Tuesday 27 November 2012

Eurovision in (economic) crisis?

The Eurovision Song Contest has hit the headlines again. This time it’s serious. Austerity in Europe is apparently forcing countries to withdraw. Could this be the end of Eurovision as we know it?
Last weekend it was reported that Poland and Portugal have withdrawn from the 2013 Contest due to the ongoing economic crisis. True, the recession has had an impact on national broadcasters across Europe, however, is it really all down to economics?  Money is an obvious issue since participation itself in the competition is an expensive business let alone winning and hosting the event. Poland withdrew in 2012 since the national broadcaster TVP were concentrating on Euro 2012. However the economic crisis has not deterred all of Europe’s most cash-strapped countries, Greece being one example. There are other issues at play here.
Crippled financially by spiralling debts, Greece have continued to appear at Eurovision (and qualify to the final) every year. Greek participation in the event is paid for through private sponsorship – the record company picked up the bill in 2012 and not the public. Eurovision is one of the biggest shows of the year in Greece – participation in the event is almost a matter of national pride. This is also true of Estonia which faced with possible withdrawal in 2010. Enterprise Estonia, a government agency responsible for promoting Estonian interests abroad, stepped in and paid for the country to appear on the Eurovision stage. To some countries Eurovision is more than a song contest; it is an opportunity to promote themselves internationally, an opportunity that we take for granted in the UK.
Why didn’t Poland and Portugal follow the same blueprint then and get private enterprise to pay the bill? Could it be that their ratings were down which perhaps prompted this action? Poland’s best placing was 2nd in 1994 and Portugal has never made the top 5 despite entering since 1964! Poland and Portugal aren’t the only countries to have withdrawn recently though. The Czech Republic, Andorra and Monaco have all walked away from the Eurovision stage in recent years. Again, given the financial climate in Europe this is perhaps unsurprising. However these are also countries that consistently failed to qualify from the semi finals. When there isn’t much of a new story, the viewers tend not to follow.
In the summer of 2012 it was reported that the BBC spent £350,000 on entering Eurovision. This might seem like a lot but in the context of primetime television broadcasting this is not a gigantic sum, it is all relative. One hour of Dr Who or Strictly easily runs into the millions. For its £350,000 the BBC got over seven and a half hours of live, primetime television and some of its largest audience shares of the year.
In terms of staging Eurovision, of course it is an expensive programme (costing in excess of £25 million). In 2010 Norwegian broadcaster NRK forfeited their rights to the World Cup in order for them to host Eurovision. In 2001 the Estonian government stepped in to guarantee funding for the 2002 contest in Tallinn after it was reported that the country was “too poor to host Eurovision”. Ireland’s RTE were rumoured to have faced difficulties in the 1990s after winning and staging four out of five contests and yet they did it, and they did it well. Why? Good old fashioned national pride. This is not something that will just totally diminish in a recession. In fact that resolve might even be strengthened as Greek tenacity exemplifies.
Eurovision is undoubtedly changing. Gone are the days of lavish parties and massive LED stages ala Moscow 2009. The Swedes are working on a more streamlined format, back to basics. It is first and foremost a television show. The contest in 2013 is unlikely to rival Azerbaijan’s show in 2012 or Moscow’s in 2009. In the past countries have tried to beat the previous host and produce ever more lavish contests. In the current economic climate this is simply not sustainable. Eurovision will however, ride out this storm, as it has every storm since 1956. It continues to draw in viewers and capture the public imagination like no other format. People love it or they hate it. There is no apathy when it comes to Eurovision and that is what is really powerful. It is unlikely that formats such as X Factor will still be around in 50 years.  Surely we need Eurovision just now as much as we did in 1956? It unites us like nothing else and given the scale and the severity of the economic crisis in Europe, the contest provides us with some much needed light relief. Recession or no recession Eurovision will endure.

Friday 16 November 2012

There must be another way, surely?

Social media is a funny old world isn't it? Facebook, Twitter and everything else in between really does put us in touch with the world like never before. We now see so much of each other's lives and seem to know more about each other than ever before. Politics is one example. Before social networking took off I didn't really have much of a clue about who my friends voted for, what their thoughts on abortion are or indeed their views on gay marriage. It's a totally different ballgame now. People often seem so willing to share their thoughts on the issues of the day (myself included at times). However all too often people fly off the handle and resort to personal remarks or even fall out when they don't agree on something. If it wasn’t for Facebook then they might never have had that conversation, either online or in person. Politics is a tricky business and outlets like Facebook and Twitter have brought this into our lives like never before.

The current escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza highlights this perfectly. It's not something that I know a great deal about to be honest, nor is it something I wish to discuss in great depth for that very reason. It is interesting reading the posts on Facebook though; the apartheid of opinion is striking. These are certainly troubling times for the people in the region and indeed for the world as a whole. The on-going tensions and violence in the Middle East has also had an impact on Eurovision.

Controversy is never far away from Eurovision in any given year and even more so when Israel's participation is considered. Israel debuted in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1973 and over the years their appearances have often been politically sensitive. Several Arab states do not enter Eurovision despite being eligible to do so. Israel is undoubtedly the main reason. Many Arab states do not recognise Israel as a sovereign nation state. Eurovision rules state that each country must broadcast the contest in its entirety, for many of these countries this would mean broadcasting the Israeli song and therefore providing a platform of sorts for Israel. Take 1978 for example, when it became clear that Israel were winning, Jordanian television cut the transmission. Indeed Morocco is the only Arab and African state to enter Eurovision, in 1980, when Israel was absent. In 2005 Lebanon were due to make their Eurovision debut yet when it emerged that they would screen commercials in place of the Israeli entry they were forced to withdraw. The controversy between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Eurovision highlights the difficulties of enemies coexisting on a Eurovision stage and if Israel's neighbours were to enter then Armenia-Azerbaijan issue would seem miniscule in comparison.

Even Israel's Eurovision entries have proved to be hot potatoes over the years. In 1983 Israel's Ofra Haza performed "Hi" which is widely interpreted as a metaphor for Israel. Despite the attempts to destroy the modern Jewish state or the Jewish community, Israel is still alive. This was a significant entry not only because it was performed in Germany, for obvious reasons, but also because the Eurovision stage was in Munich, the scene of the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympians. Remember though, Eurovision is not a political contest according to the European Broadcasting Union.

In 1998 the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) selected a trans-gendered artist, Dana International to represent Israel at Eurovision. This caused uproar in the country with ultra-Orthodox Jews, who considered Dana International to be peripheral to their ideal of national identity. Others such as composer Svika Pikk highlighted the fact that it was a chance to promote Israel as a liberal and tolerant country, changing the way the Middle East is imagined. Politician Shlomo Ben-Izri claimed that the decision“symbolised the sickness of a secular Israel”. Such discourses show how seriously some nations approach the Eurovision Song Contest; a Eurovision entry is seen as representative of the entire nation.

The 1999 Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem was also dogged by controversy. The interval act featured Dana International singing below Jerusalem’s historic city walls caused further outrage to ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were also incensed at religious lyrics being used in the performance. The rules of the Eurovision Song Contest state that a full dress rehearsal must take place on the Friday evening before the contest. This violated the traditions of the Jewish Sabbath where all activity is forbidden from sunset on Friday through to Saturday evening, again provoking angry reactions from conservatives regardless of the fact that Israelis officially a secular state. A compromise was reached, the IBA held the rehearsal in private. The Israeli entrants of 1999, four-piece boy band Eden, with the song, “Happy Birthday”, was a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel.
At the 2000 contest Israeli representatives, Ping-pong, waved Syrian flags during rehearsals. Israel and Syria were officially in a state of war at the time and Israel’s then Deputy Education Minister, Shlomo Yahalom called for the group’s participation to be banned claiming that they failed to represent national values. The waving of the Syrian flag during rehearsals on Israel’s Independence Day May 10th, in particular, caused further upset to officials who publically boycotted the group leaving them to cover their own expenses. Despite threats from Israeli broadcasting officials to ban the group from performing altogether, they appeared at the 2000 ESC and waved the Syrian flag along with the Israeli flag in a call for peace. Again, Eurovision isn’t a political contest…

The case of Israel has shown how the Eurovision Song Contest often touches on sensitive subjects such as gender identity, sexuality, religion and politics. Indeed in Israel and Jerusalem, these issues often intrude in even the most unlikely of situations. The reaction of some officials in Israel has shown how seriously they regard Israel’s image. Such controversies therefore represent a struggle in Israel between secularism and religious freedom.

In 2009 Israel's Eurovision entry was called "There Must Be Another Way" and was performed by an Arab-Israeli duo, Mira and Noa. This was the first time an Arab singer had represented Israel and the first time Arabic had been performed under the Israeli flag at Eurovision. Whilst critics can argue that this was merely a clever public relations exercise, it is a significant entry for Israel and indeed for Eurovision. In particular the line "When I cry, I cry for both of us, my pain has no name", struck a chord with me when I saw the news this week. Given the current conflict in the region, which seems to be escalating by the hour, the message in that song is now more pertinent than ever.