The Eurovision Song Contest

Dateline: May 4, 2001

This year is the 46th annual Eurovision Song Contest (May 12th, 8 PM on BBC-1) put on by the European Broadcasting Union live from Copenhagen. Twenty-three countries compete for presenting the most popular written song from their country, performed by one of their artistes. It has over 70 million viewers all over Europe, but all people do is complain how bad it is. How did this bizarre ritual get started and what's it all about?

It began in 1956, mostly as a technical exercise for TV engineers to hook up a show across the entire continent - hence, EuroVISION. Each country submits one song and a jury (one year it was cab drivers) who then deliver their votes after the presentation of the songs from each of their home countries. The contest is really about the SONG, not its performance or presenters, and naturally a country isn't allowed to cast any points for itself. The rather jokey reputation the contest has is due to some of the mindless and instantly forgettable songs which have won in some years. Since you have to create a song which will be popular in OTHER countries, a certain type of blandness seeps in which prevents most Eurovision Song winners from breaking out into the popular charts.

In Britain the show is hosted by the venerable Terry Wogan, who isn't afraid to make sarcastic comments on the less-than-great music and production numbers that are unleashed on the unsuspecting public.

And Eurovision has picked the wrong winner a few times too: "Volaire" came in fifth the year it appeared. There have been some famous presenters over the years: Cliff Richard, Julio Iglesias, but the one real success story in the Eurovision Song Contest is ABBA, which took both itself and winning song, "Waterloo," to a hugely successful career.

The country that wins gets the honor of hosting the following year's broadcast, which was the Denmark entry last year.

During the 1990s for three year's running Ireland won, prompting one of the most hilarious episodes ever of Father Ted ("A Song For Europe"), that posited that in order to guarantee that Ireland lost (because they couldn't afford to keep hosting it), Ted and Dougal were selected as the Irish entry - and received nil points! Some countries don't seem to stand any chance of ever winning, witness Luxemburg which one year scored only 11 points this year - 10 of them were last-minute sympathy votes from Crete! The bottom eight countries are then relegated from competition for a year and replaced by the countries eliminated the previous year. The exceptions to this are France, Germany, UK, Spain and Italy which can't be relegated because they are the biggest contributers to the EBU and also pay the majority of costs for broadcasting Eurovision.

British television really gets into the act during the run-up to Eurovision each year, particularly Channel 4, which usually can't let the contest slide without at least a special edition of Eurotrash, and in the past, a documentary about Eurovision hosted by effervescent Grahan Norton. Don't tune in Saturday night without being prepared!

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