Eurovision Song Contest: the world's version of American Idol

Friday, May 22, 2009 | 4:40 p.m. CDT

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: The annual Eurovision Song Contest is one of the largest cultural events in the world but is not well-known in the United States. To put it into a U.S. perspective, picture the Super Bowl but with an audience exceeding 100 million in more than 50 countries. Picture a sequin-filled competition that would bring American Idol to its knees by comparison. The Eurovision competition has been going on since 1956; the latest one was held last week, with the finals last weekend in Moscow. The press corps assembled in Moscow made the G-20 summit look minuscule. The competition was reported to have cost the Russians the equivalent of more than $33 million. Tell us about the competition, and give us a summary of what took place.

Anna Malpas, reporter, Moscow Times, Moscow, Russia: Russia hosted because it won last year — the first time ever for Russia. It was the biggest influx of foreigners coming into Russia, including the 1980 Olympics.


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Scott: It was held in the stadium originally built for the 1980 Olympics. How many nations participated? I know there were 25 nations in the finals.

Malpas: The total was 43, but Georgia dropped out because its song was deemed too political.

Scott: A song titled, “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” was considered inappropriate for the competition, and the Georgians withdrew. It was an interesting mixed message because they had previously announced a boycott of the competition. What are the rules of the competition?

Malpas: The rules are quite loose.  For example, the song can be sung in any language, and the singer doesn’t actually have to come from the country that s/he represents.

Scott: The Russian entry was from Ukraine this year?

Malpas: Yes, she is well-known in Russia, but she has a Ukrainian passport, which is very common. Many people live in Russia but are citizens of Ukraine and vice versa.

Rolleiv Solholm, chief editor, Norway Post, Oslo, Norway: The entries are the results of national competitions around Europe. The winner of the national competition then competes against the rest of Europe.

Scott: Tell us how things went in Norway, which produced the eventual winner.

Solholm: It was obvious from the first semifinal that our contestant, Alexander Rybak, was one of the top artists. In the end, he won overwhelmingly. The fact that he also wrote and composed the entry himself was a fantastic achievement.

Scott: Tell us about Iceland’s entry and what the reaction was to coming in second.

Haukur Magnusson, editor, The Reykjavik Grapevine, Reykjavik, Iceland: This is the second time we have come in second place in the contest. The last time was in 1999. Icelanders take the Eurovision contest more to heart than many other nations. It has been described as being almost like Christmas here in that there is no traffic on the streets while the contest is going on; people are glued to their televisions. People were proud and happy to get second place; it wasn’t spoiled by not winning. Furthermore, people were worried in advance that the song would do too well because, even if the contest would have been subsidized by the big four, it still would have wound up costing our state television broadcasting system a lot of money. Our country is pretty much bankrupt and at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund right now.

Scott: “The big four” are England, France, Spain and Germany, who are the four biggest contributors to the European Broadcasting Union, which is the central organizing force for this competition. Could you tell us more about some of the things that occurred on the margins of the competition this year?

Malpas: Every year, there seem to be controversies linked to Eurovision. In Russia, there is a lot of talk about how they have a Ukrainian contestant, which brought out some nationalist feuds in some people. There is a whole lot you don’t see on television.

Scott: Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over the number of votes that were cast or the points that were given. Help us understand the voting.

Malpas: The rules have changed this year. They went back to a system using both jury votes and votes from the public. Last year, it was just up to members of the public sending in telephone votes. It was decided that the results were being affected by national bloc voting. To get a more interesting result, they decided to include the opinion of professionals, so each country also had a jury of professional musicians and their opinion was worth 50 percent of the country’s total vote.

Solholm: We escaped any political flak around the contest. Out of the 25 nations that came to the final, 16 gave Norway the top 12 points available, so that shows there wasn’t any political controversy around the winner. You can give points to all countries, but 12 points is the top score that can be given to any other country. A nation cannot vote for its own entry.

Scott: But, who among your neighbors you vote or don’t vote for is also — as in the case of Armenia/Azerbaijan or Romania/Moldova — a point of controversy. The blogosphere has been filled with analysis since the Saturday night competition on this. Tell us a little bit more about the winner.

Solholm: He is 23 and grew up in Norway. His parents are from the former Soviet Union (Belarus). He is a classically trained violinist and pianist. He is considered a top artist but has not been in the public eye before winning. On the whole, someone who wins the Eurovision contest does not necessarily become a top artist in Europe.

Scott: Why then does the Eurovision competition mean so much to the people of Europe?

Magnusson: It is not really a music competition, even though they’re playing songs and dancing; it is an entertainment competition. It doesn’t reflect the popular music of the times — over the 50 plus years, a certain Eurovision style has evolved. One has three minutes to enchant all of Europe; this means a wide appeal is required. Many countries give nods to their local cultures.

Solholm: In the last couple years, there has been a swing toward more nationalistic presentations. Although Rybak’s family comes from Belarus, his song was based on Norwegian folk music, and the dancers’ performance was copied from a famous Norwegian folk dance.

Scott: What has this competition meant in Russia?

Malpas: I am not Russian, I am British; my country also takes part so maybe I am biased. Russia didn’t start taking part until 1996. They take it very seriously. It was a big deal when they won last year. But they seem to not follow the competition as much as Scandinavia or some other parts of Europe.

Scott: The Irish have won more times than anyone else — seven occasions over the years. The British have never won; BBC was using Andrew Lloyd Webber for their competition, but they could only muster fifth in the finals.

Malpas: We made more effort this year than the past. The result was good for Britain, but we weren’t the only ones. Germany made the most effort and spent the most money this year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t reflected in the results.

Scott: What are the chances that we’ll be hearing more from the Norwegian winner worldwide? Will he be like ABBA, a Swedish winner, or Celine Dion, who actually won as a Swiss entry? The margin of victory was pretty extensive.

Solholm: He was on top of the iPod list in 12 nations, and he has already signed release contracts for 20 countries on his new album, so he is off to a good start.

Magnusson: He is obviously talented and real cute, too. So, if he plays his cards right, yes, we might be hearing more from him.

Scott: Do you think he’ll play well in Great Britain or Russia?

Malpas: In Russia, yes, because he speaks Russian without an accent. Russia has kind of adopted him.

Solholm: The British market is considered the most difficult market in the world for this sort of music, so he is waiting before he launches anything in Britain.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the regular moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.”  It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at


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