A qualification round, known as the semi-final, was introduced for the 2004 Contest. This semi-final was held on the Wednesday during Eurovision Week, and was a programme similar in format to the grand final, whose time slot remained 19:00 UTC on the Saturday. The highest-placed songs from the semi-final would qualify for the grand final, while the lower-placed songs were out of the competition for that year. From 2005–2007, the semi-final programme was held on the Thursday of Eurovision Week.
The ten most highly placed non-Big Four countries in the grand final were guaranteed a place in the following year’s grand final, without the need to participate in next year’s semi. If, for example, Germany came in the top ten, the eleventh-placed non-Big-Four country would automatically qualify for the next year’s grand final. The remaining countries—which had not automatically qualified for the grand final—had to enter the semi.
At the 50th annual meeting of the EBU reference group in September 2007, it was decided that from the 2008 Contest onwards two semi-finals would be held. From 2008 onwards, the scoreboard position of any previous years has not been relevant, and—save for the automatic qualifiers—all participating countries have had to participate in the semi-finals, regardless of their previous year’s scoreboard position. The only countries which automatically qualify for the grand final are the host country, and the Big Five: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, who continue to enjoy their protected status.
In each of the semi-finals the voting is conducted among those countries which participate in that semi-final in question. With regards to the automatic grand final qualifiers, which do not participate in the semi-finals, a draw is conducted to determine in which semi-final each of them will be allowed to vote. In contrast, every participating country in a particular year may vote in the Saturday grand final — whether their song qualified from the semi or not.
After the votes have been cast in each semi-final, the countries which received the most votes—and will therefore proceed to the grand final on Saturday—are announced by name by the presenters. Full voting results are withheld until after the grand final, whereupon they are published on the EBU’s website.