Finally facing their Waterloo

Eurovision isn't broke, but it's not really woke either. If I was Martin Österdahl I’d use the furore over this year's contest to ditch his predecessors corporate strategy in favour of a new one of my own.

Eurovision's bosses led themselves right into the bear pit of international politics - by trying to claim the contest was something that it's not and never been


Eurovision is leaving the shores of Sweden for the safety of Switzerland, after a controversy ridden edition which has raised serious questions about how the show operates in a more divided world. Far from the display of unity on offer in Liverpool last year, the contest’s bosses are now facing a serious challenge to the corporate strategy they’ve spent 10 years building. While being talked up by fans and the media, any major changes however are probably unlikely - as the beloved brand scraped over the line with a win in a highly politicised year, largely, in tact. But that's a missed opportunity to rediscover something important at the heart of this silly little song contest.


At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender

My, my.

While we didn’t get ABBA in the flesh at Eurovision on Saturday night - having to make do with a terrible advert for their avatar show in London instead - we certainly did get a spectacular tribute to their 1974 winning entry - just not quite in the way the European Broadcasting Union and Sweden’s broadcaster SVT intended.

Waterloo, of course - one of the contest's biggest exports - uses a famous failure and major turning point in history as its running metaphor.

Ironic then, that on the 50th anniversary of its victory, Eurovision bosses should indeed have this year met their own destiny in quite a similar way.

I’ve long been a critic of the EBU’s Eurovision corporate strategy. I’ve written extensively about why, so I didn’t intended to overly prosecute the case again.

But, while I hate to say I told you so, I think it’s fair to say that the roots of a lot of what unravelled in Malmö - hosting the show again this year - was largely of the cabal’s own making.

While undoubtedly cast a bad hand, Eurovision’s governing body seemed on the back foot - and made things worse by bungling its response to protests, accusations of hypocrisy and potential walkouts by artists and delegations.

While the week ended with three strong shows, its hosts at times seemed almost pained and tense. The city is being forced to pick up the financial costs of a whopping security operation and significant legal bills for the EBU could follow as the drama around disqualification of The Netherlands’ artist Joost Klein unfolds.

With controversy no stranger to the Eurovision Song Contest - why then does it seem to so many that the EBU had lost control?

I was defeated, the EBU won the war

In short, the controlling body for the contest - and its favourite broadcaster - have embarked on a 10 year push to realign the show towards the entertainment market.

This was a strategic decision that sought to both grow and cement Eurovision into a global brand.

In my opinion however it’s one that’s slowly led them to forgetting - or perhaps trying to ignore - the fundamental reason why Eurovision has endured for so long.

It’s a strategy that ultimately has also now come full circle - leading them right back back to where they started and having to grapple with the reality that every Eurovision is a product of the moment it is in - not a cold hearted television format that can simply be commanded and controlled, and perhaps manipulated, like Simon Cowell producing the X Factor.

Since 2013 in particular, Eurovision’s producers have had their eyes on the ultimate prize - professionalising the contests' production to maximise reach, status, and likely, profit.

They scaled down the show so it’s cheaper to produce, brought Australia into the fold, expanded voting to include the ‘rest of the world’ to drive both exposure and income, introduced a new exciting voting presentation modelled on the Swedish selection show Melodifestivalen and stripped the semifinals of any jury influence after a load of countries tried to rig the results. 

They’ve also given themselves a load more power in the process and the show's corporate image has been reshaped - with control held at the centre, rehearsals locked down and new platforms, particularly TikTok, brought in as sponsors and partners in place of more traditional fan-led media.

As part of the drive to power the brand globally, the EBU has also licensed rights for spin-offs into other markets and launched new merchandise and advertising campaigns - eyeing up total world domination as one of Europe’s most iconic exports.

On the surface of course, none of this is entirely problematic. It may have incensed some older fans who miss the access and the more amateur and fun feel to the whole thing, but the outcome has largely been positive on the contest itself - just like the introduction of juries in 2009 to combat the accusation that politics was running away with the show.

Headline grabbing results such as Conchita Wurst, Portugal’s first win, Ukraine’s victory over Russia in 2016, the successful hosting of the contest in Tel Aviv, the reemergence of the United Kingdom and Spain at the top of the table, as well as Loreen’s second title, have also all done exactly what the EBU was hoping for.

Although less famous, the Junior contest has also gone from strength to strength and Eurovision ultimately managed to successfully navigate three years of COVID, apart from, like the rest of the world, having to sit 2020 out.

Several of its winning and competing entires have also hit the jackpot - driving unprecedented traction, particularly online. 

The Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence was of course the first to hit over a billion streams and downloads, closely followed by Italy’s breakthrough with rock band Måneskin and Armenia’s understated Rosa Linn.

Although it is worth noting much of this latter, commercial, success however has not been overly attributed back to the contest by the general public, just as ABBA and Celine Dion have proved in the past. Gains in viewing figures and engagement, as well as success of the version launched in the United States, has not therefore necessarily followed.

On the whole though, it’s been a pretty successful time for Eurovision. Key broadcasters remain onside, with only minimal concerns posed by those in markets of which the EBU is not overly concerned about.

This though, in the shadows, is exactly where the seeds of today’s growing discontent were originally planted.

Couldn't escape if I wanted to

The focus on entertainment, purposefully or not, has shifted the show towards doubling down on western markets - something I sounded alarm bells over back in 2015. 

That year, a celebration of the show’s 60th anniversary - hosted by the BBC - largely saw the Balkans, Baltics and Eastern countries, bar Russia’s one winner, essentially written out of the contest’s history, with prominent western acts from times gone by celebrated instead.

Turkey had recently stormed out of the contest in a ragequit, and Ukraine sat the 2015 contest out due to financial pressures created from Russia’s aggression in the Donbas. Other states bowed out due to financial concerns aswell. 

Eurovision meanwhile wrapped itself in a comfort blanket of Australia’s debut and the deployment of now famed ‘anti-booing technology’ to mask the negativity surrounding Russia after its 2014 invasion of Crimea. Nothing which better summarises the shift in mentality of the contest’s operators, and - in my view - the betrayal of its founding principles and what it had come to represent in a fast changing and complicated world.

It’s the first time that corporate - and perhaps financial - considerations being the overwhelming and primary driver for the contest was on display.

By 2022, the escalation of war in Eastern Europe sees Russia excluded, Belarus is also out while the Balkan’s are bobbing in and out of participation still facing financial pressures. The Baltics and other Eastern nations - apart from Ukraine - hardly ever make the final.

All of this put Eurovision’s Western tilt on steroids - and most importantly the EBU leans in at every turn.

This culminates in the contest being hosted in Liverpool as a coming together in solidarity for a war-blighted Ukraine - by this point firmly pitching itself as a Western European nation; a purposeful strategy in which Eurovision has played its own part.

It must have made the EBU weak at the knees.

The show would became a statement about the world with the strength of global opinion and alignment against Russia outweighing any risk to the brand.

The EBU gleefully signed off on the contest embracing politics in the most open way possible, masterminded by the BBC, in a demonstration of unity that couldn’t be delivered by any other global platform, with such prominence.

Not only was Liverpool a fantastically organised and resoundingly successful contest, it also brought the BBC fully back into the Eurovision fold and the show’s ultimate corporate bosses would see it as a vision of the future.

It was at this moment, fatally, in my view, that the EBU decided to inject the values on display in Liverpool into the heart of the contest on a permanent basis going forward.

But the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself

History however tells us that banking on everything continuing in exactly the same fashion as you find it would be a pretty stupid mistake.

Indeed, by the time of the announcement that ‘United by Music’ would become the contest’s permanent theme and the guiding light of the development of the contest and its entire corporate messaging, the Israeli government had already started a major military operation against Hamas in Gaza as retaliation for its October 7 attacks.

Anyone with the slightest bit of understanding about the conflict in the Middle East, unfortunately, knew exactly what would happen next.

At this stage, rather than considering, as the old saying goes - that you can't always control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to those circumstances - the EBU and SVT decided simply to plow on regardless.

They’d either drunk the Kool-Aid or were steeped in complete, or perhaps deeply cynical, naivety - but either way made a totally unnecessary, self enforced error, for themselves, but also future editions - deciding to take away the ability for host broadcasters to reflect the moment they are in and instead require them to follow the coopted concept from Liverpool that the centre believed “perfectly summarised everything the contest represented”.

It's one, ironically, they thought would reduce risk and keep Eurovision on a path to global stardom.

But it was a big gamble.

Because music does not have the power to unite us above politics.

Russia’s exclusion from the contest itself shows that.

Eurovision is a product of the world - and in particular, the show in Liverpool was the product of a major international conflict.

Ukraine’s victory in 2022 may well have been a grand statement of solidarity, but the move to exclude Russia from the competition that same year certainly was not. 

It was ultimately just a business decision, not even particularly of the EBU’s control, and definitely not a new reality where the bad guys got what they deserved and Eurovision took decisions based on moral reasoning.

Eurovision, like any other global brand, is a money maker - and one that has substantial governance and contractual arrangements to ensure that risk is hedged and minimised.

For the broadcasters - who exercise ultimate power over the union’s affairs - entering alongside Russia in Turin, as it was being expelled from every single piece of the global economic and political environment, was just not an option.

International sanctions packages being drawn up across every aspect of society meant Eurovision continuing on with Russia’s participation (as, by the way, the EBU had intended to do, because thems the rules) would bring the contest into disrepute. 

As a result, broadcasters quickly stated their intention to withdraw rather than face the political and financial consequences and blowback from the governments that largely funded them. 

Within 24 hours the EBU - ultimately controlled by those very same broadcasters, and still reeling from the financial consequences of COVID - announced Russia would not compete - full well knowing it had the political and legal backing to be able to make such a call without further repercussions.

Contracts were terminated and, facing suspension and ultimately expulsion, at the same time Russia announced its intention to leave the bloc.

Belarus had already being expelled the year before.

The rest they say, is history.

I tried to hold you back, but you were stronger

But this was not the story the EBU chose to tell - and their tale was a fundamental misreading of the contest's long history.

Because Eurovision is not just a brand, every contest is unique.

It’s a different set of songs, often a different set of countries, and it has the unrivalled ability to refresh and modernise itself every year - a true chameleon that mirrors the circumstances in which the show is presented.

Something, by the way, that TV format series have always struggled with in the modern era - and as a result largely failed or faded away.

Eurovision has also never claimed to hide our differences and make us all the same in one indistinguishable blob.

Countries compete against each other under national flags.

Broadcasters have entered songs about political events in their own countries, and ones even aimed at other nations.

Some have criticised institutions like the European Union and given a running commentary on financial and migration crises, others using events of the past to bring reference to those in the present day.

Personal stories, emotive moments.

The original booing of Russia.

The nil points of the United Kingdom.

The all out embrace of the LGBT community despite several government’s clamping down on rights across Europe.

Statements of love, peace and politics.

It’s always alive and kicking in the Eurovision Song Contest and it has been since day dot.

Everyone knows it. 

The show has also been pretty self aware about it.

So while explicit politics may well be tempered to some extent, with the EBU ensuring that it is never entirely overt enough to cause substantial damage, it never whitewashed it away completely.

That’s given the show a kind of teflon coating.

People expect a bit of politics.

They’re not daft.

But the EBU and SVT chose to remove that flexibility this year - perhaps out of fear, but ironically stripping the essence of what had given the BBC the freedom to produce such a show of its time in the first place - and a format that has been key to Eurovision’s success over the past 69 years.

The control it tried to exercise over every detail, over every action of every delegation is partly responsible for creating a paranoid and miserable environment around the whole contest - particularly for its artists.

It produced a largely stale production as a result, although it did get lucky with a powerful line up of competing entries and ultimately a winner which defines everything about the show.

Crisis averted then?

I feel like I win when I lose

Well not quite.

For many, the toxicity around the contest this year - both online and within, and between, delegations - is proof that things need to change.

The most significant of which has seen a call to exclude, what some term, “problematic” countries.

Even if the EBU was to entertain this idea to protect its own corporate image, where do you draw the line?

Should the UK have been expelled for invading Iraq in 2003?

Russia for its incursion into Georgia in 2008, and again for annexing Crimea in 2014?

What about Azerbaijan for its actions against Armenia?

In truth of course there was nothing really the EBU could have done to remove Israel from the contest, as the Russian and Belarusian example shows, unless KAN - the Israeli broadcaster - broke rules that would lead to its disqualification from the competition, or suspend it from the union, taking away its ability to compete.

It didn’t.

And indeed, had it been expelled many other broadcasters themselves may have walked away, fearing that the show had stepped over the live wire when it comes to being explicitly political.

Eurovision therefore tried to walk a tightrope, but added a blindfold and a massive wind machine.

Hypocrites? Well not really, but claiming we were all going to be 'United By Music' and the contest is totally apolitical?

Pull the other one.

People saw through it - and I think it did genuinely damage the contest a little bit.

Israel's participation has again demonstrated the ever ongoing challenge of trying to organise a global festival of competition between countries - which clash, fight and can commit horrific atrocities against other human beings, and even their own people.

But that’s not going to go away.

The hypocrisy charge then perhaps ultimately sits with an international community that will quickly lay sanctions at the door of other states - including Yugoslavia which saw itself booted out of Eurovision in similar fashion to Russia - but protect its own allies at all costs.

Israel of course has the right to defend itself, it does not however have the right to break international law.

But regardless of the wider context, as a result of their own actions and narrative, ultimately the EBU was left with their trousers around their ankles, Eurovision’s corporate messaging landing like a bucket of cold sick - including most importantly with its own competitors - and the organisation’s leaders tying themselves in knots whether to say anything at all.

Martin Österdahl, who oversees the show on behalf of the EBU as its Executive Supervisor - and took over from Jon Ola Sand, the architect of the modern show - as well as its Reference Group - which signs off major decisions - should therefore at least reflect on what happened and whether it’s a blip, or a more significant sign that things aren’t quite as they should be.

The contest in Malmö was, despite the furore in the fandom, largely a success.

Viewing figures have remained high amongst talk of a boycott and victory for Switzerland - with a very popular winner and a big story - will ultimately allow the EBU to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Had Israel won the competition though, the drama would have continued and likely brought about a lot of very difficult questions for both competing broadcasters but also the EBU more broadly.

They’re safe for another year, so far pending the outcome of any action against the Dutch.

But to survive in the modern world - Eurovision is going to have to learn to tell a better story.

Not just broadcasting, but communicating.

This year the EBU and SVT decided not to - they leaned on a corporate strategy whose legs fell off under the weight of scrutiny, and paid the consequence.

Perhaps they were lucky to be on 'home soil' as Österdahl called it.

Promise to love you forevermore

But my suggestion is that they stop trying to treat people like fools.

I am of course inherently sceptical of a contest trying to be too big for its boots.

Ultimately, the show is a success because its proposition is timeless.

Eurovision is just Eurovision - there’s nothing else like it in the world.

But that's exactly why I wouldn't try and market it as something it isn’t.

Just let it be.

The spiel of a post-wartime continent coming together to be united in song is a warm fuzzy story.

But ultimately, in reality, Eurovision is just an experiment in broadcasting technology that got badly out of hand.

The failure of the EBU in the past 10 years has been forgetting that it's this innovation, creativity and the idea of progress that lays at the heart of the show, not some abject form of 'unity'.

With the contest heading back home in 2025, there’s a remarkably timely moment to do something fresh.

If I was Österdahl I’d use this year as a way to ditch Ola Sand’s corporate vision of world domination in favour of a new ethos of my own.

A platform for discovery, wonder, fun, artistry, talent and yes, within reason - as it always has done - politics and protest.

A contest reborn, fit for the modern age.

A Eurovision with just as much heart as a headache.

Just a silly, little, song contest, but the one we love all the same.

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