Irving Wolther on the ESC “Small countries hit the jackpot”

Elaiza (who came 18th) singing for Germany at the 2014 ESC.
Elaiza (who came 18th) singing for Germany at the 2014 ESC. | Photo (detail): Albin Olsson, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Irving Wolther has been a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) ever since childhood and even wrote his PhD thesis on the subject. In this interview he talks about Eurovision past and present and why the contest means more to small countries.

Mr Wolther, what would you say are the three biggest milestones in the history of the ESC?

Personally, the victory of the German contestant Lena in Oslo in 2010 was a very special moment to me. It’s always great when your own country wins! Besides, it was the first time my favourite act won the contest.

Irving Wolther Irving Wolther | Photo: Eike Klingspohn Historically speaking, the eastward enlargement of the EU was a major milestone. 1993 was the first time there were Eurovision entries from the Yugoslavian successor states. Poland, Russia, Estonia and Romania followed in 1994. These countries gave fresh impetus to the contest. Another milestone was the introduction of the 12-point system in 1975, in which each country awards one to eight, ten or 12 points to ten other participating countries. That significantly enhanced the drama of the event. Before then, a country could award all its points to another country, putting it way out in front of the others. That was bad for the suspense.

How important is the ESC for the European cultural area?

The ESC has gone a long way towards defining that cultural area to begin with. It has raised awareness of the fact that Europe is much bigger than just the founding nations of the European Union. There aren’t many occasions that celebrate Europe on such a grand scale.

Loyal fans in Scandinavia

Which countries take the ESC particularly seriously?

Traditionally, the Song Contest is popular in Scandinavia. In Sweden, the preliminary round, Melodifestivalen, routinely has market shares of over 80 per cent. The ESC is similarly successful in Norway. Considerable interest has developed in recent years in Greece and the Balkans as well, where the ESC gets audience ratings of 65 to 85 per cent. State broadcasters never achieve such high ratings with their regular lineup of programmes.

How important is an ESC victory to a country?

That depends a lot on how well established it is in the international concert of powers. Germany can’t benefit that much from a victory because it’s economically powerful and, what’s more, it has already had a chance to distinguish itself as the host of a football World Cup and project a positive image of the country out into the world. Estonia built up its reputation with the help of Eurovision. Before the ESC was held there in 2002, many Europeans had no idea where Estonia is and what sort of people live there. The Estonians made use of the Song Contest to break away from the post-Soviet sphere of influence and to position themselves as a Scandinavian nation. The ESC is a jackpot for small countries.

Nine million people in Germany watched the ESC in 2014. Why do people seem to take more interest in the Song Contest than in European politics?

The ESC makes European politics tangible for the space of an evening. The former Soviet states often award one another the top score in good-neighbourly fashion, as in 2014 when Belarus and Azerbaijan both gave their 12 points to Russia. Even in Western Europe, you can make out sympathies between neighbours in the so-called “block voting”, which shows that some parts of Europe get along better with one another than others. But they’re all part of one big family during the contest. This sense of cohesion doesn’t come across in European politics, where it’s more about defending vested interests than a shared European vision.

Participating countries used to have to sing their songs in their national language. Since 1999 they don’t have to anymore. What are the consequences of this policy change?

Many feel this takes away from the charm of the contest. The new rule was introduced in 1999 in order to level the playing field: some delegations are convinced their chances of winning are greater if their country’s contestants sing in English. But there’s no statistical confirmation of that.

The ESC and politics

What political signals have come from the ESC?

Events like the controversial ESC 2012 in Azerbaijan are an occasion to draw attention to a situation we don’t normally take that much interest in. Azerbaijan is ruled by the autocrat Ilham Aliyev, opposition members are routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest. That caused a sensation and outrage in the run-up to the ESC. Only for a little while, though, unfortunately.

What are you expecting of next year’s Eurovision in Austria?

It’ll be the 60th Song Contest, that’s a nice anniversary of course. The Austrians are going to display plenty of creativity to showcase the country there. For a long time Austria served as a bogeyman because the FPÖ right-wing populist party routinely rakes in up to 25 per cent of the vote. Now the Austrians have become ambassadors of tolerance and open-mindedness in the Song Contest. It’ll be very exciting to see what use they make of this worldwide exposure.

How does the ESC actually work?

Any countries that are members of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) are eligible to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest. The first ESC was broadcast in 1956 with seven participating countries (Switzerland, The Netherlands, Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Luxembourg and Italy).

As the EBU expanded, so did the range of ESC participants. In addition to European countries, they now include countries along the Mediterranean, though Israel’s the only one of them to take part regularly in the ESC. Apart from the five main donors (Germany, UK, France, Spain and Italy), all participants have to qualify in one of two semi-finals for the ESC Grand Final.

The contest has been held in the previous year’s winning country since 1958. Each country is free to decide how to pick its contestants, whether in a national preliminary round or by decision of its broadcasting corporation.

Victory and defeat are decided by the viewers and juries in the countries competing in one of the semi-finals or in the final. Calls from viewers (“televoting”) and the jury assessments count 50 per cent each. These results are combined to calculate the score each country awards to its competitors. It is not allowed to award any points to its own entry. The country that receives the most points in the end wins. Starting this year, the detailed jury and televoting results are now disclosed to the public.

The most successful country to date has been Ireland, which has won seven times. France, Luxembourg, Sweden and the UK have each won five times.