Editorials & Opinion

From also-rans to Eurovision superpowers: How Bulgaria, Cyprus and Israel transformed their fortunes

Bulgaria. Cyprus. Israel. What do these nations have in common? Three of the most south-easterly participating nations at the Eurovision Song Contest? Tick. They all have wonderful weather and beaches? Tick. Three nations that show that you can turn around Eurovision fortunes with some clever thinking and direction? Big tick!

Making a change in selection process

Bulgaria, Cyprus and Israel have all experienced a run of at least four consecutive non-qualifications. Bulgaria achieved six-in-a-row between 2008 and 2013 whilst Cyprus and Israel suffered a run of four consecutive non-qualifications between 2006 to 2009 and 2011 to 2014 respectively. Yet, since 2015 these three nations have qualified for the Eurovision final on every single occasion they’ve participated.

Just how does a nation manage to bounce back from a poor run of results? If you ask BNT, CyBC and IBA/KAN, it’s all about making a change in your selection process and perhaps taking a bit more control in proceedings to steer the ship back onto the right tracks.

Bulgaria: Only one final appearance in ten years

Bulgaria had one of the most dismal records in the contest up until 2016, with just a solitary qualification with “Water” by Elitsa Todorova & Stoyan Yankoulov. It was an impressive qualification nonetheless, earning a top-five finish in the final. Nevertheless, six consecutive non-qualifications followed and so did a withdrawal. Citing financial problems in 2014 and political instability in 2015, Bulgaria left the world’s biggest stage.

In their initial stint at Eurovision, BNT had always selected their entries via national finals. The public always had a say in the Bulgarian song, even when Elitsa & Stoyan were internally selected for a return in 2013. However, in 2016, BNT returned with their first fully-internal selected entry: “If Love Was a Crime” by Poli Genova, her second time representing Bulgaria at Eurovision and hoping the Eurovision final would be in reach this time around.

Cyprus: Six non-qualifications in eight years

Rewind to one year earlier, we witnessed national selection changes in both Cyprus and Israel. The island nation had missed the 2014 contest as a result of financial issues as well as suffering 6 non-qualifications in the previous eight contests. Only Jon Lilygreen & The Islanders and Ivi Adamou had seen Cyprus progress to the Saturday night since 2006.

Cyprus has always used a variety of selection methods, most commonly national finals, and they created a brand new national selection format for their return in 2015. The ambitious “Eurovision Song Project” was loosely based on Sweden’s Melodifestivalen and Melodifestivalen producer Christer BjΓΆrkman was involved in the process. John Karayiannis was victorious with “One Thing I Should Have Done” and whilst his 22nd place finish in Vienna may have only be seen as a minor victory, the “Eurovision Song Project” had formed the basis of a Cypriot revival that was only just beginning.

Israel: Four consecutive non-qualifications

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean Sea, Israel was without a Eurovision final appearance since Harel Skaat’s “Milim” made it to the final in Oslo in 2010. It was a return for 1998 Eurovision winner Dana International that begun a four-year streak of non-qualifications. So IBA, Israel’s member broadcaster at the time, opted to send the winner of HaKokhav HaBa, the Israeli edition of the “Rising Star” franchise to Vienna.

IBA had also used a variety of selection methods in the previous years but on the majority of occasions, the Israeli public voted on at least the song that would represent their nation. In 2015, IBA had the opportunity to internally select their song and opted to give Nadav Guedj an all-English language song, a first for Israel. It was an almighty success as “Golden Boy” achieved 9th place in the final and 3rd place in its semi-final, the nation’s best semi-final result to date at that point.

Tasting qualifications

As we approached Stockholm 2016, Cyprus and Israel both had solid new bases to work from, but they still needed a bit of fine-tuning. Cyprus used their 2015 “Eurovision Song Project” pool of artists to internally select their artist in 2016 and team up with a proven successful Eurovision songwriter in Thomas G:son to write a song. The outcome: Minus One and “Alter Ego” and another success with a second consecutive qualification.

Additionally, CyBC selected their artist very early in the pre-season, something that the broadcaster has largely stuck to since to ensure the maximum possible time for the artist to perfect their entry. Furthermore, the broadcaster teamed up with stage director Sacha-Jean Baptiste, a relationship that would continue up to and including 2019.

Over the Med, Israel properly tied together “HaKokhav HaBa” with Eurovision and renamed their show “HaKokhav HaBa L’Eirovizion” or “The Next Star for Eurovision”. This time IBA attempted to tie in their song selection into the format too which resulted in Hovi Star being selected to perform “Made of Stars”. Nevertheless, criticism towards the entry saw the song be rapidly revamped into an anthemic ballad, which successfully saw Israel into their second consecutive Eurovision final.

So what for Bulgaria? Well, Poli Genova’s “If Love Was A Crime” became an instant fan favourite. Clever staging paired with Poli’s fantastic charisma and Borislav Milanov’s undeniable song saw Bulgaria achieve the best Eurovision result to date at that point… 4th place! Bulgaria’s relationship with Borislav Milanov and Symphonix International continues to this date.

Fine-tuning their selection formats

Momentum was building as Bulgaria, Cyprus and Israel all began to really find their feet. Bulgaria stuck to their new internal selection format, internally selecting Kristian Kostov and “Beautiful Mess”. Cyprus once again paired Thomas G:Son with a “Eurovision Song Project” finalist resulting in Hovig and “Gravity”. Whilst Israel removed the song element from “HaKokhav HaBa” following the criticisms surrounding the original “Made of Stars” to result in the public-selected IMRI and the internally selected “I Feel Alive”. All three made the final once again and Bulgaria earned themselves another record-breaking finish with 2nd place.

All three of our upcoming Eurovision superpowers would make subtle changes to their selection processes that would cement their new superpower status at Lisbon 2018. Bulgaria almost stuck to what they knew, but decided to create a five-piece supergroup or “common framework” rather than go for a singular established artist. EQUINOX was another successful qualification for BNT as “Bones” earned them 14th place.

Record-breaking results

Cyprus took their internal selection method in a slightly new direction, opting to change their composer of choice to Alex Papaconstantinou, who had previously written 2012 Cypriot entry “La La Love” as well as an eventual tie in with Panik Records. “Fuego” was chosen fairly early on in the 2018 pre-season, but the drama surrounded which artist would sing it. In the end, established singer Eleni Foureira was chosen and Cyprus earned themselves a record-breaking 2nd place finish and an entry that will live in the fans’ hearts forever.

With Bulgaria and Cyprus both turning their fates around from serial non-qualifiers to achieving record-breaking finishes, it was left to Israel to match their previous record and score another victory… and that they did. For the final of “HaKokhav HaBa”, Israel introduced a proper jury that represented 50% of the final result and ensured Netta was crowned the winner rather than the viewers’ favourite Jonathan Mergui. She was given the internally selected “TOY” and stormed to victory in Lisbon, beating second-placed “Fuego” by 93 points.

Consolidating their success

Cyprus and Israel were seemingly perfectly happy with their selection formats now and both repeated what they did in 2018. Cyprus tied together a big Greek record label (this time Minos EMI) with another very popular singer (Tamta), their regular stage director (Sacha-Jean Baptiste) and another Alex Papaconstantinou-written dance-pop banger “Replay” and earned themselves another top-half finish. Israel’s “Next Star” was Kobi Marimi who was given the ballad “Home” for his automatic qualification to the final and placed 23rd. Unfortunately, Bulgaria took a year out for financial reasons.

More success in 2020?

Looking ahead to 2020, Cyprus and Israel both find themselves on a run of five consecutive qualifications whilst Bulgaria haven’t missed a final since 2013 barring their non-participations. They’ve still kept the basis of their successful selection formats, but slight tweaks were made once again.

Bulgaria has thrown their weight behind VICTORIA, internally selected with the song “Tears Getting Sober”, another Milanov co-write, and is currently the favourite to win Eurovision 2020 at the time of writing. Cyprus has once again teamed up with Panik Records to release “Running” performed by Sandro, an up-and-coming singer which sees a slight reversion to their 2015 to 2017 artist choices rather than the already-established artist choices made in 2018 and 2019.

Israel once again hosted “HaKokhav HaBa” in which a jury and the public both agreed Eden Alene should be their “Next Star” for Rotterdam. In a change of proceedings, perhaps as a response to the lukewarm reception to the internally selected “Home” in 2019, a second selection show was hosted for the public and jury to choose a song for Eden. In a field of 4, “Feker Libi” was selected and will be hoping to make it six finals in-a-row for Israel.

Internal selections can help steer the ship back to success

It’s important to notice how some form of internal selection played an instrumental part in turning the fortunes around of Bulgaria, Cyprus and Israel, three countries that had largely relied on public-voted national finals during their runs of poor results. Internal selection elements allow broadcasters, particularly with smaller budgets like Bulgaria and Cyprus, to focus resources on one successful song. In Israel, the broadcaster was able to shift their style of songs to more modern, commercial, uptempo tracks like “Golden Boy”, “TOY” and “I Feel Alive” all in the English-language.

Switzerland and Romania take inspiration?

Perhaps they took inspiration from The Netherlands who had achieved a similar turnaround via internal selections since Anouk and “Birds” in 2013 after a run of poorly-received entries selected by the public. Indeed, Switzerland is arguably following the same blueprint with their shift to internal selections proving successful. In 2019, Luca HΓ€nni earning the nation its best placing since 1993 and first qualification since 2014. Now, Gjon’s Tears finds himself as one of the favourites to win Eurovision 2020 with “RΓ©pondez-moi”.

Likewise, after two consecutive non-qualifications, Romania has also introduced an internal selection element to their entry with the internal selection of ROXEN. “Alcohol You” also now finds itself amongst the favourites to win the Eurovision Song Contest 2020. Internal selections really can change a nation’s fortunes and transform a country from also-rans to superpowers… or should we say SUPERG!RLS!

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Ryan Cobb

My first memory of watching the Eurovision Song Contest was back in 2001 and, over the years, my passion and enthusiasm for the contest has very much turned into an obsession. I adore music and I love geography, so this contest is a natural fit for me. If la la loving Eurovision was a crime, I'd certainly be a criminal!

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Elda Mengisto
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Elda Mengisto

Good job! I really like the article; will you do an inverse on how countries collapse?

Justas
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Justas

Love you guys, amazing article!

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