It’s likely that the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the term “Eurovision” isn’t anything to do with governance or accountability. Instead, one might think of over-the-top performances, campy costumes, and cheesy (but often excellent) songs. In some countries it’s a joke and in others it’s considered a big deal, but it’s all about the music and the fireworks, right? Well, it turns out there’s a lot more behind the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) than what comes through your TV screen. You don’t last six decades without a strong tradition of governance, accountability, and adaptability, and with trust in institutions on a downward trend globally, there’s a lot we can learn from the competition, now in its 65th year, on what makes for strong, lasting, and trusted institutions.
Strong Governance and a Commitment to Fairness
One of the secrets to Eurovision’s longevity is its strong system of governance and commitment to fairness. The contest, run by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) is governed by a long list of rules that set clear expectations for each country’s participation, and that are meant to ensure that no country has an unfair advantage over another. For example, songs are limited to a maximum length of three minutes, must be entirely original, and cannot have been performed or released prior to September 1st of the previous year. At the competition itself, no more than six people are allowed to be part of the performance and all lead vocals must be performed live.
Most importantly, however, songs and performances must be “non-political.” The EBU states this very clearly in the rules: “The lyrics and/or performance of the songs shall not bring the Shows, the ESC as such or the EBU into disrepute. No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political, commercial or similar nature shall be permitted during the ESC.”
Critically, all of these rules are strongly enforced, and participating broadcasters can face disqualification from the contest or other sanctions such as fines or penalties for breaking them. Normally, if a song does not meet the EBU’s criteria, the broadcaster is asked to submit another song within an allotted window or face disqualification. Just this year, Belarus was officially disqualified from the contest after two attempts to submit a song were rejected because of their overtly political nature. In 2009, Georgia was disqualified for their song “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” a direct reference to the President of Russia and the recent invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
However, sometimes other measures must be taken. In 2016 the Armenian national broadcaster was fined after their representative displayed the flag of Nagorno-Karabakh during the live broadcast, while in 2019, the same happened to Iceland after their representatives displayed the Palestinian flag. In 1999, Croatia had one third of its points docked because the backing track for their performance contained pre-recorded vocals.
This system of rules and a strong enforcement mechanism has kept the contest fair over the decades. Truly any country can win, no matter how small and no matter their budget, which keeps people watching and invested in the competition. And though the contest has faced criticism for its fervent commitment to being apolitical, the result is that the ESC can be widely enjoyed by viewers around the world and is a big factor in its success and longevity.
Keeping itself Accountable
Another lesson we can take from Eurovision is the way the EBU holds itself accountable behind the scenes. The winner of the ESC is determined by a 50/50 split between scores given by professional juries and a public televote from each participating country. This means that votes from around 200 jury members and 200 million viewers need to be counted and calculated in a way that ensures that the winner of the competition is decided fairly.
What comes out looking simple in the broadcast in reality seems more like a logistical nightmare. Jury members have to be vetted for conflicts of interest and take written pledges that they will remain completely independent and evaluate the songs and performances based on a set criteria. They are also not allowed to discuss their votes with each other or the public. With the advent of new technologies, the televote becomes more and more vulnerable to hacking, bots, and a host of other issues.
To handle this, the EBU sets up redundancies and brings in professional monitors and independent observers to oversee the entire process. Juries submit their votes both electronically through a secure system and by fax. The televotes are routed through a system called the Pan-European Response Platform and is monitored by 70 trained professionals who detect and mitigate attempts at malicious voting. Both the jury vote and the televote are also monitored by independent observers (such as PwC or EY) and the EBU’s Executive Supervisor.
Of course, the system isn’t flawless. In 2019, the Belarusian jury was disqualified after the first semi-final because they revealed their ranking in an interview before the final (jury votes from the semi-finals are kept a secret until after the competition so as not to influence bookmakers or voting in the Grand Final), and an aggregated vote based on countries with similar voting patterns, approved by everyone involved, including independent observers, was used in the Grand Final instead. However, one eagle-eyed fan on twitter discovered a major issue with the aggregated vote: as a result of human error, the points were given to the wrong countries. Though the top-placing countries were not seriously affected, the EBU released a statement amending the results.
The EBU’s dedication to accountability means that the results of the contest are widely trusted and accepted. Despite occasional claims that countries vote politically or for their neighbors (a phenomenon known as “bloc voting”), viewers trust that the winner of the contest was chosen fairly, another reason they come back to the contest year after year. The 2019 incident also shows that when stakeholders (in this case, the fervent Eurovision fan base) are highly invested in the process, the institution itself is held to a greater standard of accountability.
Adaptability is Key
Finally, the last big lesson we can learn from the Eurovision Song Contest is that systems and institutions must remain adaptable. Though the idea at the core of the ESC remains the same as when the first edition aired in 1956, the world today is a very different place and the contest has had to adapt to a constantly changing demographic, social, political, and technological landscape.
The first Eurovision Song Contest had six participating countries and few rules. As the contest expanded, new rules were implemented to keep the competition running smoothly and fairly. The 3-minute rule was instituted the very next year, after Italy’s song ran for over five minutes. The voting system has been changed numerous times over the years as various issues of fairness and logistics came up, and tie-breaking rules were instituted after four countries tied for 1st in 1969. Backing tracks replaced a live orchestra with the development of electronic music and computer-generated sounds.
As the number of participating countries grew, pre-selection methods were gradually incorporated to keep the run-time of the Grand Final reasonable. The EBU experimented with various formats between 1993 and 2008, when the current semi-final system was introduced, addressing criticism and learning from their mistakes in the process.
Probably the biggest challenge that the ESC has ever faced came in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the timing, the 2020 edition of the contest had to be cancelled for the first time ever. As a result, the organizers of the contest were determined that Eurovision would come back in 2021 no matter what. All potential scenarios were analyzed and numerous contingencies were put in place to make Eurovision 2021 happen, with the EBU providing regular updates on how the contest planned to go ahead even as restrictions on travel and large gatherings continue. As a result, the contest will take place in Rotterdam this year and a winner will be crowned.
More importantly, the way the contest tackled the challenges of COVID-19 provides a model not just for future editions of the ESC but for how other organizations, governments, and institutions can rally after setbacks and plan for the unexpected.
Adaptability, along with strong systems of governance and accountability, have been key to the Eurovision Song Contest’s longevity and success. These three factors have allowed the competition to not only remain relevant for over half a century, but to maintain the trust and interest of viewers and to serve as a model for other institutions that are facing similar challenges. It’s proof that a solid rules-based foundation, a commitment to accountability and learning from mistakes, and a willingness to adapt to ever-changing circumstances are essential to the longevity of an institution and its ability to maintain trust and integrity.