Eurovision, Explained for Non-Euros

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you combined American Idol with the Olympics, and then also added in a voting system that was as asinine as the Electoral College?  Welcome to Eurovision, Europe’s singing contest that doesn’t actually include all of Europe and also includes countries outside of Europe.

You are probably confused as hell right now and have a lot of questions.  But don’t worry, that’s what I’m here for.  Much like I gave an American’s explanation of the Irish sport Gaelic Football, I’m also here to provide the expat explanation of Eurovision.

The Eurovision Song Contest started in 1956 and is the longest running international TV contest of all time.  The basic premise is that countries from the ‘European Broadcasting Union’ (EBU – more on them in a moment) each have someone perform a song, and then everyone votes on which song is the best.  The winning country gets to host the following year’s contest.  For example, Portugal won in 2017, so this year’s contest took place in Lisbon.

If it were that easy, there’d be no need for an explanation. Like pretty much anything to do with Europe or European history, the real answer is much more complex than that.  So here’s a further look at who participates in Eurovision, and how is the winner determined.

Who can participate?

The EBU, as mentioned above, is different than the European Union (EU), which itself is different than the actual continent of Europe.  Not every European country is in the EU, and the EBU is made up of some European countries but also some non-European countries.  Through some very thorough research (Wikipedia), I’ve determined that the EBU is basically a network of television stations in different countries.  For example, RTE holds it down in Ireland, while the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation gets to participate even though Israel is definitely not in Europe.

They also have this idea of ‘Associate’ members.  This includes a lot of the non-European countries like Australia, and of course, the USA; ABC, NBC, and CBS are all associate members.

So, if you’re country is a part of the EBU, and is willing to pay a fee (of course there’s a fee, there’s always a fee), then they are able to participate in Eurovision.  In 2018, this included 43 countries.

What’s the format?

The countries are split into two groups for the semi-finals.  These are aired during the week – this year, they were on Tuesday and Thursday night.  6 countries are automatically into the finals and don’t need to participate in the semi-finals – Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the UK, and Portugal; the first five because they pretty much fund the entire thing, and Portugal as the host country.

Each country then goes on a live stage and performs a 3-minute song in front a huge, live audience.  This is the American Idol part of the contest.  The difference is that these acts are funneled in and out with efficiency not seen in Europe since – well, in a long time.  These aren’t just ‘guy and his guitar’ acts either – most of these shows have props, lighting, pyrotechnics, the whole shebang.  And yet, 18 or 19 acts get covered in just a couple of hours.  As soon as one act finishes, we get a brief intro of the next country, and then off we go.  It’s really quite incredible – no bull shit commentary, no suspense waiting for the next commercial break.  Just music, music, music.

Most songs are performed in English, but a few are done in native languages.  It might seem a bit of a risk to sing a song that only a small percentage of people will be able to understand (pretty much everyone in Europe speaks English as a second language but not everyone speaks Albanian, ya know?), but a really good song can connect even if you don’t know the lyrics.  If the song is trash then not knowing the words just makes it that much more trash-y, but if its good, the language of the lyrics almost doesn’t matter.  The Albanian song was really good, and even though my girlfriend is Kosovan and I can speak a few words (Sa eshte ora?), I had absolutely no idea what they were singing about yet was still able to enjoy the song.  By contrast, the Portugal song was in Portuguese and it was trash.  A year after winning, they finished dead last.

How does the voting work?

Alright, so up to this point, its been pretty straightforward.  A bunch of countries pay a fee and go on stage and sing a song.  There are two groups of semi-finals, and from there a list of finalists are determined and then a winner is crowned.  But how is that determined?  Voting of course.  Ahh yes, the voting system.

The voting is broken down into two parts.  Each country has a ‘home jury’ which is a group of people whose job it is to rank each act and award points based on that ranking.  1st place gets 12 points, 2nd place gets 10, then 8, 7, 6, all the way down to 1.  I think of this like the Electoral College except if the delegates also awarded points to second, third, fourth, etc., place and not just first.

The results of the jury vote in each country are announced during the Finals by a member of each country – usually a celebrity or someone on the TV news.  This takes FOREVER to get through 43 countries, and is usually incredibly awkward as 21st Century technology still has enough of a delay that there are gaps of complete silence followed by the hosts in Lisbon and the celebrity points-giver talking at the same time.

The second part of the vote is a popular vote or ‘televoting’ method.  People can call, text, or use the Eurovision app to place their votes.  Votes from within that country are then counted and the country with the most votes gets 12 points, then 10, 8, 7, etc.  This has no real parallel in US elections, as we like to use the raw popular vote except, ya know, when electing the most important office in the entire world. 

There is one sort of big caveat here – you can’t vote for your own country.  The theory behind this rule is that it prevents the bigger countries – your France’s, Germany’s, Italy’s, from just voting for their own country and winning.  It creates an interesting dichotomy though, and choice for voters – do you vote for who you really think was the best?  Or do you vote for the worst, in hopes that others will vote for your country and then you’ll go up against weaker competition?  It’s like the Prisoner’s Dilemma of Eurovision voting.

This sort of voting structure allows for some weird results, and some huge discrepancies between the jury vote and the popular vote, even within a particular country.  Let’s look at Croatia’s voting from the 2018 contest.  Their jury awarded Lithuania 12 votes (aka 1st place), while the popular vote allocated zero votes to Lithuania.  The jury vote also awarded zero points to Serbia; however, in the popular voting, Serbia was awarded 12 first-place votes.

Admittedly, to a first time viewer and someone who enjoys logic, this made no sense and was incredibly confusing the first time I watched.  Upon reflection, it created a lot of drama while the results were being read out.  While there were clearly 4 top acts (Israel, Cyprus, Austria, and Germany), once the televoting results were being read out, the standings were jumping all over the place.  It’s sort of like if the US Presidential election results saved all the swing states for last instead of as soon as the polls closed or results came in. 

This sort of tension and drama around the winners, combined with the brevity of the performances and the pace of the broadcast, creates a phenomenal viewing experience.  Despite the sometimes ridiculous songs and outfits, Eurovision is definitely something that Americans should tune into – provided you can wrap your head around the voting system.

Here’s a Spotify link to a Eurovision 2018 playlist:

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