Eurovision and Risk: A Brief Analysis

Hi! I know I’ve been MIA for a while, but I have good reason for that. Anyway, in the span of time between now and my ESC 2013 review, here’s a little bit of analysis about winners and risk-taking, inspired by watching a recap of the past 13 winners.

So, I created four different types of contest and categorized all 13. Then, I did a little bit of name-dropping and analyzing at the end. Here goes!

Contest No. 1: The Average

Josh Dubovie from the UK. Memorable for 80’s fashion, 90’s dancing, and 2000’s UK ESC results.
source: guardian.co.uk

This contest has a few (no more than three or four) gems and about the same number of stinkers. Most of the songs are, sadly, Eurovision filler. Now, that’s not to say that these can’t be the contests that are critically lauded or trashed, it just focuses the reviewing onto the aspects of the contest that really shouldn’t play a part. For example, Sweden 2000 was praised for organization and production, while the song quality is never really talked about. Thankfully, this sort of contest is rare, with only two examples since 2000.

Generally, the winners of these types of contest run to the top in a pretty convincing way, with a sizeable lead over second place, but without garnering a massive amount of points. The most recent example of this contest in Norway 2010, when Lena won for Germany with an 80 point lead over Turkey’s manga. However, she didn’t even surpass 250 points, while last placed Josh from the UK managed to get into double-digits (10 pts.). This fairly even distribution of votes signals that voters didn’t really consider the year very good nor very bad, just okay. However, the tight spread between places four (Denmark) and nine (Georgia) indicates that this year’s votes tended to land on the “good” side of the spectrum. And indeed, the median score of the final, 72 points for 13th placed Serbia, is well above the average for a 39-country, 25-song final, which is 58 points. That amount was closest to 16th placed Albania’s score of 62.

Examples: Sweden 2000, Norway 2010

Contest No. 2: The Extreme

It’s like Dschinghis Khan went to Iceland for 27 years. See here [x] if you don’t get it.                                                                                              source: getty images

This is the type of contest that most fans love. Only a handful of songs are forgettable and the rest are either great or abysmal, with one making up the majority of entries and dictating the way that year will be remembered. Usually, things like production hiccups and external tensions are forgotten because of the song quality, which makes these contests more fairly judged that those of the first type. For example, the strife between gay fans and the Russian police during 2009 has generally been forgotten, only coming back into the train of thought when people feared that Azerbaijan 2012 would be fraught with similar difficulties. Luckily for fans, this is the most common contest since 2000.

Winners of these contests almost always are remembered, since they most often represent the great songs or good songs. Considering that opinions can be divided on this type of contest, the point spread is generally uneven. The one exception to the first rule actually qualifies the theory about song quality, since this song and the entire year have generally been ridiculed; it’s Finland 2006. At the time, Lordi’s total of 292 was the most ever in ESC history, since the song had, obviously, been well liked by Europe. Since then, with the clarity of retrospect, “Hard Rock Hallelujah” has been bashed by much of the fan community, as is the whole year of 2006, which is regarded as one of the worst editions of the contest ever. As for the second rule, 2004 breaks it on the surface, with Ukraine triumphing over Serbia & Montenegro with a paltry margin of 17 points. However, if one looks closer, the huge point gaps aren’t found between individual songs, but rather between clusters of a few songs. For example, all of the top three (Ukraine, S&M, and Greece) scored in the 200-range. Following them, fourth to sixth place (Turkey, Cyprus, and Sweden, respectively) all scored within 15 points of one another. Then seventh placed Albania only manages to pick up 106 points. Finally, at the very bottom of the scoreboard, the bottom seven (Romania, Iceland, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, and Norway) all finish with fewer than 20 points, with last-placed Norway only picking up three pathetic points. This inequality, coupled with the jerkiness in the point distribution, signifies that voters deemed this year better than others, while still excessively punishing the standouts and the slackers.

Examples: Denmark 2001, Estonia 2002, Turkey 2004, Greece 2006, Finland 2007, Russia 2009, Azerbaijan 2012

Contest No. 3: The Even-Pack

Azerbaijan’s Ell&Nikki bask in the glory of being slightly more than half-rate. Good for them.
source: eurovision.tv

During the run-up to this contest, the bookies fail to pick out one song in particular as a front-runner for victory. Rather, the tables are spread between a few different songs, and one of them usually ends up winning. These contests might have some qualities of Contest 1, but the quality of songs is generally less ambivalent, while some songs still manage to stand out with either their goodness or badness. Twice this contest has produced memorable winners and once the winner was ridiculed.

As for voting, these contests produce the most excitement for viewers, since the winner can’t be determined until there are between 10-20 minutes left in the show. The example for this contest is the one that produced the sole lackluster winner: Germany 2011. Going into the evening of 14 May, Eurofans went into an excited uncertainty. The field of 25 songs had no clear standout, and as many as six names were being tossed around for victory. France, the UK, Sweden, Estonia, Russia, and Denmark were the general favorites, but as the votes came in, only Sweden and Denmark managed to stay in the top 10, while rank outsider Azerbaijan swept to victory. While Ell&Nikki’s margin of victory over Italy (another surprise finisher) was decent, at 32 points, they only ended up on 221 points, the lowest total since Latvia 2003, when Turkey won with 169 points from 26 countries. Also in 2011, the voting spread was remarkably even, with the two biggest coming between third placed Sweden (185 points) and fourth placed Ukraine (159 points) and 24th placed Estonia (44 points) and last-placed Switzerland (19 points). The wide point spread, combined with the theory on song quality, gives Germany 2011 an air of mediocrity in the fan community, even though the average point total of 58 points was nearly achieved by 21st placed Finland, representing a very positive view in the eyes of voters.

Examples: Latvia 2003, Ukraine 2005, Germany 2011

Contest No. 4: The “Meh.”

Italy’s Marco Mengoni reacting to being called “meh.” Take from it what you will. source: metro.co.uk

Basically, take Contest 3 and give it a slightly unwanted favorite that wins. That’s pretty much this contest, which blends, arguably the worst facets of Contests 1 and 3, and produces this sad amalgamation of a contest. On one occasion, even Contest 2’s quality outliers were thrown in, just to make things a bit more ridiculous. Thankfully, there have only been two of these contests.

The most recent contest, Sweden 2013, brought this total up to two, as Emmelie de Forest ran up a total of 281 points in her victory. To most fans, this seemed like a forgone conclusion, as Denmark had been seen as the best candidate for victory since January, resulting in a less enthusiastic reception for the contest. Her margin of victory over Azerbaijan, 47 points, isn’t as commanding as Contest 1 victories, but not as exciting as Contest 3s. Sadly, the voting took on the air of a forgone conclusion, as Denmark lead for a majority of the process. The point spread, while somewhat disparate, was actually the most predictable in years, as the median amount of points, 63.5 points (the average of 13th placed Romania’s 65 points and 14th placed Sweden’s 62 points) was closest to the average of 58, representing a possibly scathing statement on song quality from voters; this was a boring contest. Since we don’t have the benefit of time to cast judgment on this winner or which songs will stand out, we have to look back to Serbia 2008, the only other example of this contest. Russian victor Dima Bilan had a similarly wide margin of victory (42 points), but has fallen in comparison to other contest winners, such as 2012’s Loreen or 2005’s Helena Paparizou. Loreen won in a Contest 2, while Ms. Paparizou won in a Contest 3, but, since they both took victory in a more interesting way, they have enjoyed greater memorability than Mr. Bilan, who’s been languishing in the bottom half of personal winner rankings. In terms of song quality, 2008 is a Contest 2 on steroids, as songs like Iceland, Portugal, and Serbia still enjoy massive critical acclaim across the fan community, while Spain, Estonia, Ireland, and the Czech Republic are considered some of the worst entries of all-time. In conclusion, this is the sort of contest that might have a little something for everyone, yet the winner will be saddled with a connotation of “best of the mediocre.”

Examples: Serbia 2008, Sweden 2013

So, what’s all this fuss about? I think that this might crack the theory behind what wins Eurovision. By categorizing each contest, I’ve come up with a general rule to what will win each year.

Risk-taking entries are more likely to win in Contests 1 and 2 than in Contests 3 or 4.

By its nature, Eurovision is designed to produce an “okay” winner; 30-40 countries have to agree on a single song that is the best out of a 24-26 song lot. And as such, most winners have tended to be average. They reinforce some unfair Eurovision stereotypes and facilitate the progression of the contest from one year to another. However, the risk-takers, while not reinventing the wheel, tend to bring something fresh or different to the contest, whether it’s through staging, the song, or the performer. The purest examples of this song are Finland 2006 and Sweden 2012, which brought all three to the Eurovision stage. And, unsurprisingly, they won in Contest 2s. Whereas the most generic winner, Azerbaijan 2011, came out of Contest 3.

If we take a look at the bigger picture, we see that the risk-takers, which I’ve deemed to be Denmark 2000, Ukraine 2004, Finland 2006, Serbia 2007, Germany 2010, and Sweden 2012, all won in Contest 1s and 2s. Even though these contests also let some duds win (Estonia 2001, Latvia 2002 being solidly average and Norway 2009 landing somewhere in the middle), the more important point is that a risk-taker has never won a Contest 3 or 4. More importantly, they rarely come close; The only exceptions for songs in the top three are Belgium 2003 (second), Romania 2005 (third), and Italy 2011 (second).

Recently, the amount of backlash against Eastern countries for doing well has seemed to subside. In the mid-2000s, a “new” country could send a tone-deaf singer with a cut-rate ethno-pop song to the contest, have her shake her rear in the skimpiest dress possible and expect to end up on the left side of the scoreboard at least, top 10 or five not unexpected. And they did, year in and year out, with Greece’s 2008 contribution, “Secret Combination,” epitomizing this trend perfectly. While this has been a kind of performance associated with Eurovision for a long time (like the schlager-dancepop song and love-wrought ballad), it was played very often by these countries, almost always to their advantage. In this same time-frame, it seemed like the old west just couldn’t catch a break, doomed to a fate at the bottom of the scoreboard. Rarely could a song from old Eurovision stalwarts expect to even break 15th place. Do you know why? Even though one country in particular held the old-style card tightly *coughUKcough*, these countries tended to make riskier decisions when it came to their songs. For example, in the 2008 contest, France’s Sébastien Tellier only finished 19th with one of the most daring songs to ever grace the ESC stage.

This was totally the hot look at Eurovision 2008. source:eurovision.tv

Then, 2009 came along as a Contest 2, and France rode into the top ten on the coattails of Patricia Kaas, who was a huge risk for the country and managed to finish eighth. Also that year, Estonia sent one of the most new-agey songs ever with “Rändajad” and managed sixth. While it seemed like risk-taking would pay off, this year’s top five were awfully generic, with winner Norway actually ending up as most unique. Finally, five years after Ukraine’s Ruslana won with the last risk-taker, Germany selected 17-year old Lena with the quirky, Lily Allen-esque pop song that would’ve felt at home on the top 40 rather than the Oslo stage, “Satellite.” And, as we all knew, she won and brought the contest back to a “classic” Eurovision country since 1998.

Using this, we’ve arrive at the answer to a question that’s been (somewhat) unanswered for a while: “Why does the East do so well?”

Because they so frequently play it safe and they get lucky with their timing.

Sure politics play a part in things, but take a look at the times the “East” won; they did so in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2011. Out of those eight victories, SIX of them were with safe songs and four of them were won in Contest 3s or 4s. Even then, the two non-risk takers (Estonia 2001 and Latvia 2002) won when their Contest 2s were sprinkled with a bit of the Contest 3 uncertainty, making their wins surprising and more tolerable than safe, expected Denmark 2013. And when the West won, they did so by generally taking risks. The only safe Western song to win was Denmark 2013, when the contest was the sad Contest 4. Sweden, Germany, Finland and the Olsen Brothers all were risk-takers for their times, but Emmelie de Forest, sadly, ended up winning with a generic song that was flooded with FOUR Eurovision staging stereotypes (barefoot singer, wood nymph appearance, confetti without winning, spark shower) which, at least to some, was totally unearned, when compared to riskier Norway, Hungary, France, and Montenegro.

(Yes, I’m aware that the time frame of victories signals a link to the reintroduction of jury voting, but that is a topic to explore later, or in the comments. Feel free to say what you think below.)

To conclude, I’d like to offer a word of advice to the West; Take more risks! You’ll only do better as a result.

Peace

-Nick

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