Monday, May 17, 2004

My annual television viewing experience

As I do on the appropriate evening most years, on Saturday evening I sat down to watch the Eurovision song contest, this year live from Istanbul. (The Turks won it last year, and the winner gets to host the event the next year. This policy almost sent the Irish national television company bankrupt when Ireland won the constest three years in a row in the 1990s, but I digress). Istanbul is a good place to host it, if only because it is amongst the most stunningly beautiful cities in the world, and this at least provides from pretty pre-filmed interstitial sequences between the acts.

In a move to demonstrate solidarity with Britain's European partners, I opened a can of German beer and turned on the television. I only paid vague attention to the actual performances of the songs, because as a general rule the songs aren't very good. One is occasionally distracted by some particularly ludicrous outfits, or by some particularly creative way in which the performers take most of their clothes off at the end of a song, or by somebody playing a nose flute, but nothing on the song contest was really up to the Buffy episodes that I was watching on DVD at the same time. Nothing as good as the glorious Alf Poier of Austria who sung about his homepage (and who I actually voted for last year.

However, once the singing stops, it gets fun. We get a half-time performance that attempts to convey some of the local colour of the home city while people are voting, and then we get down to the serious stuff - the voting. Since the end of the Cold War, the number of countries who can participate in the contest has increased dramatically, and many of these somewhat obscure eastern countries are quite exciting by anothing that draws attention to their country, including Eurovision contests. So there are now lots of entrants. When this problem came along a decade or so ago, relegation was introduced and the countries that get the lowest scores were excluded from the competition for the next year, but got to come back automatically the year after that. However, this year there was a new innovation, which was the instituation of a semi-final round. Those countries that did not get enough points last year and those that had been left out last year participated in a separate contest (shown only on cable and satellite television in the UK) a few days earlier. The countries that got the most points in that competition went through to the main contest. (United Kingdom, Spain, France, and Germany) get automatic selection to the main contest, on the basis that they are the countries that pay for the European Broadcasting Union).

Why am I telling you this? Well, because it affected the format of the main contest. Whereas in the past only the participating countries in the main contest got to vote, in the new format all countries that entered got to vote. So although only 24 countries got performers to sing songs, viewers in all 36 countries got to vote. And as I mentioned, the voting is the fun part. As in football, the effects of two thousand years of history can be seen in the outcome of the voting. And the more countries that vote, the merrier. Certain countries traditionally vote for one another. The most extreme example is Greece and Cyprus, which invariably give one another the maximum 12 points. There is no way this will not happen. The universe will end first. And traditionally the Nordic countries give points to one another (with the possible exception of Norway) although this did not happen so much this year because most of the Nordic countries didn't make it past the semi-final round.

And there is what may be called the ethnic minority issue. Germany always gives lots of points to Turkey, not perhaps so much because the Germans are huge funs of the Turkish people as that there are a huge number of ethnically Turkish people living in Germany. And the same perhaps goes for the Mecedonians giving maximum points to the Albanians.

Which leads to a curious fact: which is Balkan bloc voting. Virtually all the countries in the Balkans: Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria etc gave lots of points to one another. This strikes me as perhaps more curious than Nordic bloc voting. Denmark and Sweden are on pretty good terms with one another on the whole, but the people of the various countries of the Balkans have spent much of the last 15 years killing one another, which makes it kind of curious that they now vote for one another. For instance, when Croatia gives the maximum 12 points to Serbia, as actually happened on Saturday, there is not so much I can say other than what the fuck? (One thing that does mean is that most of the Balkan countries will be back next year, as they managed to give one another enough points to avoid any of them being relegated, I think.

But it did lead to an interesting possibility on Saturday night. As the voting got underway, it was pretty clear before long that it was a two way race between Serbia and Montenegro (whose song did feature the nose flute) and the Ukraine (whose "song" was more about dancing than singing, and which featured a troupe of leather clad Xena Warrior Princess impersonators. Serbia and Montenegro took an early lead, suggesting the very surreal prospect of the contest going to Belgrade next year. That would have been interesting - perhaps we could have had Ceca, the world's most evil pop star, as the half time act, but it would have made a lot of the media contingent relatively nervous, I suspect. In the end though the Ukrainian leather fetishests won out, and by about the three quarter mark in the voting it was clear that Terry Wogan was going to Kiev next year. Which will be interesting in itself. I fear that Kiev is a fairly drab place as (a) I don't think that I have ever seen a picture of the city and (b) 80 years of communism will do that to you. I suspect that means that next year we will not have glorious scenic shots as in Istanbul, which is kind of a shame.

And there is of course one final thing that needs reporting on when discussing the Eurovision contest, which is whether anyone managed "nul points", as it is normally put. (There are two major events in the world which operate on the old diplomatic tradition of French and English: the Olympic Games and the Eurovision Song Contest). It is actually quite difficult to score no points at all in the Eurovision Song Contest, as there have always been more than 20 other countries to vote for you, and each gets to give points to ten other countries. In most years everybody picks up at least a couple of points from someone. However, Nordic bloc voting notwithstanding, there is something of a tradition of Norwegians ending up with the dreaded nul. (One or two Norwegians have actually become famous on this achievement, to the limited extent that Norwegians can become famous). However, last year something happened for the first time: which was that the British entrant managed nul points. This was quite shocking, but it didn't lead to relegation, as Britain are one of the four countries that cannot be relegated. This year's British entrant was not in any way a contender, but managed to pick up enough points here or there to finish in the lower half of the middle of the table. However, one other thing did almost happen. With 36 countries voting, it should be even harder to manage to score no points, but with just a few votes to come in, it looked just like old times. The Norwegian entrant was the last entrant sitting there on nul, for a long long time. But sadly, in a belated piece of trans-Nordic voting, the Swedes gave three points to the Norwegians. This was deeply sad, and the Norwegian entrant ended up with an unremarkable three points, rather than one of the legendary nuls. Oh well.

However, with the semi-final stage there is always next year. In recent years the 3 points would have meant Norwegian relegation, but it is possible that they qualify for the main event next year. And then all nuls are possible.

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