The announcement that the Big 5, plus the host country, will be able to perform in a semifinal at next year’s contest, has largely been met with a positive reception from fans. However, there are always two sides to an argument, and we examine some of the implications here.
For some years, there has been a rumbling that something must be done about the relatively poor performance of the Big 5, particularly since the introduction of the semifinals in 2004. France and the UK, for example, are the real poor cousins of the Big 5 countries, having only managed a top ten placing once each in that time; Spain has clocked up a tenth place a mere three times. The pro arguments goes like this: that viewers and jurors, being much more familiar with the semifinalists after their first appearances, are much more likely to have formed an attachment to them, and subsequently vote for them.
However, two of the Big 5 have been much luckier than their fellows, weakening that argument somewhat. Germany’s tally of top tens since the semifinals began is four, but one of them, significantly, is a win; Italy, in its few appearances during the era of the Big 5, has only failed to make the top ten once.
Has semifinal exposure worked for other countries?
It might help to compare these performance records with a country that has never been in the Big 5, or a host country (and therefore included in the final automatically). From the North of Europe, Iceland; despite making it to the final seven times, that extra exposure from the semifinal does not seem to have improved a track record of only one top ten placing (comparable then, with France and the UK). Finland managed a little better, with one top ten finalist (the winner of 2006, Lordi), scoring high in the final after semifinal success. Norway has been a little luckier, with six out of eight acts making it to the top ten of the final after sailing through the semis.
Conversely there are a cluster of semifinalist countries from the South and East, which have consistently done very well; Greece, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, for example. It is very difficult to claim that extra exposure in the semifinal worked in their favour, and not in the favour of Iceland and Finland, for example. Many more variables than simple exposure seem to be at play.
All about the song?
It becomes even harder to claim that lack of semifinal exposure can damage a county’s chances when we turn to the performance of host countries since 2004. Exactly half of the host acts have scored a top ten placing since then; not performing in the semifinal does not seem to have scuppered them along the way. Could it be – and this is a more controversial point that it may seem – that it really is all about the song?
The notion that circumstances can be blamed for poor performance has a long history at Eurovision. Look at the ‘curse’ of position two in the running order, for example; history proves this partially correct with no winners to its name, but exceptions like the Bosnian sixth place in 2011 suggest that nothing is cut and dried.
There is a potential side-effect of the new ruling, in that increased national interest could, possibly, increase viewing figures for the semifinal shows in Big 5 countries. Despite grabbing millions on Saturday night, the BBC ratings for the semifinals, for instance, struggled to even approach a million. This effect could be particularly amplified if a big name act is involved. What greater incentive could there be for a non-fan to tune in to a primetime, weekday evening show, which would otherwise not even register on the radar? Ironically, this could benefit the semifinalist countries more than the automatic finalists; there is now a chance for even more viewers to hear a favourite and get behind it for the final.
In all this, we have to remember that the majority of viewers are not die-hard fans. For most people watching on Saturday, the Big 5 and the host country are as fresh as all of the semifinalists, who they are quite unlikely to have seen on Tuesday or Thursday. Therefore, while it is a great day for fair and equal treatment of all participating TV stations, it might be unlikely to have any effect on the results of 2016 and beyond.