XTRA Debate: Does size matter?

Looking at the fifty-two countries that have participated in the Eurovision Song Contest, they all come in different shapes and sizes. Is there an unspoken connection between small size (both geographic and population) and consistent performance?

What is a ‘small state’?

Several small nations have graced the Eurovision stage. Geographically this would include Andorra, Malta, Monaco and San Marino. If we were to stretch it, one could include Luxembourg. An obvious link to a smaller land mass is population. Insofar as population we could probably add Iceland to the above list. With a population of less than 500,000 each respectively, there is an implied statistical disadvantage. San Marino for example has an estimated population of 33,000… but how many of these will be musicians?  

Before you answer, Valentina Monetta only counts once!

Finding a singer

For broadcasters, finding a singer each year can be difficult. For smaller broadcasters, there can be added challenges to find acts.  

Looking at this list of countries and attaching their Eurovision entries, there is a catalogue of hits and flops. Fan favourites and obscure, forgotten songs. In this sense, there is very little difference than significantly larger nations such as Russia, France, Germany etc. Size should not make a difference at Eurovision, every country should be treated as equals, but what does it take for San Marino to be treated the same way as, say, Germany?

Every country has the same amount of rehearsal time, the same amount of points to give, the same opportunity to shine. That means the basis of the Eurovision Song Contest is correct: It is not as if bigger countries have more time to rehearse or are allowed to send longer songs.

Practical problems

This is not only the easiest method logistically, but also the fairest way to treat 40 or so delegations and entries. However, despite the equal playing field provided by the official rules, there are still micro-aggressions that undermine this presumed impartiality. At the time of writing, Andorra is the only country to never have performed in the final. And despite some hopeful attempts, Liechtenstein still haven’t managed to get EBU membership. Though Monaco has won the contest and made the top three on multiple occasions, they failed to qualify in all three attempts since the introduction of the semi-final format. The francophone advantage of the 1960s and 1970s might have something to do with their early success. Perhaps a continued ‘Sobral effect‘ will balance this out somewhat?

San Marino have made the final, albeit once… However, they have also come dead last twice in the semis. Malta has fared much more consistently with just over 50% qualification record, but haven’t managed to breach the top 10 since 2013. They also managed to finish as runner-ups three times.

A smaller nation generally equates to a smaller broadcaster. This, in turn, generally translates to a smaller budget. If a broadcaster, or national government does not prioritise Eurovision, participation becomes increasingly precarious. This can quite easily create a vicious cycle.

A poor result, qualification rate or ratings can make it incredibly difficult to justify the expense of participation. As a result, a smaller budget is allocated and the cycle repeats itself. Now obviously, this is a sweeping statement and there are exceptions.

However, you only need to look at Andorra, who will soon be commemorating a decade away from the contest. A statement made in May by the general director of broadcaster RTVA neatly illuminates the dilemma:

We will not participate in Eurovision 2019 or in any other EBU event. This is related to the participation costs and the logistics for each contest, which are very big for a small company like ours.

Xavier Mujal, RTVA general director

Language and demographic shifts

Going into 2019 and beyond, smaller nations might not be as hopeless as an initial outlook may seem. Malta and Iceland offer hope to break the potentially negative cycle facing smaller countries.

The advantage small state Luxembourg had in the 1950s and 1960s is the same advantage Malta had in the 1990s: the language they were allowed to use. With a francophone focus in the early decades, Luxembourg soared. And with the language rule still in place in the 1990s, Malta made good use of their status as former British colony by using English in the contest. That however does not take away that Malta’s broadcaster TVM made a clear choice to prioritise the Eurovision Song Contest once they were allowed to enter. Both at the adult contest and the Junior version, Malta saw the contest as an opportunity to create a bigger profile for their country.

That was especially clear when the Maltese broadcaster had the chance to host the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. The contest that year was filled with so much pride that it can only be seen as a lesson for other smaller states. Ever since, Malta has been seen as a true powerhouse at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. They are a great example of what a smaller nation can do if they set their mind to it.

A Calimero complex

After the contest ends, we have an annual tradition of hearing some countries complain. San Marino are one of those we tend to hear from after every non-qualification. When the EBU introduced the new voting back in 2016, SMRTV commented on the rules by stating that they felt discriminated.

That brings us to a next point. To compete as a big boy, you need to see yourself as one too. If you are first and foremost seeing yourself as a microstate with limited resources and, especially, limited chances, you are bound to fail.

In this list, we can include Andorra, looking at the statement we posted above, but sometimes, even Montenegro follows in these footsteps. The term one could use for it is a Calimero complex. This Dutch saying, which comes from the old cartoon Calimero, implicates that some countries tend to constantly feel inferior due to their size. That definitely seems to be the case at the Eurovision Song Contest. Just look at Malta or Luxembourg: See yourself as a big boy and be treated as one. See yourself as a toddler and you will indeed be treated as one.

Calimero has become somewhat of an icon with his statement, with intentional grammar mistake (Source: Peter Kaptein)

Aiming high, looking big

Expectation management seems, to me, to be key. Going on track record alone, I think broadcaster of smaller nations – especially those who have not had the strongest set of results – need to set realistic and achievable goals:

A competent singer, with a strong song and captivating visuals.

It is easier said than done. But previous powerhouses like the UK and Greece have also struggled to find their feet in recent years.

Rather than entering with , or potential bitterness about a failure to succeed, take the Czech example. Another nation who, up until this year, had struggled to make a big impact on stage. A nation who had only tasted Eurovision success via making the final in 2016. This year, that changed with Mikolas Josef. I do not believe that only the Czech broadcaster can benefit and learn from his success.

In short: size does matter, but only in the initial preparatory steps of sourcing an act. Budgets and a small population can limit things, but that does not forsake a nation completely. Recent news from San Marino critically questioning and reviewing the selection format can only be taken as a pro-active step to ensure success. 

More of this please!

Does size truly make a difference? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on social media @ESCXTRA!

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