Dr Steve McCabe, Birmingham City Business School

The fact that the Eurovision Song Contest is taking place in Vienna this Saturday and celebrating its 60th birthday might be seen as something of a minor miracle. Entirely resonant with the famous quote by Mark Twain in The New York Journal of 2 June 1897, over the last thirty years reports of the demise of this contest have been entirely premature.

Many commentators have suggested that the event which, when it was first conceived was intended to be a classical music contest, is out-of-date, far too kitsch, not representative of the music that is actually listened to and, of course, hugely expensive to organise. However, anything that has been going for 60 years must be doing something right. Additionally, the contest has morphed into being a celebration of the best in camp fun and an opportunity for collaboration in a fun event held each year in May.

There is no doubt that organising an event that involves participants from forty countries who compete to reach the grand final this Saturday in Vienna is no mean feat.

Until 2008, the event was basically the majority of the rump of what might be regarded as ‘traditional’ European countries. The accession to the EU by ex-Soviet to the EU has extended what we accept to be Europe.

However, a common misconception is that this is a European contest. As anyone who has ever watched the event will be aware, this is not the case as Israel has regularly participated. The reason that Eurovision contestants come from outside of Europe is that its organiser is the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which has always consisted of members that are part of the “European Broadcasting Area”.

The EBU is an effective arrangement for co-operation and means that countries that can compete include Ukraine, Morocco and Turkey – all of which have participated previously. Any African country that borders the Mediterranean could participate. However, tantalisingly, the rules by which EBU operates means that Jordan, Iraq, Syria and the northern part of Saudi Arabia could also be part of Eurovision.

Beyond the geo-political hurdles that Eurovision has successfully navigated over the years, it is economics that always drives the motivation of countries’ willingness to take part. It is estimated that staging Eurovision costs in the region of £30 million. However, under a complex arrangement to make it fairer for smaller countries, the total cost is not picked up by the host – which this year is Austria.

As in all organisations, in Eurovision there is a hierarchy which has a bearing on who pays what.

The ‘big five’ consisting of the UK, France, Spain Germany and Italy are guaranteed automatic entry to the grand final and therefore pay more than all other members. It is believed that these countries collectively contribute 50% of the cost each year with the remainder being paid by the host and membership fees of all others who actively participate in Eurovision.

Despite the collective agreement to try and balance the costs, some countries simply argue that they cannot afford to stage Eurovision. Last year Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus declared their intention not to participate. This was balanced by the fact that Poland and Portugal, which had both withdrawn in previous years due to lack of funds, returned to join in the competition. Interestingly, despite its well-publicised economic travails, Greece did participate despite closing down its state broadcaster ERT.

The days when winning the contest meant something significant may be long gone and we should not expect another global phenomenon like ABBA ever to emerge. For the participants who do make it to the final, it is their few minutes of fame and, in some cases infamy.

2015 Russia entry Polina Gagarina credit @BBCEurovision

2015 Russia entry Polina Gagarina (Photo credit @BBCEurovision)

Perhaps what is important to remember about Eurovision is that whatever criticism its detractors throw at it, it attracts a very healthy viewing audience. Last year it is believed that some 8 million watched in the UK and over 170 million worldwide, which will no doubt be increased by the fact that this year Australia are participating as a special guest in celebration of the contest’s 60th anniversary. If nothing else for those with nothing  to do, watching Eurovision is still seen as a great way to spend a Saturday night; especially to see if anyone gets null points.

For some cities, Eurovision is seen as a good way to market themselves to a wider audience; as occurred in Birmingham in 1998. That Eurovision often coincides with the annual Birmingham Pride weekend is perhaps a footnote but reinforces its importance and will be undoubtedly be enjoyed in numerous pubs and clubs in the city’s gay quarter.

Eurovision has shown that it is capable of morphing to suit the changing times though and what it will be like in another 60 years is hard to imagine. Nonetheless though, it is now a sort of old-aged pensioner, still remaining loved by millions.

Sure, some may argue that Eurovision is crap but so is a lot of what passes for entertainment these days. What do we want instead? More of the ubiquitous ‘soaps’ and quiz shows that seem to fill the television schedules?

Long live Eurovision!

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Dr Steve McCabe

Dr Steve McCabe

Birmingham City Business School