting public.

If there is a tie, whichever entry has more televote support is the winner. The jury points are announced while the public are still voting. Speaking of which, the specifics of how SVT combined free app voting, cheap SMS and televoting (SEK3,90), and premium SMS and televoting (SEK13,90) “based on the demographics of Sweden” we must take on faith for now. All figures below are based on percentages provided by SVT.

National Final 2017 Graphs (John Egan)

National Final 2017 Graphs (John Egan)

During the dress rehearsal we were chortling in the press room when they reported entry after entry garnering 27 or 31 points. None of us expected a public vote distribution this flat. Only four entries accrued more than 10 per cent of the total vote—most were around 7 per cent! The top three jury scores had a range of 40 points (56 to 96 points); conversely, the top three public vote scores had a range of 8 points (49 to 57 points). Robin Bengtsson’s victory was far from comprehensive: third with the public, it was the international jury votes that the difference. So ‘I Can’t Go On’ (co-written, by the way, by Robin Stjernberg) will go on to Kyiv, which is something of a paradox, based on the song title.

Conclusion

Both Melodifestivalen use a system with both jury and public votes, albeit somewhat differently. This year the song with much stronger televote support triumphed in Tallinn; conversely, the song with much stronger jury support vanquished all others in Stockholm.

There are, broadly speaking, six methodologies for selecting a Eurovision entry:

1. Internal selection of artist and song
2. Internal selection of artist with song selected by public, jury or both
3. Public only
4. Jury only
5. Combined ranked public jury
6. Aggregated with tie-break rule

The Eurovision Song Contest properly used the aggregated with tie-break rule for the first time in 2016: they will be using some version of it in Kyiv. Whether the two components will be weighted equally again is something the Reference Group can alter – the 2017 rules are specifically ambiguous about this – but the expectation is another 50/50 equal weight.

After having public vote winners finishing third for two years in a row, some think the public vote should be weighted more heavily than the jury vote. Others think they should stay balanced equally. I also think equally balanced is the right tack. All sorts of things sway public votes that have little to do with the performance given. The equal jury vote sits on the other end of teeter tot: professionals connected to the music industry are asked to use their expertise to assess the entries, whereas the public is merely asked to vote.

What is needed now is for the jury scores to be submitted during the live Grand Final, rather than after the previous day’s dress rehearsal (a/k/a the “Jury” final). Because sometimes what happens on Friday is significantly different than what happens on Saturday, which both confuses fans and encourages conspiracy theories about corruption, vote fixing and the like. If the producers needs to use the backup rehearsal during the Grand Final, juries would be equally able to vote during this as the public would be.

But what should countries running a national selection do?

Combing both sorts of scores as close as possible to the method to be used in that year’s Grand Final seems like the obvious strategy for broadcasters running an Eestilaul or Melodifestivalen. However, since we won’t know the precise way the two score components will be aggregated in May 2017, broadcasters could not do that this season. Which is why the specifics should be confirmed by the EBU well before the national final season begins in December—ideally in September when the eligibility period for songs to be publicly performed begins.

Categories: ESC Insight

15
March
2017

Announcing ‘Juke Box Jury Live’ At SXSW 2017

Announcing ‘Juke Box Jury Live’ At SXSW 2017

First of all, thank you from the ESC Insight team for all your kind words that Juke Box Jury has returned for the 2017. In case you missed it our debut episode was posted yesterday. It’s the second episode that I want to highlight. You’ll be able to listen to it next Tuesday (March 21st) all being well, but you won’t be the first to hear it.

For the first time in its seven year history, we’re going to record Juke Box Jury live with a studio audience!

Every year I travel to the world-famous South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. This year there are over 3000 bands and performers playing live showcases on 200 stages over a five day period. As well as the music there are panels, seasons, and live recordings across the state capital. Earlier this year the SXSW organisers asked ESC Insight if we would record a live edition of Juke Box Jury on one of those stages.

We said yes.

Those of you at SXSW you can come along to meet Ewan and the judges, participate in the show, and perhaps give out your very own Hit, Miss, or Maybe. The show runs 1230-1330 on Thursday 16th March, in the Brazos Room at the JW Marriot. More details can be found at the SXSW website.

Everyone else, get ready to listen next week to a unique Juke Box Jury!

Categories: ESC Insight

14
March
2017

Kyiv, Are You Ready To Host The Eurovision Song Contest?

Kyiv, Are You Ready To Host The Eurovision Song Contest?

During their time together, the two discussed the experience fans should expect once on the ground, the nature of safety in Kyiv, including that of financial issues already suffered by some with ATM and card skimming, and hotel availability.

At the time of the interview, there was no public availability of the much promised hotel rooms held for sale, but these are now released online at eurovision.pilot.ua/en/eurovision_guests The site was launched with little to no fanfare through eurovision.tv, and indicates that it closes for sale on 15th March, giving fans little time to secure the availability. It is expected that after the date, hotels will then be free to open up bookings online once again at whatever prices they wish to set.

For those attending, the most eagerly awaited news is that of accreditation and party arrangements for fans. The details however remain hazy. Anton Tarenenko indicates that the chosen Euroclub venue – Parkovy – holds up to 5000 people with room enough to host fans on accreditations similar to those organised by Stockholm 2016. However, rumblings from the EBU and official organisers indicate far smaller numbers and no clear location for the general fans to assemble at. The tourism minister also mentions a Eurovillage venue, and a ‘Eurovision Embassy’; which appears to be a daytime destination for fan gatherings, similar to that of the OGAE-fanclub-organised Eurocafe. An official announcement is promised for later this week following the HOD meeting on all these elements.

Sharleen also discusses whether there will be large disruptions to travel plans, given that the Zhuliany (IEV) airport will be closing for runway repairs the day following the grand final as a promised 20,000 fans try to make their way home. The larger airport, Boryspil, will be handling the additional traffic, however it is highly recommended to fans to check with their individual airline about any possible time changes and also re-confirmation of flights.

For Australian fans, the conversation becomes more serious as there have been rumours swirling around the visa arrangements for the contest. Rather than clear this up, according to the national tourism minister, there have been last minute talks regarding visa-waiving arrangements. Given the late nature of changes and lack of official communication, both the Australian Embassy in Kyiv and the Ukrainian Embassy in Canberra are still highly recommending all Australian passport holders to secure their visas prior to arrival.

One thing is for certain at this time, the arrangements in Kyiv seem as uncertain as they were when first proposed months ago.

http://archive.org/download/escinsight_20170309_AntonTarasenko_452/escinsight_20170309_AntonTarenenko_452a.mp3

Categories: ESC Insight

11
March
2017

The Longest Eurovision Selection I Never Saw

The Longest Eurovision Selection I Never Saw

It’s seven o’clock on Semi Final night for the Lithuanian selection, and I’m sitting in an out of town generic pizza chain above a hypermarket on the outskirts of Vilnius. It’s Kaziukas day here in the city, the official welcoming of spring where seemingly half the country has descended to wander past stalls and stalls of rye bread and local honey that lasts for miles. I’m to meet Head of Delegation Andrius Giržadas. He suggested the location away from the hustle and bustle and we were practically the only people in the building.

It all seems too calm, too quiet, too relaxed. With less than ninety minutes until the broadcast begins the Head of Programming for LRT has just ordered a coffee and is sitting down for a long chat about all things Eurovision. Usually it’s at this point on a Saturday show where I’m lucky to grab two minutes with producers who are behind the scenes frantically putting the last touches in place.

LRT (Ben Robertson)

LRT (Ben Robertson)

But I’ve missed all the commotion. The actual show was pre-recorded on Tuesday night. Five days ago. All that happens now is to wander into the station control room, press play on the recording, and count in the televotes that come in from across the country. No stress, no drama.

It’s Live, But Not Live

In my head this would make the production far easier. You could record tracks again and again to make the final version just perfect. You could schedule artists to come in for different times during the day to give cameramen and directors a break. You could even add in shots from three or four different camera angles and then overlap them (think here how Molly’s ‘Children of the Universe’ was cut from multiple performances.

That’s not the case here. Despite being a pre-record, the contest happens each Tuesday night ‘as-live’ in a single take. It’s only if something goes wrong does anybody step in.

“There are no repeats,” explains Andrius, “it just goes like live TV. It was this year in fact we’ve had a girl rush into my office saying she didn’t hear anything in her in ears, so we checked that. There was also a repeat for example when there was a fault on our side with the LED screen.”

“This year Aistė [Pilvelytė, one of the artists in the National Final] was in her first round singing in the show. She didn’t step in to the music. According to our rules we could not stop the playback. But because it was her tenth time in the competition with all the respect to her we allowed it to happen [to start the song over].

“We were open about this and the hosts explained to the audience, we didn’t cut this off, we showed this in the show.”

They might have been tempted to make a clean cut and ignore anything ever wasn’t perfect. Certainly I can imagine Aistė herself wanting that in that situation; however with over 100 people in the audience and reporting for the media, there was no point in hiding. Any ‘story’ was already there, and those journalists would have cried about cover-ups and favouritism if there wasn’t that transparency.

What this means is that the Tuesday night show is exactly what is shown on the Saturday, plus the technical edits like recaps that can be added in later in the week. The only ‘live’ part of the show is the televoting, which are added to the jury votes and voiced over by just one individual at LRT headquarters.

Being An Artist In Lithuania

Like many small countries, Eurovision has far better credibility and opportunity here in Lithuania than many other countries around Europe. This means that it attracts artists to come back time and time again, even previous winners like last year’s entrant Donny Montell, who also represented Lithuania in 2012.

However the music industry here is heavily localised with little chance to naturally escape beyond Lithuania’s borders. Andrius points out that big artists here could be have ‘no name’ even in neighbouring Latvia. This is another bizarre benefit to the pre-recorded show. The Lithuanian broadcast doesn’t have artists waiting nervously for results in the green room, hosts randomly jumping on them for interviews, and all the tension of the backstage area. Instead the artists are far away from the studio doing their own thing. Some maybe are watching at home and casting votes for themselves. However this is a Saturday night and for an artist that’s primetime territory for a gig of your own.

The Stockholm Green Room (EBU/Andreas Putting)

The Stockholm Green Room (EBU/Andreas Putting)

Because the Lithuanian shows last throughout the winter, there’s no way the broadcaster can attract big name acts without using the pre-record. Those acts would simply miss out on so much paid work turning up at the studios each Saturday night their appearance in the National Final would directly make their career suffer.

Money is also an issue here for the artist. Previous years of the Lithuanian selection have held a Gala Concert after the winner was announced. Viewers at home, instead of televoting, could donate money to the winning artist during this show.

This year instead of a Gala Concert the televoting cost has been increased from 30 cents to 60 cents. From this amount 15 cents from each call will go towards a cash prize for the winning act. The point of this prize isn’t just as a reward for the winner – that is your budget to spend on your entry at the Eurovision Song Contest.

“We cover the participation fee and the accommodation in Kyiv,” said Andrius, “and of course we try and do deals with designers so it is easier to prepare to make things easier to do. If you really want to throw money at it, then that has to be yours.”

So the next time you see a Lithuanian act arrive on the Eurovision stage with a shiny new suit, innovative props and pyrotechnics galore, remember that the money for that comes from the artist themselves. A small handful will be able to count on label help to bring a lavish, slick, and all too often Swedish show, but so much is the exception from the norm.

Delivering Innovation On A Shoestring

One of the new features of Saturday night’s Lithuanian final is that it is being outsourced away from the TV studios for the first time. In what was explained as a ‘chance meeting’ between the Mayor of Klaipeda and LRT, the decision was made to host the Lithuanian final at the Baltic Sea port.

This is not quite so random and follows on from Ventspils being a regular host of Latvia’s Dziesma competition until 2014. Klaipeda this year also acts as Lithuania’s Capital of Culture, providing the excuse and obviously the capital to make such a project possible. The money to run this certainly isn’t coming from ticket buyers for the 5,000 seater arena, with tickets sold for just three euros to cover the administrative costs.

The popularity of the show surpassed all expectations with tickets selling out in minutes. Such a move has encouraged LRT that there is a commercial market for their shows as well. After hosting the European Basketball Championships in 2011 there are plenty of suitable arenas which would offer their interest. Whereas previously LRT would not take the risk of being left in the red, this year’s move has opened up that possibility.

There are also the technical aspects to the show itself. One of the biggest challenges when the songs have so many different heats to go through is that it’s difficult to make the show feel fresh and interesting to the viewer. To do so LRT build up each performance in more layers as we go through week-by-week.

“We are talking to the artists not to use all the pistons in the first show. No fireworks, no heavy fog, no wind in the beginning, focus on the song. First feel yourself comfortable on the start, sing the song, and then start to grow the performance.”

Of course some of the artists are requesting this and wanting that from day one. It’s a relationship not dissimilar to Lithuania turning up in the host country asking for the full box of magic tricks to be opened. Sure, as Andrius confirms, there are many things that an artist can bring to help spice their performance and LRT will never ask where the money comes for these magic extras. But there is only a base level at the start that LRT can provide.

The growth comes not just from extra flashy lights but also some pretty snazzy technology. The Semi Final was the first Lithuanian production using Cuepoint, a program which automates which cameras are being recorded when. This has meant some of the acts have been able to make sharper angle switches through different camera shots and reducing the risk of director error. The show was also broadcast in full surround sound for the first time.

For the Grand Final there’s an extra toy at the disposal of the Lithuanian artists. A huge spidercam will be dangled from the roof of the Švyturio Arena, making it possible for long shots that steady zoom in on the artist as the camera flies towards them. While from the outside looking in it’s easy to dismiss the Lithuanian selection as a lukewarm repeating sequence of shows underneath there is a growth mentality to add extra layers and ideas to the basic package.

It’s A Marathon, Not A Sprint

The fact the Lithuanian selection does last for week after week after week has made the show one of the least anticipated in the Eurovision community. It’s also been a case for frustration from the Lithuanian artists, who as Andrius said, ‘started complaing that it’s a long show’. This year except for the final round no artist has had to do two shows back-to-back, adding variety and putting less pressure on the singers to return to the capital each week. Artists are listened to by the broadcaster who might try some out-of-the-box ideas. One that didn’t work was having artists switch competing songs during the show, which proved to be very unpopular.

Other innovations have been a success though. For example songs can now be submitted with and without singers attached to them. This has resulted, predictably, in a flood of Swedish and British written songs being farmed out to the Baltics, but some of them have cultivated a final position on Saturday night. Andrius mentions Kotryna as an example of this, who transformed the demo given to her, breathing new life into the track so she could connect to it.

This move was deemed essential to the ‘laziness’ of Lithuanian songwriters, who are less inclined to risk a first round defeat for no commercial gain when they can write songs that get local airplay anyway. So much seems strange seeing how many songs progress through many rounds of the competition, getting repeated Saturday night primetime viewing on the main station.

And despite the drawn-out nature of the selection, each week it is the top ratings hit across all of Lithuania. ‘Eurovision is second only to basketball’ Andrius says with all seriousness.

You can see why as a broadcaster Lithuania will want this long format. Ratings are high, artists enter without payment and they get to slowly try out new technology and learn new skills. Unlike many bigger countries, the staff working on the show have plenty of other projects throughout the year. The Song Contest format provides popular, simple programming for a small broadcaster that can barely dream of competing with richer, larger nations surrounding them. Why put pressure on yourself with difficult programming decisions when a competition provides all the excitement you need, and big names turn up for free?

And they deliver each May too. Donny’s top ten placing last year meant he finished above the higher-tipped entries from Estonia and Latvia in the pre-contest rundown. Despite not winning yet, Lithuania has proven more successful in qualifying than their northerly neighbours with only five non-qualifications against Latvia’s seven failures and Estonia’s eight. Some of this could be attributed to strong diaspora voting, with Lithuania able to rely to televoting scores from Norway, Ireland and the United Kingdom, but the Lithuanian entries are generally safe, well-sung bops that squeeze past the semis.

And so is their National Final format. While we as fans watching from abroad might tut at the lack of suspense and drama as the different songs get presented days after recording, there’s a reason why this works. Sadly at the end of the day, most of this comes down to smart financial management by a relatively small broadcaster and the individual artists managing their careers. The expansions this year are triggering the right conversations that might make LRT dare to dream with their selection format. It might get a lot more exciting soon enough.

Categories: ESC Insight

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