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XTRA Debate: Is there an ideal national final format?

As the national final season is upon us, countries are starting to reveal how they will select their entries for the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. Plenty of countries use a national final to determine who will fly their flag at Europe’s biggest entertainment show and as many countries as there are, there are just as many formats to stage your national final. But is there an ideal format?

Which formats do we have?

Saara Aalto got her own national final from YLE.. (Credit: Miikka Varila / Yle Kuvapalvelu)

First of all, it’s important to take a look at which formats we have to decide upon an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. The first thing countries need to decide is whether to let their national final consist of one show or more. Shows like Melodifestivalen and A Dal work with multiple shows, whereas Unser Lied für… and DMGP consist of just one night only.

The next step is a little more complicated. Are you going to ask each of your acts to sing just one song or will they have more songs, like in Uuden Musikiin Kilpailu (UMK) last year? You can also turn it around, like the BBC are doing for Eurovision: You Decide next year and take one song per two artists.

There are indeed plenty of options available to choose an act from. The complete internal selection, like many countries are opting for, will not be discussed in this article. We do know that a complete internal selection can of course be really successful. Conchita Wurst won the contest for Austria in 2014 after being internally selected and ever since that same year, the runners-up of the Eurovision Song Contest have been internally selected entrants: The Common Linnets, Polina Gagarina, Dami Im, Kristian Kostov and Eleni Foureira.

The past winners’ lesson

Winning the Eurovision Song Contest is always a sign that you’re doing something right as a country. If we’re looking for an ideal national final format, the past few winners should tell us a little more about what could potentially work and what absolutely doesn’t in terms of format.

Of the past ten winners, nine at least took part in some sort of preselection. Twice we saw a televised artist selection, followed by an internal selection. It proved fruitful for both Israel’s Netta this year and Azerbaijan’s Nikki & Eldar in 2011. Lena’s victory in 2010 came after Unser Star für Oslo, a talent show where a rising star would go on to represent Germany at the Eurovision Song Contest. Lena Meyer-Landrut eventually won the final, beating Jennifer Braun. In the show, they both sang three songs (one of which was “Satellite”): two shared ones and one unique song.

By far the most seen option, though, is a simple national final. Each singer enters with their own song. The only difference we see is that Denmark’s 2013 victory with Emmelie de Forest was a one show national final, whereas the other five winners all had a national final with semis. From Måns Zelmerlöw to Salvador Sobral and even Alexander Rybak, they all had to survive a semifinal before winning their national finals.

Familiar faces

Having gathered all this information about the way former Eurovision winners managed to get their hands on the tickets to victory, there are a couple of conclusions I’d like to draw.

The first one is that a multiple show event will definitely help you. Not only do semis really help in convincing your country that you are their best shot at victory, a talent show can have the same effect: You’re convincing your country that you are the right representative for their country. Except for Conchita Wurst, all winners of the past ten years had to survive at least one show to appear in the final. It definitely helps getting recognised. Making a one time impression can lead to being a fluke. You just need to show your talent more than once to make sure your country picks the right act.

When you want your country to choose the right act, it’s important to give them a finished product. A slight revamp is of course not a bad thing, but an overhaul like we often see from Albania after Festivali i Këngës took place just doesn’t really make your selection stronger.

Keep it simple

The most important lesson from this is to keep it simple. A Dal in itself is a rather simple format: Each act has one song, they need to survive a heat and a semi to make it through to the final. But where A Dal has a lot of jury power, with an app vote to mark entries, as well as a televote to save one entry that the juries didn’t put through, it just makes it all a little complicated to follow. There’s not always a good balance between those that progress.

That’s why ‘Keep it simple’ is a good slogan to have. Mind you, that only goes for the format, not for the actual songs that take part. The best trick is just to have each artist sing their own song. The sharing of songs never really works. Even in 2010, Jennifer Braun ended up singing her unique song “I Care For You” in the superfinal, showing that the potential of “Satellite” didn’t really come through in her version.

Doing what Germany did in 2010 (and 2012) is a bit of a risk, as you could end up with bland songs. To be fair, both those years, Germany ended up with credible, solid, but a little beige songs in their national final. Lena just transformed “Satellite” into something that went straight into the hearts of European viewers. The problem with having multiple artists sing the same song is that you have the risk of being beige. You might be lacking identity. The song will never be totally ‘yours’, as we saw with Josh Dubovie in 2010, who ended up with… “That Sounds Good To Me.”

Poor Josh ended up singing this tune…

Report card

The lead up to this debate article was the launch of the new United Kingdom national final, where six artists will perform three songs. If we’re now going to look at who’s doing well and who’s not, we’re sad to say that the BBC seem to have missed this lesson on the ideal national final format.

You’re able to overcome the issue of something being a one show event – that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, although SuRie probably won Eurovision: You Decide based on her one performance last year. The problem is however that you’re not giving enough identity to the songs. Essentially, you’re replicating what the United Kingdom and the Netherlands did in 2010.

A much better report card can be given to Portugal’s Festival da Canção or Estonia’s Eesti Laul. Both shows consist of multiple evenings, with a few semifinals leading up to a final. The people will know what they’re voting for and the concept is clear and easy enough to make the best song shine. For Portugal, it’s just a shame their best possible option got disqualified or withdrew before the final this year

Where does that leave beloved national finals like A Dal and especially Melodifestivalen? It’s fair to say that both countries are doing really well with their current formats, but with the voting system in A Dal and the second chance round and especially the app voting, on which we wrote a debate a while ago, in Melodifestivalen, it might just be a little too complicated.

Oliver’s opinion

Nick makes a convincing argument for a range of selection methods, outlining both the pro and cons of each. However, when it comes to a national final, too often it seems there is a conflict between the best method of selection and making a good stand-alone show for tv. 

Giving the game away

Slovakia does not have a huge Eurovision history, but they do provide an example of how to not only ruin suspense, but how to implicitly promote tactical voting. Though on the surface the Slovak national final, Eurosong, seemed relatively normal, there was a glaring issue. The results of the televote was essentially fed live through the screen, meaning audiences (and the acts!) knew exactly how a song was being received. 

Check out the bottom-right corner!

Knowing the results as and when they come in allows an audience member to know how much value their vote actually has. Distortions can too easily be made to vote against a song, as much as you may want to actively vote for a song. 

Superfinal = superflop?

I agree that national selections that involve semi-finals are a great method to crop the best entries and to create a sense of familiarity. The use of a ‘super final’, however, is a big pet peeve of mine. Generally speaking, this would involve anywhere between two to four songs in a final selection show are selected. These songs then are given another round of voting to fight for the crown. In recent years, this format has become a staple method in Iceland, Denmark, Germany and Estonia – but have been used by other countries. 

This format can be incredibly arbitrary, or incredibly dangerous. In the first example below, let me take you to Estonia 2009. This was the year the baltic broadcaster decided to scrap Eurolaul after a disappointing set of results: Eesti Laul was born. For its first year, a simple 10 song strong national final was held. Urban Symphony was one of the favourites to win with a striking and unique song. The group had won the jury vote (12 points) and had just missed out on winning the televote (10 points). With 19 points to Traffic’s 16, Rändajad was the clear winner. However, to prolong the national final, the format insisted on a superfinal. The results of which are below:

ArtistSongVote share
Urban SymphonyRändajad82%
TrafficSee päev18%

Clearly, when placed in a binary, the strong initial televote was magnified. This huge landslide confirmed the initial support for the song. However, it does sort of beg the question… what was the point of this vote? Did the use of a super final enhance or add much tension to the show? Not really. Sure, Estonia came to Moscow with impressive bragging rights of huge national support… but that does not automatically translate into qualification or a good result. 

Dealing with a draw

Every national final format should consider the rare possibility of a draw. You only need to look at the result of the 1969 and 1991 Eurovision Song Contest to see what headaches can occur when more than one act finishes with the highest total of points. This can only occur with more than one demographic able to give votes/points to a song: typically a jury and televote.

This is an obvious, but controversial point. 

Should the televote gain ‘priority’ in the event of a tie? Should it be the other way round? Spain have found itself in both situations in recent years, in 2014 and 2017 respectively!

Two draws in four national finals. The rigidity of the point threshold may seem arbitrary at first, but it can fundamentally make or break a winner.  

A clever element of Melodifestivalen is the distribution of points. While the jury give a rigid set of points in a similar fashion to Eurovision, the televote is rewarded proportionately. There are flaws in this approach, sure. However, it seems this will be amended for 2019 onwards. In having a 50/50 format that is distributed differently, the likelihood of a draw is significantly reduced. In doing so, it exponentially increases the feeling that the eventual winner is due to a mutual consensus. 

I hope that in the new format for the UK, audiences get a transparent breakdown of voting patterns. Similarly, a panel should only be there if they can vote for songs, rather than attempt to seemingly influence the audience’s perception of a song. 

Vincent

Last year, our editor Luke Malam wrote a very interesting editorial on the question of the “perfect” Eurovision national selection format. And I do share his conclusion: there is no perfect national selection format, but there is a best format for each country.

Nothing can work everywhere

Nick and Oliver showed us the many variables of the national selection format : how do we vote, how do we break ties, who votes, what do we vote for, who do we vote for, etc. The combinations are endless, and I don’t think there is a universally perfect combination. Each country has its own characteristics and his own way to find the right (or the wrong) entry. Because what makes a national selection good (or ideal) is not its format, but its results on the big stage.

Look at Italy and Albania : in a way, their national selection formats are quite similar. The Festival di Sanremo and the Festivali i Kengës are both “regular” and “historical” song contests, the winners of which are invited to participate in Eurovision. What are the results? Albania regularly fails to qualify whereas Italy, despite being part fo the Big Five, is a powerhouse of the 2010s. Obviously the Albanian revamps might not help, and the voting format differ, but the selections are close enough to show that the Italian formula doesn’t work everywhere.

There is nothing wrong with complicated formats

Also, the voting in Sanremo is a very complicated thing, and it’s still efficient. The same can be said of A Dal (for the voting, and the presence of a superfinal) or the Melodifestivalen (where the voting itself is fairly simple, but the entire format is a bit complex, with the Andra Chansen show). Yet both selections are incredibly efficient, producing successful Eurovision entries. On eight participations since the 2011 Melodifestivalen new format was introduced, Sweden reached the Top 10 seven times, the Top 5 six times and victory itself twice. A complicated selection format is not necessarily contrived if its choice works well in Eurovision.

The same can be said of “non-traditionnal” selections, those that do not have the classic “one artist one song” packages to choose from. Israel’s “The next star” has been a very successful selection show for the 2019 host, allowing it to break free from its non-qualification streak (2011-2014) in Vienna, and giving it access to the final since then, including a victory in Lisbon. But are we sure the formula will work for Georgia or Malta next year?

How to make a winner, in Israel
There’s no “must-have”, but there are “must-not-have”

There are a few things that I find, however, universally bad, either by principles or practically. Live display of the televoting through the night (like in the Eurovizijos) is a bad thing for any show. Opening the voting lines before all the songs have been performed is a bad thing too. And finally, despite my love for “On my way” (Slovenia 2017) and “Las Vegas” (Sweden 2005), who won their selection because of this rule, the “locked” televoting points must be banned. Locked points in general, actually. By which I mean the process of attributing a fixed number of points to the ranking of the televote and/or the entire juries.

The Eesti Laul, for example, reduces the televote rankings to a simple 1-to-8-10-12 system (and does the same with the juries) : Elina Nechayeva’s 37,000 votes became 12 points in 2018, and Vajé’s 6000’s became 10 points… The same happens with the juries. A Melodifestivalen-like voting format (televoting points proportionate to the share of votes) is usually the best in those cases. But it is worse when the jury points aren’t reduced to a 1-to-12 system, yet the televote is locked : that is the problem of EMA nowadays, or the Melodifestivalen in the 2000’s, when each televoting rank was attributed an arbitrary number of points. In EMA, the televote winner gets 72 points, and the runner-up 60, even if the winner has more than twice the number of votes the runner-up has (2017).

What we like is not necessarily what works

I will admit that, as a fan, I prefer watching a show with semi-finals and without a song embargo (Eesti Laul, A Dal, Destination Eurovision 2019, etc.). But it doesn’t mean other shows are less good or less efficient. There is no recipe to win Eurovision, and there is no recipe to find a good national selection format, not one that works for everyone. So let’s celbrate the diversity of formats, because, if done right, it can give us the best possible quality in Eurovision.

What do you think? Is there an ideal national selection format? What is your favorite? Tell us more in the comments below, or on social media at @escxtra !

Nick van Lith

I'm one of the founding members of ESCXTRA.com. Seven years after the start, I'm proud that I am now the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of this wonderful website. When I'm not doing Eurovision stuff, you should be able to find me teaching German to kids...
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