That well-known European nation that just happens to be in the Middle East, er… Israel… first took part in 1973 (and won in 1978 with the highly enthusiastic and catchy “A-Ba-Ni-Bi”, also – probably accidentally – the following year with the entirely unmemorable “Hallelujah”). All of Scandinavia takes part, and with the collapse and break up of the USSR, most of the Eastern Bloc enter as well, with previous winners hailing from Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Serbia, and Russia.
The Contest begins each year with a cheesy film promoting the host country, cutting to the cheesiest pair of hosts the country has managed to muster, who will invariably at some point attempt to deliver a joke which was never going to travel well in English. At this point English speaking viewers are torn between the agony of realisation that their Norwegian or Azerbaijani will never be as good as the hosts’ English, and the agony of embarrassment that anyone could ever have thought that a bad joke delivered in faltering English by a couple of presenters who possibly have no idea what they have just read from the autocue, but are required to laugh and congratulate one another on having done so and appear convincing without the talent to do so, could possibly ever be a good idea. The non-English speaking world meanwhile, just assumes they’ve slipped into another accent and wishes they’d get on with it.
Then – bang! – straight into last year’s winner, and then – let Eurovision commence!
The songs are played live, one after another with only a break long enough between them for the cheesy hosts to crack a few jokes and congratulate one another, and to run a short and cheesy clip to introduce the song of the next country, invariably picking on a national stereotype and running it through the Eurovision Cheese Vat.
When all countries have had their turn, the voting commences. Now that most people own a telephone, most countries allow their audiences to vote – it used to be done by a committee of industry types, but is more democratic these days. You are not, for instance, allowed to vote for your own country, although the voting in countries with 18 inhabitants carries the same weight as those with several hundred million.
In each country the act with most votes gets 10 points, the second 9 points and so on down to 1 point for the 10th. Norway scored a memorable first, but nothing else, in 1978 when their entry became the first song to score “nul points,” a feat they replicated in 1981, and since when only another 14 acts have followed in their footsteps. It took Norway until 1997 to complete their hat-trick.
While the voting is taking place there is an interval act. Riverdance, for instance, was created for one of the Irish intervals, and is now inescapable over here. Most are unmemorable.
About half an hour later the votes are in and each country reports their votes via a live link to the venue. This is conducted in both the language of the country announcing its votes and English, and takes about as long as it took to run through the songs.
It does not take, of course, the brain of a great military tactician to realise that while in the days when 12 or 15 countries took part it was possible for each of the 12 or 15 to play their songs, have a cup of tea, and then come on and report in 2 languages all of their votes in ascending order and still be done by sunrise. When over 40 countries take part, however, it takes a bit longer. A lot, lot longer…
It was decided a few years ago that a system of semi-finals would be introduced, with only the top 20 or so appearing on the big night, which cut back the musical element to between 90 minutes and 2 hours, but all 40 or so countries still vote and report their results, and it was only in the last couple of years that the results bit was changed so that the board is populated automatically with each country’s sixth to tenth place, but it has reduced the section to about 2 hours instead of all night and well into the next morning.
At the end the winner comes on and performs their song again, everybody cheers and then they all go home.