To qualify or not to qualify: why the Big 5 should consider entering the semi-finals

As the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest fades into the background, a query from a friend—who had watched only his second ever Eurovision this year—has stuck in my mind:

Do you think the songs that automatically qualify for the Grand Final are disadvantaged because we don’t hum along to them for a few days before Saturday’s show?

I’ll answer his question a bit further down, but he’s brought up an important question, one that merits a bit of background information.

The Big 5

For those unfamiliar, there are currently six entries that are guaranteed a spot in each year’s Grand Final. The host—the defending champion in most years—gets rewarded for spending millions of € with a slot that is randomly drawn. As well, the five countries who pay the lion’s share of the participation fees for the show also get expedited to the Grand Final (though they are assigned places in the running order by the producers): France, Spain, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom (UK).

Eurovision Song Contest participation fees are calculated by a formula that takes into account things such as:

  • Population
  • GDP per capita
  • Broadcaster’s viewing audience
  • Membership fees for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)

The EBU is the parent organisation for the Eurovision; all participants (save “guests” like Australia this year) have to be fully paid “active” members. Being an active member gives access to all sorts of content, particularly sports-related content.

It makes sense that Malta (a relatively economically developed, but a tiny population) would pay much much less than Germany (one of the world’s biggest economies, with a much larger population). This differentiated participation fee structure means that small, relatively poor EBU members from Albania and Bulgaria face lower opportunity costs to participate.

It also means that upwards of 50 per cent of the total participation fees collected for a given year are paid by the big 5. Without this sort of arrangement, many smaller countries would not be able to participate. Bear in mind that all participating countries need to also cover things like hotels, meals, flights, costumes, music, choreography, and promotional materials for their entry on top of the participation fee.

With the Contest heading back to Sweden, quite possibly Stockholm, don’t be surprised if some of our financially strapped smaller EBU members take a pass on 2016 as a result. Speaking of results…

In the Televoting Era

Televoting was introduced partially beginning in 1997. By 1999 most countries were using televoting to allocate their points, though a handful persisted in using juries (often because there weren’t enough folks who could afford to televote) and a couple who combined juries and televotes. The table below summarises the big 5’s performances between 1997 and 2003, where televoting was predominantly used, but before the advent of semi-finals. Note that Italy did not participate between 1998 and 2010:

Year France Germany Spain UK Italy Top 10s
1997 7 18 6 1 4 4
1998 24 7 16 2 2
1999 19 3 23 12 1
2000 23 5 18 16 1
2001 4 8 6 15 3
2002 5 21 7 3 3
2003 18 11 8 26 1

In these first eight years where televoting became increasingly prominent, the Big 5 (or 4) did consistently well. At least one Big 5 country ended up in the top 10 each year; in most years two or more did.

However, beginning in 2004 a semi-final system was introduced. With this change came a series of other changes to the voting system.

The Semi-Final Era

The EBU started needed to accommodate an ever-expanding list of aspirants for the Contest: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iron Curtain and Yugoslavia more than a dozen new EBU members wanted to join the fun. After several ways of excluded some countries to allow others a chance (or another chance) in the 1990s, some way to use the calibre of current entries (rather than, say, the average performance of a country over several participations) was sought. Enter the semi-final, where as many countries as wished could compete for a limited number of slots in what became the Grand Final.

Between 2004 and 2007 some countries were pre-qualified for the Grand Final regardless. In addition to the Big 4, the top 10 ranked countries from the previous year’s Contest were given slots in the following year’s Grand Final.

In those years a single semi-final was held, where 10 semi-finalists would also advance to the Saturday night show. In these four Contests all participating countries voted in both the semi-final and Grand Final.

From 2008 onwards we had two semi-finals. Only the Big 4/5 and the hosts were prequalified for the Grand Final. A total of 20 entries, 10 from each of the semi-finals qualified for the remaining slots.

One other important change came in 2009. This was the firs year where a 50/50 combination of televotes and expert jury votes were used to allocated each country’s votes. Here’s the big 5’s results since the two semi-final system came into play:

Year France Germany Spain UK Italy Top 10s
2004 15 8 10 16 1
2005 23 24 21 22
2006 22 14 21 19
2007 22 19 20 22
2008 18 23 16 23
2009 8 20 24 5 2
2010 12 1 15 25 1
2011 15 10 23 11 2 2
2012 22 8 10 25 9 2
2013 23 21 25 19 7 1
2014 26 18 10 17 21 1
2015 25 27 21 24 3 1

As you can see, the Big 4/5 had a bad run between 2005 and 2008: nothing better than 14th place for four years in a row. But beginning in 2009 we have had at least one—often two—of the big 5 in the top 10 each year. In 2009 the UK and France each had a high profile, internationally renown artists appear on stage: Patricia Kaas and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. In both instances jury support elevated their placings, from 10th to 5th for the UK an 17th to 8th for France.

Under the mixed (often called 50/50) system, Italy has done consistently well. They have been in the top 10 four out of the five years since they returned. In most years they could thank a bump from juries, though in 2015 their jury scores bumped Il Volo’s Grande Amore down from first to third.

Also in 2015 we had special guests Australia who were given a Grand Final spot. They finished 5th. So we have an idea how frequently the prequalified finalists have done broadly. But this is a Contest with a winner each year: how have the prequalified entries done, in terms of taking home the trophy?

Winners in semi-final era

We’ve only had one big 5 winner in the semi-final era: Lena’s Satellite for Germany in 2010. Lena won both the jury vote (by two points) and the televote (56 points) for a rather comprehensive victory. In addition, one other prequalified entry won. In 2005 Helena Paparizou’s My Number One triumphed: her Grand Final slot was the result of Sakis’ top three finish the year before with Shake It. In fact, the runner up in 2005 was also a prequalified entry: Chiara’s Angel for Malta. In 2005 the big 4 finished at the bottom of the Grand Final table.

In other words: in every year between 2004 and 2015 except for 2005 and 2010 the winner has come from a semi-final. In fact, of all those winner, there have been only three who didn’t win their semi-final as well—which is one of the reasons why the EBU doesn’t release semi-final scores until after the Grand Final is over. In 2005 Zeljko Joksomovic’s Lane Moje finished first in the semi-final (263 points) for Serbia and Montenegro just ahead of Ruslana’s Wild Dances (256 points) for Ukraine: the Grand Final the results were reversed. However, in 2004, there were only a handful of countries that didn’t vote in the semi-final who voted in the final, though a handful of votes were all that was needed to change the result.

In 2008 Russia’s Dima Bilan only managed third place (135 points) in his semi-final with Believe, but scored a convincing victory on Saturday night. Similarly, Elli and Nikki’s Running Scared only managed third place in its semi-final for Azerbaijan before winning—with the lowest average score for a winner in Song Contest history. In 2008 and 2011 only a limited number of countries voted in each semi-final: the participating countries plus half of the Big 5 plus host. So there were somewhat (2004) and significantly (2008 and 2011) different voting pools between the semi-finals and Grand Final.

So only two winners in 12 years from prequalified entries. Is that possible? Let’s see!

Odds

One might argue that these numbers demonstrate that performing in a semi-final is an advantage. But we have had two winners that were pre-qualified for that year’s Grand Final; we’ve also had an average of one Big 5 entry in the top 10 every year beginning with the first semi-final back in 2004. When there are around 40 entries in a year (more or less) the odds are about 25 per cent (10 out of 40) any entry will make the top 10 in the final. Multiply that by (Big) 4 or 5 and it works out to 1-1.25 songs in the top 10 any given year. Therefore, on average we’re tracking decently for top 10 results.

If we were to look at winning, the possibility of winning is 1/40, or approximately 2.5 per cent (0.025)—much lower odds. Multiply that by 4 or 5 and that works out to 10-12.5 per cent odds. Of the 12 winners in the semi-final era we have had one from the Big 5: 1/12 is 8.3 per cent. So we are a bit lower than what might be expected. But not massively so.

Is there a problem? Perhaps. How might we solve it? Read on.

A modest proposal

If we were to assume that the exposure given during the semi-finals helps some entries (my mate’s original theory), how could we change the current system to give the Big 5 (and possibly the host) a better chance of winning by increasing their entries’ exposure?

We could treat the current prequalifiers as another voting “pod” and allocate half randomly to each semi-final. We would now have two longer semi-finals and no prequalified entries. To make the show more manageable time-wise, 12 (rather than 10) qualifiers from each semi-final could move on to a 24 song Grand Final. This would also still be using the combined jury/televote system for point allocation.

This means the prequalified participants—who pay for much of the Contest—would forgo their guaranteed Saturday slot. That is a big ask for some of them. But this year we saw entries from the Big 5 given not great performance slots: France was given the dreaded second slot.

Australia’s appearance this year is instructive. A country that’s never participated before sends one of it’s top artists, with a song written for the Contest and earns a top 5 position. When the Big 5 have taken the Contest as seriously they have tended to do well. Perhaps giving the semi-finals a go for a couple of years will shake the BBC and France 2 out of their torpor?

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