Voting changes to Eurovision Song Contest

Big changes about how votes are declared at the Eurovision Song Contest were announced by the European Broadcasting Union yesterday.

This year, for the first time, viewers will see votes cast by the professional juries across Europe, followed an aggregation of each entry’s score generated by participating countries’ telephone votes.

A handy video produced by the European Broadcasting Union (below) explains it a little more clearly than my copy does.

The changes mean there’s likely to be a lot more tension in the second part of the show, with the added possibility of a cliffhanger ending. It’s thought, for example, that the telephone votes could dramatically change the leaderboard when the aggregate scores are applied to the jury total’s. A country that looked like it might win after the jury votes have been announced, might end up knocked off their top slot once the telephone votes have been applied.

It’s also thought that this may well mean that no-one is likely to end up with a big a fat zero because everyone is bound to get something from someone somehow. I’m not entirely convinced that’s possible and even if it was, its not zero that’s a problem. Isn’t coming last just as difficult a pill to swallow as not receiving a single vote?

I did a bit of maths. A winning country could theoretically get 1032 points (that’s 12 points multiplied by 43 countries for the jury vote, and potentially 12 points multiplied by 43 countries for the telephone vote if every country gave the winning song 12 points). Imagine if every jury scored the UK 1 point (it’s unlikely, I know, but stick with it) – that’s 43 points and every country’s aggregated votes saw the UK getting 43 points for telephone votes. That would be 86 points for the UK whilst the winner gets 1032. Sure, 86 is better than getting nothing, but the gap is so wide as to make low-scorers look just as weak and pathetic.

This change doesn’t sweeten the pill of coming last – I don’t think – but from a TV perspective, it is undoubtedly a good move. Many recent contests have careered into a weird oblivion three-quarters of the way through the voting process, when a clear winner is announced by the presenters rendering the rest of the event redundant. This year there could be just a little more tension in the air keeping viewers tied in to the final points announced.

The attention given to enhancing the viewing experience in the final section of each contest (semi-finals and final) demonstrates a an ongoing commitment to the format by the EBU. It also illustrates the creative thinking that has gone into developing the programme’s future strategy.

I’m not clear whether this is the work of one man (Jon Ola Sand) or the Reference Group as a whole, but it feels reassuring. There’s an appealing beauty in its apparent simplicity. Specifically, the EBU aren’t gathering in new data in order to change the way the voting is presented. Instead, they’re using the data in a slightly different way, coming up with a different calculation. By splitting out the telephone vote from the jury vote, they’re making the public’s vote work harder for each competing country. And they’re acknowledging the public’s contribution to the end result in the show, rather than sidelining the transparency over voting to online. Now viewers will have a much clearer sense of how their preferences differed from the juries. That said, if we were to see complete transparency, then viewers votes would be declared in the same way as the jury votes are. That’s something I’d really like to see in future years.

But I wonder whether there’s another potential consequence of this change in how votes are calculated and declared. Perhaps with a closer run for the top slot and a smaller margin between the top five songs, for example, recording companies will feel as though their act has greater return for their investment. Winning will still be the goal, of course, but coming second or third, especially if its a nail-biting or cliffhanger ending, might give that country and its act a little more ongoing exposure post-contest.

Big events like Eurovision have an inherent weakness: if they’re not attended to then they can wither and become a shadow of their former selves. But, the challenge with Eurovision is that the essential format can’t really withstand radical change. The fans would sob into their hands if it was tried. More importantly, the contest’s mainstream appeal, based on a recognisable format is now so ingrained in the minds of the viewers that to change it dramatically would risk alienating that core audience. So, looking closely at what could be changed and identifying what the biggest returns would be as a result, seems like the most sensible approach to optimising a much-loved show.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the competition pans out this year and will make an extra special effort to grow my nails so I have something to nibble on during the final.

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