International Music Program

The Eurovision Song Contest is a live, televised music competition that has received widespread ridicule since its debut in 1956. Certainly this has been true of the contest's reception in the United Kingdom, which informs the perspective from which this entry is written. Yet, as its longevity indicates, the program's importance within European television history is undeniable. While critics plead for the plug to be pulled on this annual celebration of pop mediocrity, the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) continues unabated, extending its media reach (if not its musical scope) from year to year. The competition is truly massive in terms of its logistical and technical requirements, the audience figures and record sales it engenders, and the significance of the popular cultural moments it produces.

The ESC is the flagship of Eurovision light entertainment programming. Eurovision is the television network supervised by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and was established in the early 1950s to serve two functions: to share the costs of programming with international interest between the broadcasting services of member nations, and to promote cultural appreciation and identification throughout western Europe. At the time of the first Eurovision broadcast in 1954 there were less than five million television receivers in the whole continent (90% of these were in the UK). The network now stretches into northern Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe, with most transmissions conveyed via satellite to the receiving stations of member nations for terrestrial broadcast.

The overwhelming majority of Eurovision transmissions have fallen into the sports, news, and public affairs categories. In the 1950s, EBU officials, perceiving the need for the dissemination of popular cultural programming to offset the influence of the American media, decided to extend Italy's San Remo Song Festival into a pan-European occasion. This became the ESC, the first of which was held in Lugano, Switzerland, and was relayed to less than ten nations. Since that time the contest has developed into a spring ritual now viewed by 600 million people in 35 countries, including several in Asia and the Middle East (who don't even send representatives to the competition).

The Eurovision Song Contest is a long, live Saturday evening showcase of pop music talent that typically ranges from the indescribably bad, through the insufferably indifferent, to a few catchy little numbers. Contestants are chosen by their respective nations during earlier preliminary stages. The duly nominated acts, as cultural ambassadors for their country, then attend the big event and perform their tune. Conventionally, the host nation is determined by the winner of the previous year's contest. (e.g. Gigliola Cinquetti's triumph of 1964, "Non ho l'età," resulted in Radiotelevisione Italiana playing host in 1965.) The ESC is designed to be a grand affair, with expensive sets, full orchestra accompaniment, and a "special night out" atmosphere. Best behavior is expected from all concerned.

Following the performances, panels of judges from each nation call in their point allocations to the central auditorium where the contest is taking place, and a "high-tech" scoreboard tabulates the cumulative scores. As even the most ardent of critics will attest, this is a special moment for home viewers--one where elements particular to the ESC (technological accomplishment, anticipation induced by the live event, intercultural differences) combine for curious effect. Will your country's representatives beat the competition and incur the envy of other Europeans? Will the juries throw objectivity to the wind and vote according to national prejudice? Or will, as occurred to Norway's hapless Jahn Teigen on that unforgettable May night in 1978, a contestant endure the humiliating fate of receiving no points whatsoever?


Eurovision Song Contest
Photo courtesy of EBU

Like its late-lamented Eurovision companion, Jeux Sans Frontières, the ESC pays homage to clean, amateur fun and the elevation of the unknown to the status of national hero. But unlike the excessively carnivalesque JSF, the Eurovision Song Contest attempts to avoid the very absurdity and mockery it unwittingly generates. For its first decade, the ESC was a wholesome, formal affair: the amorous ballads it featured helped to create a chasm between the competition's cultural mission and that of rock music that has never been bridged. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, youth orientation became a primary factor in determining victory. The 1968 winner, "La la la ..." from Spain's Massiel, inspired a succession of entries incorporating childish lyrics that avoided identifiable linguistic origins in order to garner wide jury appeal. A similar delve into formulism was initiated by the British Sandy Shaw the following year: "Puppet on a String" evoked a generically pan-European musical heritage with its oom-pah brass and circus ground melodies. In their triumphant international debut on the ESC, Abba opted for English and a continentally-recognizable historical event with "Waterloo" in 1974. The Swedish quartet's glam sensibilities and subsequent commercial success multiplied the contest's kitsch quotient tenfold and launched a string of 2-girl/2-boy combos in its wake. Intimating its own concern over the increasingly imitative nature of the competition, the EBU stipulated various edicts that generated a spate of regional, folk-influenced entries in the late 1970s, all of which scored poorly with the judges. The 1980s witnessed the ascension of over-choreographed performance, and more explicit attempts to excite juries and viewers with soft, sanitized sex appeal. Efforts to resuscitate the ESC as a viable musical forum have resulted in recent efforts to modernize the look and style of the contest and to encourage a more professional approach to promotion through the participation of the corporate music industry.

In estimating the significance of the Eurovision Song Contest, perhaps less attention should be given to its bloated festivity or the derivative nature of the contenders' music. While its cultural merits are dubious, the event has become a television landmark. Its durability and notoriety have led the EBU to support the Eurovision Competition for Young Musicians and the Eurovision Competition for Young Dancers in order to further promote Eurocentric cultural understanding through televised stage performance.

-Matthew Murray


Barnes, Julian. "Pit Props," New Statesman (London) 6 April 1979.

Collins, Michael. "Eurotrash," Punch (London) 5 May 1989.

Dessau, Bruce. "Song Without End," The Listener (London) 28 April 1988.

Eugster, Ernest. Television Programming Across National Boundaries: The EBU and OIRT Experience. (Dedham, MA: Artech House, 1983)

Kressley, Konrad M. "EUROVISION: Distributing Costs and Benefits in an International Broadcasting Union," Journal of Broadcasting, Spring 1978.


See also Music on Television