TEL AVIV 2019 ■ Eurovision Afterthoughts from a Dutchman

So, the Grand Final of the 64th Eurovision Song Contest is now already 1,5 weeks behind us! For a Dutch Eurovision aficionado like me PED (Post Eurovision Depression) still needs to kick in. Because let’s face it, watching your nation win the contest a 5th time is something special. It has always been one of my biggest wishes, a bucket list so to say. And only now, as I write these after-thoughts, I start to realize how incredibly wonderful winning actually is. The Netherlands had its severe ups and downs, of which the period 2000 – 2012 for Dutch Eurovision fans could still be perceived as a punishment with Biblical proportions. By: Gert Waterink

How radically things have changed after that, having achieved qualification from the semi-finals to the grand final 6 times over the course of 7 years, with The Netherlands achieving 9th place in 2013, 2nd place in 2014, 11th place in 2016 (after getting an abysmal running order slot) and now finally this previously unimaginable 1st place! Can I still review the entire show with an objective eye then? Well, for me the victory has sunk in a bit. And despite feeling overjoyed, rationalism and pragmatism have taken the better of me again while writing this extensive piece. Especially since the European Broadcasting Union has now officially amended the grand final results with some corrections on the points totals (it’s all 1996 again!). So I have to get back to my senses no?

The voting, and how to win 2019 AD

The new points announcement system, as introduced in 2016 and slightly tweaked again this year, creates more tension and excitement. But it also evokes jawdropping confusion and extreme emotional highs and lows across Europe. For the younger Eurovision aficionados it makes sense, but ask your parents, and even Dutch Eurovision winner from 1975 Getty Kaspers, and one can understand why senior viewers feel more detached from it. Obviously the ‘decoupling’ procedure, in which the merged results are now visually split in a 100% jury points presentation and a faster 100% televoting presentation on the scoreboard, is the prime cause for this.

The televoting presentation can be even harsher for younger talent taking part in Eurovision. For Laurita Spinelli & Carlotta Truman (German duo S!sters), Albert Černý (the frontman from Czech band Lake Malawi) and Michael Rice the televote reveal must have been an emotional blow. It most certainly won’t help lifting their careers to higher levels. Then again, this has always been part of Eurovision and it shows it still is a competition and not just a presentation of light entertainment excellence. Back in the old days when Cliff Richard (ESC 1968) and Scott Fitzgerald (1988) lost with one point from the winner, they equally felt gutted. You had to see their faces in the greenroom, turning as pale as a dead man. Actually very comparable to John Lundvik’s face when it was announced he lost. So despite everyone giving it all in the Grand Final, there have to be places filled out in the Bottom 5 of the scoreboard. Swallow your loss like a real athlete, which John Lundvik did!

But the juries are here to stay, no matter how their results are presented, in a merged form (2009 – 2015) or a decoupled form (2016 – present). Regardless of the positive and negative (emotional) aspects of the voting, jurors judge the entries radically different than its televote counterparts at home, with beers in one hand and most of the time not even a scorecard in the other hand. Jurors must rank all 26 finalists in TOP 26 order. Hence giving concentrated attention to each performance is more important than when televoters watch the contest in a more casual way. The latter probably only recall the 2 to 4 most emotionally striking performances coming up later in the show. Also, jurors, mostly people from the music industry, look at aspects like song quality, contemporary quality, vocal excellence, complexity/effectiveness of staging/choreography and chart worthiness. For an average televoter that’s too much to ask for. Hence North Macedonia, Sweden and The Netherlands were the logical contenders for the jury win.

For the first time since 1996 and 1998, the Saturday Eurovision results have been amended with an official correction of the points totals. Was it in 1996 due to a verbal issue with the Spanish spokesperson (the presenter understood “Poland” instead of “Holland” when the Spanish spokesperson announced its points), and in 1998 when again the Spanish spokesperson was the cause of a mistake (forgetting to announce Germany’s 12 points), this time it was an ongoing issue with the Belarussian jury. In fact they were not used at all, hence the EBU used a rather illogical, erroneous aggregate that basically ignored most of the biggest victory contenders during the voting announcement. This was corrected afterwards with a new aggregate of Belarussian jury points (however, wouldn’t it be more logical to use the televote points instead, and keeping it secret during the jury announcement that they are in fact televotes? Thus counting the Belarussian televote twice? And isn’t it time to install independent Ersnt & Young chair(wo)men in every national jury?).

What was also striking this year, is the voting behaviour of certain national juries. If televoters seem more prone to voting out of sympathy for countries whose demographical and cultural elements are similar, jurors in some cases do things even more radical. Sometimes by voting a nation up due to intense cultural ties (Greece vs. Cyprus) or down due to geopolitical turmoil (Ukraine vs. Russia). The clearest example we find in the Eastern-European block. Russia receives televote-12’s from countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova, Belarus and another televote-8 from Georgia. A guaranteed pool of at least 54 points year after year. However, when all 5 jurors from one nation decide to put Russia on 26th place, one has to be intensely curious what goes through their minds. This was exactly the case with the Georgian jury in Tel Aviv. Not to mention the yearly feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan, who vote each other down the TOP 26 ranking to 26th place year after year.

Here we have a good task for proper journalism. Find those jurors after the contest, invite them for an interview, call them out of the blue, and most importantly let them explain us, the public, why they vote in such ways. Probably I will do that myself soon! So if the Belgian jury has the guts to put The Netherlands out of the TOP 3, but still let them end 5th overall, then it does seem fine to me. Dear Azeri, Georgian and Armenian judges? Have the guts to do something similar. So sadly ‘politics’ do play a little role here, and we have to put pressure on such things. Luckiliy, and that’s a relief, this happens in rare instances and they can be pinpointed to historical (border) conflicts. Perhaps time will slowly correct such outliers…..

Regardless of all voting issues, a clearer overview of all points awarded by each nation might be useful. Since the results are now split in a 100% televoting component and a 100% jury component, it makes sense to look at each nation’s split result in a more comprehensive way. In this scoresheet you will find all the points awarded to each entry. This year there were 2.378 points to be awarded by the televote (58 points per country X 41 participating nations) and another 2.378 points by the national juries (another 58 points X 41). In gold and bold you will find the highest point totals from a given nation (jury and televote combined):

As you can see, in order to win you have to do well on both sides you fools! You have to be at least TOP 3 on the jury side and TOP 3 on the televote side. If you, as a country, are not able to fulfill this difficult task, you are not going to win Eurovision! It’s as simple as that. So once and for all: gone are the days of 100% jury results (1956 – 1997) and gone are the days of 100% televoting results (1998 – 2008). Instead, let’s embrace the system we have now and let’s silence our inner disappointments a bit more by not applying them emotionally to our nationalist needs to either the televote outcome or the jury outcome. Let’s be rational, let’s be pragmatic.

Russia and other Eastern-European hopefuls

Russia seems to be the nation that gets side-lined by the juries ever since they were introduced in 2009. Consistently, Russia has been scoring lower with the juries in comparison to the televote. In fact, since 2009 Russia never scored better during a given year with the juries. Whether this happens because of political backlash, because of demographical advantages on the televote-side, or because of song quality is open for debate.

It would help though if Russia tries to investigate on how to improve their jury vote in coming years. Winning can only happen if you do well (TOP 3) on both sides: televote and juries. The Netherlands was actually very self-aware about this and focused on how to get a bigger televote. It’s obviously easier said than done, but it all starts with a smashing current, good song, regardless of its genre. Russia puts a bit too much trust (and Roebels) in Philip Kirkorov’s Eurovision duties. His slightly overdue composition style, reminiscent of Western-European pop music from a few years ago, and the sometimes ‘overstaged’ acts, seem to draw attention away from the purity of the song and/or sincerity of the performer. Obviously, even after the victory of Duncan, Dutch fans would still die for a 3rd place. But winning is now an entire different ball game. Russia? Please improve on that. We love to see you win.

Apart from Russia, also its neighbor Azerbaijan was back in the TOP 10 after a few years of lacklustre results. Being less dependent on televotes now, Azerbaijan now managed to greatly improve their jury vote, which according to betters happened because of its more chart worthy song quality.

However, the Western-European and Nordic dominance in the TOP 10 is still clearly visible on the scoreboard. They have learned their lessons from the 100% televote era (1998 – 2008). So will Eastern-Europe learn their lessons? One advice I could give to Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and others: let the music speak a bit more than its staging.

Some ‘what if’ scenario’s

For those who are curious how the results might have looked like if previous voting systems were still in place, following score sheets give you a nice idea. Mind you, this is all history and those systems probably will never come back again

The 100% jury system from 1963, where each country awarded 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 points to their TOP 5 of best entries:

The merged 50% jury & 50% televote system used between 2009 and 2012, where both sides were ranking their TOP 10 of best entries. The points used where the ones which were introduced in the 1975 contest: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12 points:

The merged 50% jury & 50% televote system used between 2013 and 2015, where both sides were ranking their TOP 10 of best entries. The points used where the ones which were introduced in the 1975 contest: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12 points:

In all instances, not much would have changed. Obviously with the 100% jury results applied, North Macedonia would have been victorious, not just this year, but also in 1963. Alas, we have a televote to take into account!

No matter what system was in use between 2009 and the present -in all of them juries have an important say- The Netherlands would have been the clear winner. Actually, a winning score of 320 points for The Netherlands (system 2013 – 2015) would have been a bigger victory than Denmark 2013 and Austria 2014. And a winning score of 295 points for The Netherlands (system 2009 – 2012) would have been a bigger victory than Germany 2010 and Azerbaijan 2011. Reason for that is perhaps the 100% televote result for The Netherlands. Although it didn’t score as many twelves as KEiiNO from Norway, all 40 participating nations had The Netherlands in their TOP 10. And from those 40, still a resounding number of 26 nations had The Netherlands in their TOP 5.

Overall impression of the show

First a negative point, and I think it didn’t escape many of us. The televised grand final is getting too long. Where Eurovision used to give a podium of at least 2 hours or more for the finalists, usually new talent and relatively unknown artists across Europe, the interval time between the last performed entry and the start of the voting has become too big. The attention span is going down, not to mention the fact that my dad already went to bed before the voting.

So there used to be an interval act on that slot, but it has become nothing more than a 1-hour long concert which merely showcases previous Eurovision artists, Eurovision winners and as of late also big world-famous artists like Madonna and Justin Timberlake. To me personally the biggest artists of the night should be the actual contestants. Because of this expansion and slightly forgetting the needs of the people watching at home, the show’s running time have increased tremendously; the recent contest have now all been running for more than 3 hours and 45 minutes (!!): 2015: 4h 02min, 2016: 3h 48min, 2017: 3h 45min, 2018: 3h 49min and Tel Aviv 2019: a ridiculous running time of 4h 11min. Make no mistake, being ‘on air’ is a costly undertaking, and this is especially the case for a more complex broadcasting system like The Netherlands has. So be prepared for a more ‘skimmed’ contest next year in The Netherlands, which will be co-produced by NPO, NOS and AVROTROS.

Despite this negative part of the show, the average production value was one of the best in recent years, with many participating countries being able to turn their entries in a slick 3 min videoclip. Thanks to Israeli broadcaster KAN and stage builders/managers from M&M Production, many desired staging ideas were put into practice, albeit with some slightly rough ‘bumps in the road’ during rehearsals.

The presenters, Erez Tal, Bar Refaeli, Assi Azar & Lucy Ayoub, were in perfect form. Their presenter duties seemed to have an ‘improvised quality’ (make no mistake, all their lines are rehearsed to death, yet it’s an art to make your lines come across as spontaneous). Standouts to me were Erez Tal, whose dignified and slightly authoritative voice brought some seriousness into the voting procedure (he wasn’t screaming!). It was also nice to hear some historical trivia and info about the final standings once the overjoyed Duncan Laurence walked from greenroom to main stage. Erez reminded us all of Teach-In, the 4th Dutch winner from 1975. And let’s not forget Assi Azar, whose humour and added improvisation created some fun relief. Great to know he donates all of his presenter earnings to an LGBTQ+ Charity. Overall, all four presenters were fluent in English and matched the quality of previous Eurovision presenters Ulrika Jonsson, Anke Engelke, Petra Mede and Mans Zelmerlöw. So what’s in store next year for The Netherlands?

The year of ‘less is more’?

Back in 2014 two countries, who were not even to be found in the TOP 2 of the pre-contest fan polls, arrived at the rehearsals of the 59th Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen. What happened after that is well-known to many Eurovision fans. Austria and The Netherlands baffled the press during rehearsals. Suddenly the words ‘staging triumph’ got a new meaning at Eurovision. In essence though, both Conchita Würst and The Common Linnets really didn’t overdo things. They kept the overall staging simple, fitting to the song and camera-wise it was incredibly effective. Suddenly, it was the staging that brought them a gold and silver medal. But the song? Wasn’t that one of the prime reasons Austria and The Netherlands scored so well?

Ever since then ‘staging triumph’ is being applied to thòse entries during the rehearsals that were applauded by pundits, journalists and fans in the press room. It even made the betting odds go crazy. Last year Lithuania and Ireland were hailed as the next ‘Netherlands 2014’. And this year Azerbaijan, Australia and France were seen as the ‘potential upset winners’. How wrong they were. And I mean how seriously wrong they were. Not just in relation to these entries, but also by constantly comparing them with past ‘staging triumphs’. In the end one always need to take into account song quality. That element easily gets snowed under by the ‘press bubble’. And let’s face it: Azerbaijan wasn’t as ‘instant’ as Switzerland, Australia was never that good a song (although I personally loved it) and France really didn’t appeal to fans in the first place, except for the social media addicted Bilal-fans.

So the big favourites eventually came 1st and 2nd: The Netherlands and Italy. In part due to effective staging, that was kept fairly minimalistic -there were barely props like poles, robots, fire curtains and fireworks-. But mostly, and I have to stress this again, due to stunning, powerful songs. Songs that emoted flawlessly from the get go, especially in the online Spotify & iTunes charts. Perhaps Austria 2014 and The Netherlands 2014 seem to be the lesser songs in that respect, but even in the line-up of 2014 they clearly were the better compositions.

So to sum it up: let’s not get too excited about staging. Yes, it is an important element, but in the cases of Azerbaijan, Australia and France one can deduct the initial rise in the betting odds with 5 spots (placings) or so……if you care about correctly predicting the outcome. In the end it’s still about the song and how sincere and pure that song is being felt on first listen.

Hmmm, but also the year of ‘bondage, leather and BDSM’

It eventually didn’t win the Barbara Dex Award, but at times Tamta’s outfit made Trijntje’s dress look sweet and prudish in comparison. It seemed a trend in Tel Aviv to bring B(ondage)D(omination)S(adism)M(asochism) to new levels ever since Hatari won the Icelandic national final.

Also last year’s runner-up, Eleni from Cyprus, obviously didn’t mind to show every bit of skin. Yes, skin-colored fabrics luckily didn’t made her genitals fly away, but some men must have been fascinated by this increasing trend to show off nudity. Let’s say that in the Eurovision hall progressive thinking knows no limits.

And well, some of the Icelandic fans did catch my attention as well:

So see you all next year in The Netherlands (which could be perceived as the spiritual centre of sexual freedom, both inside ánd outside the Eurovision hall)!!

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