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.
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.
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).
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.
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
Eurovision Song Contest
Photo courtesy of EBU
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
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.
Julian. "Pit Props," New Statesman (London) 6 April 1979.
Michael. "Eurotrash," Punch (London) 5 May 1989.
Bruce. "Song Without End," The Listener (London) 28 April
Ernest. Television Programming Across National Boundaries: The
EBU and OIRT Experience. (Dedham, MA: Artech House, 1983)
Konrad M. "EUROVISION: Distributing Costs and Benefits in an International
Broadcasting Union," Journal of Broadcasting, Spring 1978.
See also Music