The BASICS of Eurovision for American Newbies

Many American news reports start their Eurovision coverage by saying it is like AMERICAN IDOL for Europeans. That begins to describe its popularity as a music competition, but the comparison mostly ends there. Of course Eurovision was there first–it’s been a yearly entertainment event since the 1950s. Eurovision chooses the song of the year for Europe–of course a great singer and an amazing stage presentation help, but the contest is all about the song. A Eurovision song entry must be new, never performed or available publicly until October 1 the year before it appears in the Contest. Each of the member nations of the EBU is allowed to enter one official song to the contest, and the way they choose that entry is mainly left up to the member nation.

ESC audience

the audience in Moscow 2009

The Contest takes place during a week (most always in May, and most always in a host city of the country that won last year’s contest). The high point of the Contest is the Grand Final night, where the finalists perform their songs in a live telecast all over Europe, the total televotes and jury votes of each country are totaled up, announced one by one and added to the scoreboard, and the new winner is announced and performs their winning entry one more time in a shower of applause and confetti! That structure makes the show far more exciting than IDOL, where the show is broadcast delayed on tape to various time zones, the votes come in and are totaled to be revealed a day later in a recap and results show.

Victory at ESC 2011

Victory at ESC 2011

Also unlike IDOL, Eurovision is rarely a show for talented amateur singers. Some entries have been fresh faced teenagers, but they are just as likely to be local stars looking to gain a following across Europe, or even veteran performers eager to make a comeback. At one time Eurovision singers performed with a live orchestra like IDOL, but since 1999 all the backing music has been on prerecorded tracks (even if the artist is nominally a band, all the instrumental music comes from the track and not from the “miming” onstage musicians). The language rules have changed several times, but since 1999 all entries may be performed in any language (which leads to the vast majority choosing English, the universal language of popular culture).

2011 semifinal one winners

2011 semifinal one winners

Each country is allowed to set their own rules about the residency of artists and composers. It is not at all unusual for a Eurovision song to be written or performed by someone with no connection to the country the song represents in the contest. Canadian Celine Dion and American band Katrina and the Waves are both Eurovision winners, and international songwriters from the US like Timbaland, Red One and Diane Warren have had their songs in ESC competition.

The Contest is shown on the member broadcasting network of each country, and viewers with international satellite or cable programming can often watch the live show in the US (adjusted for the time differences, Eurovision finals are a Saturday daytime event in the US). The official website of Eurovision, hosts a universally available high-speed internet feed of all Eurovision events including the semifinals and final competition.

the stage in Moscow, 2009

the stage in Moscow, 2009

The most important thing to know is that the annual Eurovision Song Contest (ESC, for short) is the longest running and one of the most widely viewed entertainment events in the world. It is about 3 1/2 hours of performances, voting, victory and wild celebration! Even the “kool kids” of the world that sneer at the Contest as being silly have to admit how fun and entertaining it can be…


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