XTRA Debate: Hosting the Eurovision Song Contest, why bother?

Hosting the Eurovision Song Contest is a great honour. After the rumour buzz of who and why a particular city should host, we as fans fixate on a single place until the next winner is announced. Hosting offers a great opportunity for the host country to show to the audiences across the world a snapshot of a country beyond the winning song, beyond the contest itself. However, how has the last decade managed to showcase this cultural snapshot? Does it no longer matter who or where the contest is hosted?

Hosting the contest gives a broadcaster a grand task. To showcase 40 or so songs while also compressing fragments of history, culture, humour, traditions, trends and more into a a few hours. It offers a prime-time opportunity to make a parody or even correct stereotypical perceptions of a nation. This is a fine balance to strike, but also an incredibly difficult task. It goes without saying there are inevitably varying degrees of success each year.

Cropping… at what cost?

Discussing the length of the contest, one recurring point made by our team, and several readers of the piece was the factor of time that could be saved. Not so much the time for the songs, or the voting… but the rest of the time spent in the final. The opening segment, hosts covering commercial breaks and, of course, the interval act.

You need all of these things for a three and a half hour show and I think it would be a great loss to suddenly cull the interval act. Instead, it is about the ways in which the hosting and writing team ensure an audience is engaged throughout, so what may be a relatively lengthy interval act feels engaging. You have to retain the attention span of millions to keep the overall energy of the contest. The contest should not lose out on the chance to learn and engage with where the event is being held at the expense of a few minutes.

Humour and hosting – culture through laughter

One success story I would highlight would be the interval act in Malmö. The Swedish Smörgåsbord, directed and led by Petra Mede, was a fantastic way to quickly catalogue many components of Swedish culture in the space of a few minutes. Although the 10 minute performance was relatively simple in concept, it was highly effective.

Much like the acclaimed ‘Love, Love, Peace, Peace’ a few years later, Edward af Sillén’s writing engages with different layers of comedy which is woven into the performance. The effect of this satirical parody allows for an appeal to a general audience, a domestic Swedish viewer and a Eurovision fan. The latter chuckling at some of the inside jokes and nods to the contest (Carola and a wind machine, perhaps?). The sometimes camp or kitsch sensibilities that some of the skits had were all in the purpose of self-deprecation.

Glow up!

Jumping back a few years and to a neighbouring country: Norway! There are definite echoes to Malmö’s attempt of portraying a culture via hosting the contest. A very simple concept as an interval act, fundamentally designed to appeal to a mass audience. However, that is kind of where the similarities end. The flash mob dance remains to be, to me anyway, one of the more memorable interval acts of the decade.

However, in terms of learning more about Norwegian culture, history etc. it doesn’t have the same form of power as Smörgåsbord.

The flash mob performance transcended a single national identity. Broadcasting participants across capital cities (and the North Sea!), Madcon and consequently NRK portrayed Europe as a homogenous entity. Any host could have used movement and sound to construct a unified narrative*. In this respect, hosting was not particularly relevant to the identity and branding of Eurovision 2010.

Going back to our slogan debate a last month, ‘Share the Moment’ was not among the most popular. One reason that comes to my mind is the generic universality almost implies a lack of identity? Food for thought going forward to 2019.

*Any country could indeed have come up with an interval like ‘Glow’. But beyond a select few countries (Ireland, the UK, Sweden) I think audiences may have felt robbed if this was chosen as the interval act. These above nations have participated for a long time and have had the largest number of wins. A large part of the success with ‘Love, Love, Peace, Peace’ was that the parody was coming from Sweden: a Eurovision powerhouse. The comedy would not have worked had Portugal or Austria went down a similar path.

Selling the land of fire

52 countries have participated at least once, but only 26 countries have hosted the contest. Now obviously, if you include other formats under the Eurovision brand, this number is bigger, most recently being Poland for Junior 2019. However, sticking to the adult contest it is evident there is a lot of culture and national identity that can be shown to the world. This is something Baku 2012 definitely achieved via its use of postcards.

Most of the postcards are interesting, fascinating and showcased the grand landscape of Azerbaijan. The marvel of grand buildings, monuments and diversity is glaringly apparent.

However, elements of the postcard somewhat undermined the overall message. This largely falls down to the regular use of epithets. These titles, such as the slightly paradoxical ‘land of water’ were used to summarise the achievements of greatness and grandeur. However, this was not always particularly effective. Rather than the self-deprecation of Sweden or the universality of Norway, Azerbaijan’s approach was to sell itself to the audience.

There are many factors behind the tonal shift, too many for this piece. But one obvious factor is this: Azerbaijan had never won before. Compared to Sweden and Norway who have both won on multiple occasions, they have had ample opportunity to use hosting the contest as a means to advertise a cultural identity.

You only need to look at the intro section of Eurovision 2018, used in all three shows, to see how RTP tried to sell Lisbon to the world:

2019 onwards

In some respects, it would be easier to permanently have the contest hosted in the same venue, same city every year. There would be no gossip about a hosting crisis. No worry about flights, facilities or accommodation. But this in no way would be in the spirit of the contest. Though potentially handy on practical levels, the contest would lose a part of its identity.

Tel Aviv marks the final contest of the decade. It will be fascinating to see if and how the show is constructed to highlight the identity of Israel, its historic role in Eurovision and yet also do it in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Having won three times prior to Netta, I wonder if Israel will use the hosting opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Norway. Creating a moment of universality. Alternatively, a tongue-in-cheek look at the contest and Israel’s role in forming it à la Sweden. Or perhaps, in the models presented by Azerbaijan and most recently Portugal, hosting becomes a means to sell and showcase a participant of the Eurovision family.

We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on social media @ESCXTRA!

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