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XTRA Debate: Does an ‘international jury’ actually reflect an international taste?

Can an international jury foreshadow what could happen in the main contest?

From its inception, juries have almost always had a role to play in the Eurovision Song Contest. In fact, to my count only 11 editions of the contest have involved a professional jury vote worth less than 50% of the overall mark in some shape or form! However, when it comes to a national final, the use of an ‘international jury’ have become increasingly popular. Is there much correlation between an international jury in a national final and the juries in the main contest?

Import/Export

To preface this, I think it would be useful to frame juries through the lens of imports and exports. It may seem like a strange comparison, but I think it works. For the main contest, a broadcaster selects a handful of music-based experts, currently five, to represent a nation. Ideally, they should all be from diverse backgrounds and fields of expertise to effectively reflect a composite and holistic score criteria. Naturally, being unable to vote for your own country, in this context a national jury is by default international, voting for external acts, songs and nations.

Meanwhile, when it comes to a more localised national final, broadcasters may find it more helpful to effectively import assistance from around the continent or beyond to get a few added bonuses. In this sense, an international jury in a national final allows a set of external ears to express what is hopefully an objective review of a selection. A wide geographic net reduces the likelihood that an act may be scored favourably based on national fame or backstory. Potential language barriers can allow for a sharper perspective to detect strong vocals and general musicality.

Foreshadowing?

One benefit, which is often only realised with the grace of hindsight is the element of foreshadowing. An international jury gives a slight indication to how a winning song might be received in the main contest. It allows delegations a quantitative figure for likability and thereby acts as a rehearsal-of-sorts before official rehearsals even begin. Sweden is the biggest example to my mind. A decade ago, Melodifestivalen adjusted the format and introduced an international jury. The jury was composed of 12 individuals from across Europe including music professionals and Heads of Delegations. Notably, recent Eurovision winner Marjia Šerifovic was included in the panel. They had the power to bring back a wildcard song that was felt to have the best chance in Moscow.

The same group also contributed to the final. Despite having just over 8.3% weighting of the overall jury score, there was a radical distinction compared to the other 11 regional Swedish jurors. The international jury gave a paltry 1 point to eventual winner Malena Ernman, leading to boos around the Globen.

Fast forward to Moscow, and ‘La Voix’ comfortably qualified. In the final, the collective televote score would have placed the Scandinavian nation in a respectable 15th. However, the jury placed the opera singer a lowly 22nd. It seems to me evident that the international jury were giving a clear indication that as it stood, there was a disconnect to an international audience. The carbon copy performance in Moscow was a fatal error to not effectively interrogate what could be improved.

Format limitations

Of course, this theory has glaring limitations. An international jury is not infallible, or a guarantee to success. My mind jumps to the current UMK format, last used in 2018 for Saara Aalto. With only a field of three songs to pick from, there is little room to see an effective comparative spread of votes to see what may prove more successful going forward. Providing Darude’s three songs will face international scrutiny on the weekend, I will be curious to see if any further feedback is given during the show, rather than just dishing out on a scoreboard. Evidently, some formats allow for a more effective use of an international jury… I’m not yet convinced UMK as it stands is one of them!

It would be impossible to say in the case of all of these examples whether the broadcaster/delegation speak to jurors to get more detailed feedback on what worked or was less successful moving forward.  

Out of touch?

Of course, any jury involvement is liable to criticism of relevance or not reflecting a wider audience. Once again, Sweden comes to mind: Euphoria to be precise. The international reception to ‘Euphoria’ in Melodifestivalen in comparison to Baku can be a fairly helpful example.

In Melodifestivalen, the UK jury gave Loreen 6 points. In a seemingly rare moment of consistency the UK jury, comprising of different individuals, also gave Sweden 6 points in the grand Final. However, Sweden won the UK televote. This in itself may not be a huge feat, but considering Jedward also featured in the final I think there is something to be said there about the scale of public support. So much support that ‘Euphoria’ broke into the UK charts, peaking at number 3. It goes without saying that the song was relevant to the music scene, original and had good vocals… three of the four categories juries should be marking performances on. How could the juries be seemingly so detached from reality?

Meanwhile, Belgium offers a complete contrast. In Melfest, Belgium’s jury, much like the UK, gave ‘Euphoria’ 6 points. Likewise, Belgium’s eventual 12 points in the final, like the UK, was given to Sweden. However, breaking down the jury vote a little more and something fascinating occurs. In Baku, the Belgian jurors placed Loreen second to Albania, completely undermining the middle-of-the-road mark given by the international jury. The European temperature gauge idea kind of falls apart. Comparing the two performances, there is very little between the performance in Stockholm and Baku. It seems like there is a degree of correlation, but international juries may not be the best temperature gauge after all…

Vincent’s opinion

I strongly believe that international juries can be a good thing for a national selection, but not with every format. As Oliver wrote above, it is quite obvious that with only three songs to choose from (and with a voting procedure that gave 8, 10 and 12 points for the top three songs… out of three), the UMK 2018’s international jury couldn’t be expected to be as effective and as decisive as the juries in Melodifestivalen or Destination Eurovision can be.

The number of songs can be an issue. The general level of the selection too, obviously: in a weak selection, you cannot expect the juries to do anything other than salvage what can still be salvaged out of it. I will obviously refrain from giving any names here (but UMK 2018 was not a weak selection, in my opinion).

But beyond these observations which are exogenous to the jury itself, there are many variables related to the jury format: how many jurors? From how many countries? And thus, one juror or one jury per country? From each country? Do we mix them with our own national jurors? Who do we pick anyway? And the one question linking them all: is there an optimal configuration?

Obviously, not really. First, the question is: are international jurors really that useful? Does a song that won the international jury vote in its respective national selection end up with a better jury rank than the others? On average, yes. In 2018, international juries’s favourites that made it to the Eurovision Final were ranked 11th on average with the juries (11,166), the rest ranking 14th on average (14,15). Interestingly, they also did better with the televote (12,333 for the former, 13,85 for the latter).

Devil is in the detail

But those are averages, and individual examples show that nothing is simple. Some jury favorites do end up high in jury rankings (Sweden in the 2010’s being the prime example, including in 2013, “You” having the third best jury average ranking), others do not (“Monsters” was 24th in 2018 with the juries). “Our Choice” was only 2nd in the first round of Söngvakeppnin 2018, including with the jury (a mix of Icelandic and foreigners), and certainly did not do well with their Eurovision counterpart (last in the semi, which is almost “too much” for a song that managed to get to a national selection’s jury “Top 2”). “Mercy” was not the jury favorite in Destination Eurovision 2019, only ending up third out of eight contestant, and yet was eigth in Lisbon before the televote points were added.

Playing with numbers

Does any of this give us an indication on the best format? I cannot tell. There is however one thing that I believe, but that I cannot yet prove statistically: the best way to emulate ESC international jurors is to simulate their diversity and background. Who usually compose international juries for national selections? Former Eurovision artists, Eurovision officials (Heads of Delegation, producers, etc.), Eurovision specialists, fans, etc. But at Eurovision, those are not necessarily the actual jurors.

There are some Eurovision-related artists (though usually they come from National selections, and thus did not actually go to Eurovision, like Rasmus Rändvee for Estonia in 2014 and 2017), yes, but most jurors are songwriters, radio DJs, musicians and teachers. Not singers or TV producers (let us not forget that Heads of Delegations do not usually come from a musical background, but from a TV production one). Last year, Germany’s national final included former Eurovision jurors to have a 33% stake in the total vote. This clever manipulation of the international jury worked in the nation’s favour. Germany came fourth with the Eurovision jury and fourth overall. It should be noted Michael Schulte also won the televote and Eurovision panel. Considering S!sters also won the international jury is this another positive omen for Germany?

Age, however, is not as big an influence as background might be. For example, in 2016, the correlations between a juror’s age and their ranking of a specific song were usually weak. The exceptions to this being: Russia, Austria, Poland (slightly better ranked by older jurors and/or ranked lower by younger jurors, though for Poland, it did not help much), Serbia and Latvia (opposite phenomenon).

Do you think an international jury is a good way for testing the waters for the main contest? Let us know in the comments or on social media @ESCXTRA!

International juries have been increasingly popular in national finals. However, is there much correlation between an international jury in a national final and the juries in the main contest?

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