“A maximum of 46 Active EBU Members shall be allowed to participate (the “Participating Broadcasters”).” – Public rules of the 61st Eurovision Song Contest
The EBU’s favourite non-active member is back. Australia will once again grace the Eurovision stage in Stockholm. This times it feels very different, though. Their first appearance was at least an interesting novelty and there was a reasonable explanation for their participation. Ahead of Vienna, we were told that the Australian entry was strictly a one-time deal (unless they won) and that it was purely a way to celebrate Eurovision’s 60th anniversary. This time, Australia, are here to stay.
Now, I don’t have a particular hatred for Australia in Eurovision. I’m not the sort of person who tends to call the contest “EUROvision” in these sorts of debates. My big problem is that when asked why Australia are taking part, all any of us can do is shrug our shoulders. There’s no principle that allows them to enter other than “Why not?”. My problem is that I think rules are important.
To illustrate, I’m going to look at Dancing On Ice. For those who didn’t have it in their country, it was basically a low-rent figure skating version of Dancing With The Stars. It was never as successful as its ballroom cousin and there are many reasons for that, but I think an important one was its lack of respect for its own rules. Over the years, Dancing On Ice got increasingly obsessed with twists to the format. One year it had couples team up in routines to win double points for their solo performances. Another would see pairs of dancers face off in duels for immunity from elimination. A third required the celebs to vote to decide who left out of the bottom two. What’s more, every year, towards the end, they would dispense with dancing and require the celebs to learn the completely new discipline of flying about the rink on a wire.
Part of the appeal of Strictly/Dancing With The Stars is that it keeps things simple. Year to year, week to week, celebs and their partners aim to dance well, get good marks from the judges and win votes from viewers. By the end of each series it gets quite serious and is almost treated as a sport. That is due to the constancy of the rules and the integrity that brings to the competition. Meanwhile, Dancing on Ice came across as a cheap reality show.
Eurovision currently achieves the same feat as pro-celeb ballroom dancing. Juries and phone votes may come and go, but primarily the format has remained the same for decades. European countries sing their songs, then dodgy hosts make awkward chit chat with foreign spokespeople over malfunctioning satellite link ups as they give out points from 1 to 12. It’s this continuity that gives the contest its meaning. The achievements of Måns or Conchita are set in a context against the winners that came before.
That’s not to say rules cannot change, but if they do, there needs to be a good explanation and a solid, logical structure behind the new rule. It’s no good saying “eh, why not?” If ESC is going to start inviting non-active EBU members, there needs to be a defined path to entry.
So what sort of changes should we make to the rule book? I don’t think anyone particularly wants Eurovision to descend into a global free-for-all. Any new rules to accommodate guest entrants ought to put a cap on how many and they should not push out active EBU members who want to take part. One guest per semi final seems reasonable, with the caveat that these invitations are subject to available space. Secondly, one could stipulate that guests have to be associate EBU members. If not, we would have to relax the requirement for EBU membership on the existing member states. Thirdly, I think it’s reasonable to request some track record of broadcasting the contest and attracting viewers. If there’s an established fanbase in the guest country who have proven they’re willing to watch live at God-knows-what o’clock, then the EBU can be assured of a useful televote. And really, if no one’s interested in the guest country, does their entry really represent that country? Does it mean anything?
What have the EBU done to their rules to accommodate Australia? Precisely nothing. I know there’s some who try to interpret part of the rules as justification for the Aussies to take part. It reads “Subject to a decision by the EBU in consultation with the Reference Group, the number of guaranteed places in the Final may be modified depending on circumstances.” Ignoring the fact that this is clearly intended to refer only to the number of finalists out of those eligible to enter, the question one has to ask is what circumstances? Last year it was the 60th Eurovision. This year the special circumstances are “Because we want to”. Can the EBU seriously take the emergency measures part of their rulebook, twist its meaning, and use it to fundamentally change its contest in perpetuity?
This is what really sickens me about the change. The EBU don’t care about their own rules. Jon Ola Sand justifies the decision thus: “We strongly believe the Eurovision Song Contest has the potential to evolve organically into a truly global event. Australia’s continued participation is an exciting step in that direction”. The article on the Eurovision website continues by discussing cultural diversity and values of inclusiveness. All they care about is the global brand. The contest itself comes a distant second. It’s a decision about money, ego, corporate backslapping and greed. What started out as a celebration of 60 years of Eurovision is turning into a lasting tarnish on it legacy.