What Can The 2018 World Cup Teach The Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision Song Contest… it’s like the World Cup of music (or the Superbowl of Song, for our American readers wondering why soccer has suddenly become the most important sport on the sports channels). And there’s a lot of similarity between the two events – fans from numerous nations descending on the hosts, intra-country rivalries and politics on show, and a sea of flags filling the arenas.

But the World Cup is a heck of a lot larger than the Song Contest. What should the EBU be looking at from FIFA’s little event? At the highest level, it’s about connecting to the audience. And here, the Song Contest has the edge, because much as FIFA wants to say it is football that connects the world, it’s really music.

Me And Me Mum And Me Dad And Me Gran

If there’s one thing that has powered England fans through the last month, it’s been the music and it’s not difficult to understand why. Trying to bond over a specific goal or describe a moment between fans is not an easy thing to do – the closest you could probably get is either Kenneth Wolstenholme’s “they think its all over… it is now!” in the 1966 Word Cup Final, or Bjørge Lillelien’s “Your boys took a hell of a beating” in the 1982 World Cup Qualifying round.

The emotional connection comes through the songs that are associated with the World Cup. The anthems that were put together to show support for the teams back in the seventies, eighties, and nineties that were taken onto the terraces, and the musical anthems that can be used as a shorthand for emotions and experiences are everywhere.

If the Eurovision Song Contest wants to take just one simple lesson away from the World Cup it is this. If you capture emotion, you capture the hearts and minds of everyone involved…. and music is emotion. There’s no formula for the right football song (although ‘Vindaloo’s’ mess of almost non sequiturs and Na-na-na rhythmic chanting gets awfully close), neither is there one for winning the Song Contest. But the best songs tap into feeling.

Perhaps the lyrics of ‘Three Lions’ are a bit more forward and brash in their intentions compared to the sublet emotions of ‘Amar Pelois Dois’, but the connection is there.

Did You Know The Football Was On?

You know what FIFA is good at? Promotion. Everyone knows that the World Cup has been on, companies want to be involved either directly through promotion or subtle versions of guerrilla marketing that implies a connection to ‘football’ without any mention of FIFA’s event. Apple’s latest series of videos about editing video on the iPad in its ‘Berlengas Island Cup 2018’ promotional video is a key example.

With the best will in the world, The Eurovision Song Contest does not have that sort of support. Combined viewership numbers from around the world are great for PR purposes, but it’s hard to draw direct comparisons. Going for a smaller subset gives a much better idea of the difference in engagement.

UK broadcaster ITV saw a peak of 26.6 million viewers for the England vs Croatia Semi Final, and an 84 percent share of the viewers watching. Compare that to the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in the UK, which had a peak of 8.1 million viewers and a share of around thirty percent. Ninety minutes of football is three times more popular than a well-crafted three minute pop song on a single night.

But its more than one night. The Song Contest is a long way behind the World Cup in terms of saturation coverage and the ability to dominate the news cycle for a month, but in the window of the Contest’s Semi-Finals and Grand Final the modern dynamics of news and social media does give Eurovision a strong foothold in the cycle.

Events in the host city do contribute to ‘Eurovision week’ but outside of the host city and the host broadcaster, what else is there for everyone who will be watching on the Saturday night?

The host broadcaster has an important part to play but the logistics of the modern Contest stretch the resources of a public broadcaster. If The Eurovision Song Contest is to step up to the next level and become more than ‘one night of event television’ (and I’m assuming that one achievable goal is to get a week of coverage around the world), then the challenge is for the EBU, its members, and the partner organisations that work on the Song Contest is to take that existing love of the Contest and work out how to build on it.

How Do You Get To Saturday Night?

There are a multitude of reasons for Eurovision’s ‘Big Five’ to be given an automatic place in Saturday night’s Grand Final – which are beyond the scope of this article – and of course the hosts are also allowed to skip the Semi Finals. That leaves 20 slots to fill from the Eurovision Semi Finals, and I’d argue that selecting the countries for the Saturday night means the Song Contest Semi Finals are more like the qualifying rounds for the World Cup. And here things could get very interesting.

A quick recap on the two formats…

All the countries that enter the Eurovision Song Contest (minus the Big Five and that year’s hosts) are placed into six pots, before being drawn into two Semi Finals. The pots ensure a spread of counties that have exhibited cultural diaspora over the years, and is the method of choice to reduce neighbourly voting that skew results away from quality and towards geography.

All the countries that enter the World Cup submit entries to their FIFA Confederations (of which there are six). Each Confederation is awarded a number of entries to the Finals, and organises an intra-member competition to fill these slots. Some go with a league based approach, some go with a knockout.

This is complicated by some Confederations having half a slot, resulting in Inter-Confederation games to decide on these half slots (so the Oceanic Confederation saw New Zealand play the CONMEBOL’s Peru for a slot in the World Cup Finals).

The EBU should not be afraid to experiment with the Eurovision Song Contest. It has to evolve and change to meet the challenges of the current broadcast environment. We don’t sit around as an invited audience in tuxedos and evening gowns in respectful silences, we don’t have an orchestra being forced to recreate the sound of ‘Midnight Gold’, and we no longer rely on juries to determine the winner.

Things have to evolve to stay fresh, and the Eurovision Song Contest should not recoil from change.

One thing that the World Cup organisers focus on is bringing a diverse mix of countries from around the world to play football… not necessarily the best 24 teams in the world at that time (after all, Chile are in the Top Ten world rankings, but were not in Russia). Should one goal of the EBU be to present a representative mix of countries on the Eurovision stage on Saturday night?

Arguably the ‘six pot’ system that splits up the Semi Finals guarantees a good mix of geography on show during the current Tuesday and Thursday night shows, but it still leaves a question mark over the composition of the Saturday night show with entire regions potentially not taking to the stage (which also has an impact on the scoring as cultural norms for a region can be focused on a single song or diluted over many).

Could the idea of the World Cup group stage be taken and tweaked for the Song Contest? Instead of six pots for the Semi Final allocation, we could have four groups of roughly seven countries, with the top five in each group winning qualification to Saturday night.

This shakes up the Semi Final format, offers a broader mix of countries for Saturday night, and allows some interesting decisions to be made. The pots are currently based on historical voting patterns, which is broadly speaking down to geography. This could be one way to create the ‘Semi Final groups. You could commit completely to geographical selections, to the already used voting patterns, or look at previous Saturday night qualification records to ‘seed’ the groups to have either a mix of quality in each group, or group together countries with weaker qualifying records.

Having two ‘Qualification Contests’ taking place during each Semi Final night would be a huge break in format, but it could be the refresh that the mid-week shows need. It creates a new dynamic in the competition, it offers more ‘peaks’ of excitement with two Contest results to be declared, and it allows the Semi Final shows to be a more unique experience, rather than a carbon copy of the Grand Final.

Do We Need More Saturday Night Action?

The World Cup is played over 64 matches, while Eurovision is played out over three matches. For the Football that means a month of coverage potential once it starts, more stories to tell to the public, more opinion columns and engagement in the mainstream, and the ebb and flow of competition.

How can the Eurovision Song Contest achieve a similar impact if it is compressed in an incredibly short timescale of five days of public attention over three shows?

Given the viewing figures of the Song Contest, focusing on the single Saturday night show is the safest option. This is a show that delivers a significant increase in viewership for the EBU’s broadcast partners, creates one of the biggest musical showcases in the world, and offers countless opportunities for EBU members to share knowledge and learn from others.

What would happen if it changed from two mid-week shows followed by one Saturday night, to three Saturday night shows?

Yes there would be more logistical challenges, there would be more time needed ‘on the ground’ and there would be extra costs involved – discussion with the EBU’s own members is critical to work through the impact on financial and technical resources – but three spectacular Saturday night with increased viewing figures and engagement is surely worth examining? 

What’s On The Screen?

Play football for ninety minutes, show it on TV around the world. Sing a lot of three minute songs with thirty second postcards (which is ninety one minutes), show it on TV around the world. Again, the parallels are fun. The trick is to make it exciting to the viewers at home, and to continue to look at new ways of doing old things.

It’s great to see both organisations looking at ways of improving the presentation. The recent change in splitting the jury vote and the televote into two sections has kept the traditional ‘douze points’ in the script but also creates a level of tension that can rival moments in reality TV if your hosts can build up the sense of occasion.

Melodifestivalen 2013 Voting (image: SVT Direkt)

Melodifestivalen 2013 Voting (image: SVT Direkt)

FIFA is also looking at some presentational changes – there’s not much you can do in the ninety minutes or extra time, but switching the penalty shoot out from ‘turn about’ (the ABAB system) to something closer to tennis where teams exchange the right to ‘kick first’ in a pair of penalties reduces the advantage of going first, and allows the system to be called ABBA.

But FIFA did introduce VAR to the World Cup this year – the Video Assistant Referee. This allowed a team of referees to analyse certain plays to confirm if any rules had been broken, or to alert the on-pitch referee that they might want to look at something again to see if anything had been mixed. In general VAR has been a success in reducing bad calls on the pitch.

You never want a blank monitor during a broadcast (image: Ewan Spence)

Watching over the Contest (image: Ewan Spence)

Maybe it’s time for Eurovision to consider its own version of VAR? Obviously in extreme circumstances the EBU will offer acts the chance to perform once more for the public (an option some countries have taken up recently, and others have not), but I’m looking more towards the Jury than the public. Currently the jury members all watch the ‘backup tape’ as it is recorded during the second all-up dress rehearsals of the Semi Finals and Grand Final. No commentary, no explanations, once through.

Isn’t it right that the jurors are officially given the chance to watch the performances more than once? The EBU has already passed the point of the jurors voting on a different performance, so why not give them the scope to examine performances more than once to come to a conclusion. The built in recaps are not enough if they do not capture the key moment of a song or the point where stagecraft is to be closely examined, a jury note listened, or choreography is to be timed.

Think Big

Why is the World Cup as big as it is? Partly because of Football’s place in the world, but also because FIFA decided to make it the biggest event in the world, took every opportunity to ‘big up the cup’. The World Cup has taken the sporting element and made it more entertaining, more engaging, and more mainstream.

The Eurovision Song Contest can do the same. It starts from a point of entertainment, but by building up the competitive side of the Song Contest and increasing the engagement and opportunity it offers, it can aim to deliver more value to the EBU’s members, to the musicians who take part, and to the cultural impact it can offer.

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