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XTRA Debate: Is the national final dead?

To me, 2019 felt overwhelmed with internal selections. With over 15 songs presented in the last week before the Heads of Delegations on 11 March, I started wondering whether the death of the national final is upon us, and if so why?

Why it matters?

Eurovision prides itself in the fact that almost 200,000,000 people a year watch the contest globally. It is a significant number – indeed, if the viewers of Eurovision were a nation, it would be the eighth largest in the world. It is one of the key metrics for the contest, and in many of the participating countries, Eurovision is always one of the most watched programmes of that year.

However, the TV rating success depends highly on the result on the night of the grand finale. Consistent failure to qualify to the final might lead to fall in the viewership; my own country (Latvia) is a great example, as the grand finale of 2018 was seen by fewer than 100,000 – lowest figure ever (and smaller than significantly smaller countries such as Iceland).

Each broadcaster must know that more people will tune in to watch the grand final if their country is in the final (and also on the left side of the scoreboard). Therefore, it is in their interest to achieve that result. This is where the song selection comes into play.

If the broadcaster opens submissions to everyone, a high risk of unpredictability exists, especially if a small number of entries is submitted. The broadcaster always has the risk of spending a lot of money on the national final, without seeing the return on investment when the country fails to qualify. This is especially acute for smaller countries. Nevertheless, it feels incredible to vote for a song that could represent your country – after all, democracy isn’t always about getting the best result but rather about being able to shape the way your country is represented.

Some broadcasters, however, simply announce the song that will represent the country without giving a choice to the public. This does save many fans (or viewers) a heartbreak moment when their favourite is robbed a victory, accusations of corruption, or alike.

What is an internal selection?

Internal selection, in my understanding, is a process through which the broadcaster will select an artist, or a song, or both, without letting the national audience decide on the matter. Some countries, such as Finland, have hybrid selections, where the singer is presented but the audience selects the song. I used this definition to look at the way that countries have selected their representatives since 2009 and saw some trends.

What are the trends?

Over the last decade, a clear trend sees the number of national finals decrease, and internal selections increase. Because the number of contestants remains relatively stable, it means that more countries are experimenting with selections.

This is quite significant as it means that broadcasters are less trusting of audience choices. We can observe this in national finals, with majority of them having some sort of selected jury contributing to the results. We have seen some national finals where the weighing of televoting has been radically reduced to a small minority (e.g. Romania).

There are, of course, other reasons why the decline of national finals could be happening. For example, austerity that some broadcasters have faced meaning there’s less money for national finals. Some interesting, if not questionable, choices can be made. Thus, who represents the country might mean a better result.

Looking at the semi-finals, there’s a clear trend highlighting that a larger proportion of internally selected songs qualify to the final than through open selections. This could be yet another reason why some broadcasters are turning to internal selections, especially if they have seen years of bad results.

Country case studies:

The limitation of my analysis above is the fact that I am looking at the general population, without dividing the nations in semi-finals, or considering the presence of diaspora, or the strength of a semi-final and alike. However, I wanted to look at some specific countries and see if there is a link of sorts between their ranking in the final and their method of selection.

I decided to look at the following countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Italy, France, Finland, and Switzerland, due to the fact that they have mixed their selection methods over the years with varying success rates.

Armenia

Since 2009, Armenia has internally selected its entry 6 times, and used the national final 4 times. During this period, Armenia has achieved four top ten results (2009, 2010, 2014 and 2016).

Armenia’s average placing, when their entry was selected through a national final was 12th (when the country made it to the final). The placing was 11th when an internal selection took place. When looking at times Armenia have failed to qualify – we have a tie (although the entry selected through a national final did worse than the internally selected one).

Azerbaijan

One could argue that Azerbaijan’s national final era was the golden era of its results – average placing of the country was 3rd (if we discount 2014 – or 6.8 if we include it). This is definitely exception and hard to repeat.

Nevertheless, since 2015, the land of fire has used internal selection, and its average result now is 16.25 in the final – and includes its first non-qualification in 2018. So why would the country not revert back to a national final?

Italy

Italy is the most successful Big 5 country in recent years. It has scored a top five result 3 times since its return, and has been outside of top ten only twice – both when the entry was selected internally (be it fully, or by the San Remo winners choosing not to go).

The European (and Australian) audiences clearly appreciate the public choice of Italy, also rewarding it positively, ranking Italy on average 5th place.  This gives Italy very little incentive to change its selection method, especially because Sanremo is quite exclusive from Eurovision and serves a purpose of its own.

France

Since 2009, France has selected only 3 songs through a national final, with the remaining 8 selected by the national broadcaster. France is not as lucky as Italy, with the average placing of 15. This does suggest that some countries might struggle to succeed regardless of its selection method.  

Despite the internally selected entries starting to show more successful rankings following a change of head of delegation, in 2018 the country decided to open the selection to public – perhaps because the interest in the country had been renewed and more people would be willing to participate.

Finland

Finland had always selected their Eurovision entry via a national final, until 2018. Midway through the season, it was announced that Finland would be sending Saara Aalto to Lisbon as none of the submitted entries had shown a high enough level of quality. This definitely suggested that the open submission of songs was not working for Finland.

Indeed, since 2009 Finland had only qualified 4 times with the average ranking of 20th place. Viewing figures reflected this. Thus, YLE needed to change its approach to Eurovision. For the first time in 4 years, Finland qualified to the final.

The broadcaster clearly felt that by selecting the artist and songs, but leaving the song choice to the public, the country’s fortunes could improve.

Switzerland

The landlocked country is one of the least successful countries in the contest in recent decade or two. Since 2009, we have seen the country in the finals twice and the best result was 13th place.

Indeed, this long run of bad results must have been one of the reasons why in 2019 the country scrapped its national final midway through and instead sent Luca – who is one of the favourites to take the trophy in Tel Aviv.

What to expect in 2020 and beyond.

Looking at the betting odds, only four songs in top ten were selected through a national final. The number rises to seven when we look at top fifteen. If countries that selected their entry internally will do better this year, I expect 2020 to see even more internal selections, especially as nine out of bottom ten countries in the odds used a national selection.

Some countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Italy and Estonia might never change the way they select their entry, but others might try to seek other means (internal) of selecting their entry, especially if they see the viewing figures decline even further.

The numbers do make me think that in the next few years, we will see fewer national finals. But, they might return once more internal entries start getting worse results – and then a national final might renew interest in the contest.

What I have understood is that there will be fewer national finals in the coming years, and broadcasters will be more experimental in the way they select songs.

Oliver – feeling over fact?

This year is particularly unique with the internal selections. In a typical year, you would expect internally selected songs to drop periodically between January and March. This year, the vast majority of internal songs were released in the fortnight or so prior to the HoD meeting. Whether it was part of a long-term marketing strategy, mastering the song or securing the act it has been an exhausting few weeks. As such, it feels as if national finals are in the decline. Things are objectively more balanced than we initially may perceive.

Sensible engagement

Aivis outlined a fantastic argument with depth and a range of examples. However, I would like to push back slightly. True, we have seen a slight increase of internal selections this year compared to 2018. But I don’t think it is quite due to a ‘mistrust’ of broadcasters in the public. After all, at the contest itself the broadcaster is required to hand over 50% of the nations voting power to the public. In years where we have seen an internal/psuedo-internal selection like Finland or even the UK, it is less about trust but more about nabbing an act. Does anyone really think Darude, Blue or Bonnie Tyler would even consider competing in a conventional national final?

The song was called ‘Believe in Me’ for a reason!

Similarly, going by the most recent set of stats, it appears that internal/national selection methods make no difference to the qualification rate.

Yes, an internal selection can be cheaper to arrange. But if that was the case, every country would be going internal. It seems to me that national finals are a platform where the broadcaster can carefully pick up casual audiences to build up a sense of hype. National Finals also act as a trust-building exercise. An amended format, as in the BBC this year acts as a public statement that the broadcaster proactively wants to try something new. This in turn can quite easily make a positive cycle, reinforcing a growing fandom achieve with realistic prospects… Rather than questionable ones. Hi Scooch! You only need to look at the Melfest final stats to see the engagement levels in Sweden or audience share for Sanremo (slight caveat as Sanremo is its own beast!). Strong audience engagement would mitigate or totally offset costs to arrange a national final. That said, Cyprus and Austria have had a high qualification rate recently. Both also did incredibly well last year. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?

There are certainly merits to an internal selection. National finals are seemingly more complex to arrange, sure. But I don’t think the national final is dead.

What do you think? Has the decline of national selections been a bad thing? Let us know in the comments or on social media @ESCXTRA!

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