Catherine Baker

A second-screen experience: rounding up Eurovision 2015

The 60th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest has probably seen more academic involvement in real time around Eurovision than any other contest – including a live-streamed conference sponsored by the European Broadcasting Union last month which put researchers and broadcasters in dialogue with each other (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to go and listen to because of a full day of teaching here at Hull – but the recording of the event is still online, and I hope there’ll be publications based on some of the talks in future).

There’s been a Eurovision Research Network since 2009, and indeed academics with interests in cultural studies, European identities and the politics of representation were already networking around Eurovision before that – the first full conference on Eurovision I remember took place in Volos in 2008 (I was there talking about what participating in Eurovision had used to mean in Croatia), and before that in 2006 I’d contributed to a panel on Eurovision at an International Communications Association conference with what I thought was a sideline (on ‘ethno-pop’ and simulated folklore at Eurovision) from my PhD research but which would end up as my most-cited publication by some way.

More recently, universities in Eurovision host cities or countries have organised conferences during or very close to the contest itself (beginning with a conference in Oslo in 2010) – including the conference last year in Copenhagen which invited me as one of their keynote speakers and gave me an opportunity to reassess my own frameworks for thinking about the cultural politics of what turned out to be a very specific European historical moment in the mid-2000s before the global financial crisis of 2008.

I haven’t been involved in media commentary on the same scale as the people who have really developed Eurovision research as a visible field in the last 5-6 years (Paul Jordan, who’s researched nation-branding and Eurovision in Estonia and Ukraine, has even become part of BBC Eurovision semi-final coverage – as in this extract from a semi-final interval last year where he and Tijana Dapcevic are giving the BBC’s Scott Mills a crash course in Macedonian pronounciation), but this year I did find myself talking to journalists about Eurovision much more than usual – and if it’s the one time of year that you can get the British (or French or Australian) public interested in the politics of popular culture in former Yugoslavia or how that has fitted into wider processes of narrating collective identities in Europe since the end of the Cold War, why not?

This year I was also coordinating a special issue of an academic journal on Eurovision, so one way or another it’s been something I’ve been much more involved with as a researcher – and a good opportunity to try and become more confident as an interviewee than I have been.

For the sake of rounding everything up, this is what I’ve contributed to this year:

Eurovision focuses public attention on a lot of issues that are part of my wider research, so for some years I’ve also been using it as an opportunity to communicate that on social media at a time when people are maybe more likely than usual to be open to thinking about them. Since 2011, every year before Eurovision I try to write up a long blog post on the politics of Eurovision from one angle or another – in previous years these have covered discourses about ‘eastern European bloc voting’, the impossibility of keeping Eurovision non-political, national promotion and the European financial crisis, and this year looking at some narratives of multiculturalism. Last year, building on a talk I’d originally given for LGBT History Month at Hull) I blogged about Eurovision and narratives of LGBT equality a few weeks before Eurovision happened to be won by Conchita Wurst – in a year when the major geopolitical framework viewers and journalists were projecting on to Eurovision was the relationship between Europe and Russia and the place of LGBT rights within it. (Which meant quickly writing up a second, just as extensive blog post.)

The LGBT/Conchita posts have probably been one of the reasons there’s been wider interest in my Eurovision-related work than usual. They’ve been popping up in academic citations already as well, and they continue to bring new readers to this blog – even outside the peak period of interest in Eurovision, most weeks WordPress shows me a handful of search results like ‘eurovision gay audience’, ‘eurovision history queer’, or the current front-runner in the list of search terms this month, ‘why is eurovision so gay’. (There are also a few more left-field ones: ‘eurovision presenter with one breast lower than the other’ is currently the most baffling one this year; and I don’t know the background to why someone was searching for ‘syldavian language eurovision’, but don’t blame me if that’s the next Belgian entry – after all, Belgium has sung in an imaginary language before…)

The other thing I’ve been doing with social media and Eurovision is livetweeting during the broadcasts (which I’ve also done during some opening ceremonies for international sports competitions, including London 2012 and Sochi/Glasgow 2014). That makes me plus what can feel like almost everyone else on Twitter, then (and in fact it’s even been suggested that the ‘second-screen experience’ of being able to tweet along with Eurovision is one of the reasons Eurovision viewing figures have been so healthy in recent years); but enjoying the contest and thinking about how to understand it blurs together (as it so often does – if you research popular culture, in some ways you never really stop being at work). I collected up my Eurovision tweets this morning while I was writing this blog post up and am a little bit alarmed that Storify has chosen a header image of the rainbow flags seen in the audience during Russia’s semi-final performance all on its own.

The main Eurovision-related things I’ve been thinking about since the final – both of which have something to do with digital media themselves – are the narratives around a potential Russian win this year and the question of how or whether Eurovision might start admitting Kosovo – which will probably win the race to be the next Eurovision debutant within Europe, assuming Radio Television of Kosovo stays interested and (the bigger question) whether the European Broadcasting Union wants Kosovo to be represented as a participating state.

Structured reality?

First of all, the first half of the Eurovision voting – where Russia’s Polina Gagarina seemed to be building up a lead before points suddenly started flowing towards Sweden.

(Look out for the rainbow flags in these crowd shots from the semi-final – which in the final (with different people probably sitting in the seats) were various national flags instead)

The spectacle of participating countries reading out their votes is part of the ritual of Eurovision, and the source of most of Eurovision’s symbolic phrases, such as ‘douze points‘, which we hear every time the presenters read back votes in French; ‘nul points‘, which is equally part of viewers’ common knowledge about Eurovision although it’s never actually heard; not to mention ‘Hello, [City], can we have your votes please?‘, and the expectation that at least one satellite link will go completely wrong (this year, there were three). Voting is also where spontaneous moments are most likely to break into the ritual, and supposedly this part of the show can even have higher viewing figures than the songs.

Since 2011, the EBU has accelerated the tension of the voting by basing the voting order on an algorithm ‘to try and make the voting as exciting as possible’ – where feasible, arranging the order to delay the announcement of the winner until as close to the end as they can. (The juries who now award 50% of a country’s points total have already voted during a live dress rehearsal or ‘jury final’ the night before, meaning organisers can calculate the voting order for the televised final overnight.)

During the first third of the voting, the highest points tended to be going to Gagarina – a sign, pre-algorithm, that she’d have a good chance of hanging on to her lead throughout. One of the things the Eurovision structure of a competition between nations does is invites viewers to construct geopolitical narratives around what they see and hear, and indeed usually that’s one of the pleasures of watching it. Over this quarter of an hour, however, the prospect of Russia winning Eurovision 2015 and therefore hosting Eurovision 2016 was also provoking reactions ranging from apprehension to outrage on social media – and also in the live audience, where the crowd was booing loudly enough for the presenters to intervene but sound engineers replaced the sound with cheers.

The editing of the crowd reaction has been controversial enough, but another point worth making is that the emotional reactions produced by this concentration of Gagarina’s highest scores into a short space of time were a result of the organisers’ narrative intervention in the voting order – and wouldn’t necessarily have happened in a randomly allocated order where Gagarina, Sweden’s Mans Zelmerlow (the winner) and Italy’s Il Volo (who came third) might have been exchanging a lead more gradually or Zelmerlow leading throughout.

Of all the format changes that Eurovision organisers have made since 1998-2000, when the development of Eurovision into a contemporary arena spectacle began, this is the one that most deeply alters their role from the arbiters of a competition to the authorial position of guiding audience’s expectations in a particular direction. (Eurovision producers can now also exercise control over the running order of songs on stage, which has been more controversial among fans, but arguably doesn’t have the same concentrated impact as narrative intervention in the voting order.)

The algorithm has existed in previous years too, but never produced an outcome that’s played on audience emotions to the same extent, in the light of everything that’s currently at stake around perceptions of Russia and around the experience of those whom Putin’s policies have put at risk. This year, at least, felt as if the algorithm had placed Eurovision producers more in the role of a pro wrestling promoter than a sports referee – deliberately crafting a narrative that will mobilise the audience’s emotional investment in the fate of a hero or villain before turning the outcome around at a climactic point. Perhaps this was the inevitable result of the algorithm – we don’t know enough about it to say whether it could have arranged the points given in any other order, given what it’s been programmed to do – but the spectacle of Eurovision voting, as viewers in future years will need to remember, is something much more scripted than it used to be.

(And let’s not forget that the homophobic/biphobic/transphobic Russian right wing itself actually wants Russia to leave Eurovision – Vitaly Milonov, the architect of the Russian ‘anti-homopropaganda’ legislation, is also one of the loudest voices calling for Russia to withdraw.)

Hello, Priština, can we have your votes please?

The second thing to pick up is whether, or when, Kosovo is going to make its Eurovision debut – a question that was already being asked even before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. This year, representatives of Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) were apparently in Vienna during Eurovision week, and Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, Petrit Selimi, suggested while he was livetweeting the Eurovision final that Kosovo might participate next year:

The obstacle, so far, has been that Kosovo’s independence still isn’t recognised by the United Nations or a number of states inside and outside Europe (including Serbia and Russia, but also for instance Spain). It isn’t a member state of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and, as such, RTK doesn’t count as the public broadcaster of a country in the European Broadcasting Area – the criterion for Active Membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which until very recently used to be a prerequisite for participating in the Eurovision Song Contest.

This year, however, Eurovision saw its first entry by an ‘Associate Member’ broadcaster – Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service, ostensibly as a one-off to celebrate the 60th edition of Eurovision and the long-standing interest in Eurovision among Australian viewers. The Australian entry, Guy Sebastian’s ‘Tonight Again’, came fifth – an excellent result for a new participant, but not the victory Australia would have needed to return next year (when, even then, Australia wouldn’t have been allowed to host).

Relaxing the link between Eurovision participation and active membership of the EBU suggests that, even if RTK can’t become an EBU active member for some time, there could be a way for Eurovision to include an entry from Kosovo – in the event that its organisers wanted to include Kosovo as a participant, which politically is the most important question. Could RTK be admitted either as an associate member of the EBU (although this is a category for public broadcasters of ITU member states outside the European Broadcasting Area), or in the EBU’s third category of ‘approved participant’ (defined as containing ‘[o]rganisations from an ITU country with an activity in the field of broadcasting which for any reason do not qualify for active or associate membership but whose participation in certain EBU activities is considered useful for the Union’ – in practice it contains some broadcasters based in particular countries, some transnational television networks such as Arte and Euronews, and a telecoms infrastructure firm)?

In the meantime, Kosovo will already have participated at the Rio Olympics after being recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 2014 – itself potentially a triumph for Selimi’s strategy of ‘digital diplomacy‘. After starting to be admitted into the ‘world of nations’ that international sports events make up, could the objective of Eurovision recognition be next?

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Written by bakercatherine

28 May 2015 at 1:23 pm

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