In the 1950s, as a war-torn Europe rebuilt itself, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)—based in Switzerland—set up an ad-hoc committee to search for ways of bringing together the countries of the EBU around a “light entertainment programme”. At a committee meeting held in Monaco in January 1955, director general of Swiss television and committee chairman Marcel Bezençon conceived the idea of an international song contest where countries would participate in one television programme, to be transmitted simultaneously to all countries of the union. The competition was based upon the existing Sanremo Music Festival held in Italy, and was also seen as a technological experiment in live television: as in those days, it was a very ambitious project to join many countries together in a wide-area international network. Satellite television did not exist, and the so-called Eurovision Network comprised a terrestrial microwave network. The concept, then known as “Eurovision Grand Prix”, was approved by the EBU General Assembly in at a meeting held in Rome on 19 October 1955 and it was decided that the first contest would take place in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland. The name “Eurovision” was first used in relation to the EBU’s network by British journalist George Campey in the London Evening Standard in 1951.
The first Contest was held in the town of Lugano, Switzerland, on 24 May 1956. Seven countries participated—each submitting two songs, for a total of 14. This was the only Contest in which more than one song per country was performed: since 1957 all Contests have allowed one entry per country. The 1956 Contest was won by the host nation, Switzerland.
The programme was first known as the “Eurovision Grand Prix”. This “Grand Prix” name was adopted by the Francophone countries, where the Contest became known as “Le Grand-Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne”. The “Grand Prix” has since been dropped and replaced with “Concours” (contest) in these countries. The Eurovision Network is used to carry many news and sports programmes internationally, among other specialised events organised by the EBU. However, in the minds of the public, the name “Eurovision” is most closely associated with the Song Contest.
Nel corso di un convegno tenutosi a Monaco nel 1955: l’allora direttore dell’EBU-UER, il consorzio Eurovisione, lo svizzero Marcel Bezençon (1907-1980) lanciò l’idea di unire i paesi europei in una competizione canora, sull’esempio del Festival di Sanremo italiano. Allo stesso tempo, il Gran Premio Eurovisione della Canzone (questo il primo nome dell’evento) avrebbe costituito un’ambizioso esperimento di trasmissione televisiva simultanea in più paesi. Tutto cominciò così…
L’idea venne approvata all’assemblea generale dell’EBU-UER tenutosi a Roma, a palazzo Corsini, il 19 Ottobre 1955. La televisione pubblica svizzera propose di organizzare il primo Grand Prix a Lugano, il successivo 24 maggio. Vi presero parte sette paesi con due canzoni a testa, cosa che avvenne solo nella prima edizione del concorso.
I paesi europei, fino a undici anni prima in guerra, potevano affrontarsi in una gara di canzoni. A prendere parte alla prima edizione furono le nazioni che pochi mesi pù tardi firmeranno il trattato di Roma istituendo la Comunità Economica Europea (Francia, Germania, Italia, Belgio, Olanda e Lussemburgo), più la Svizzera.
L’Eurofestival, così l’Eurovision Song Contest è chiamato in lingua italiana, è organizzato da allora nel mese di maggio sotto gli auspici dell’European Broadcasting Union, il consorzio delle emittenti radiotelevisive pubbliche dello spazio radiotelevisivo europeo. Rappresenta lo stato dell’arte delle tecniche di produzione televisiva, e consiste da sempre in una gara di canzoni in rappresentanza degli stati delle televisioni che aderiscono all’EBU-UER. In buona sintesi, si può dire che come le Olimpiadi non sono una gara tra nazioni ma tra Comitati Olimpici nazionali, l’Eurofestival è una competizione dove a gareggiare sono gli enti televisivi di stato. Canzoni e cantanti, in questo caso, sono come gli atleti. Solo le televisioni attivamente parte dell’EBU-UER possono partecipare all’Eurofestival e sono autorizzati a iscriversi.
Nal 2004 il format dello spettacolo venne modificato con l’introuzione di una serate eliminatoria detta semifinale. Nel 2008 venne introdotta una seconda serata Semifinale. Secondo il regolamento attualmente in vigore, possono prendere parte a ogni semifinale un massimo di 20 nazioni: Il paese ospitante e i cosiddetti “Big 4”, Francia, Regno Unito, Spagna e Germania sono automaticamente qualificati alla finale. Nel 2009 l’EBU-UER ha reintrodotto le giurie di professionisti, dopo alcuni anni in cui il responso finale era stato affidato al solo televoto. Dopo un primo anno nel quale i giurat i hanno avuto un peso del 60% nel voto della finale, quest’ano votano e determinano anche il risultato delle due semifinali.
Alla finale arrivano 25 canzoni, in rappresentanza di altrettante nazioni. Il vincitore è scelto dal pubblico e dai giurati di ognuno dei 39 paesi che prendono parte alla gara. E’ tradizione che, come la coppa America, chi vince organizzi l’edizione successiva del concorso.
L’Eurofestival è il più importante evento televisivo non sportivo del mondo: un marchio forte e riconosciuto per centinaia di milioni di spettatori europei. La serata finale del 2009 è stata vista, secondo le stime, da circa 125 milioni di telespettatori, rappresentando la trasmissione più seguita in termini di audience e share in quasi tutti i paesi partecipanti.
EUROVISION THROUGH THE DECADES
1950s The Eurovision Song Contest debuted in the Swiss resort of Lugano on Thursday 24 May 1956.
Although Marcel Bezençon is credited with creating the Eurovision Song Contest, much of the format that we recognize today came from the British actor Michael Brennan who, in March 1954, came up with the idea of a song contest that featured regional juries and a scoreboard. This idea eventually became the Festival Of British Popular Songs, which was first screened on 7 May 1956.
Seven countries took part in the first Contest: Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Italy, with each country presenting two songs. It was the second Swiss song of the evening, Refrain by Lys Assia, that became the first-ever winner of the Eurovision Song Contest. It was chosen by a jury comprising two members from each of the seven countries taking part. However, the voting scores were not made public on the night and have since been lost in the mists of time. Lys Assia continues to this day to be associated with the Contest, making guest appearances in recent Contests, as well as trying to represent Switzerland again in 2012.
In the first few years the Eurovision Song Contest was mostly a radio show as few European families had a television set at that time. The first show lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes, with subsequent Contests in the 1950s running to around just over an hour. Nowadays the Grand Final is around three and half hours long.
The contest in the 1950s was still finding its way in terms of the rules. The 1957 Italian entry, Corda Della Mia Chitarra, performed by Nuzio Gallo, lasted five minutes and nine seconds. This led to the introduction of a three-minute maximum duration for any entry.
A recording of the fifth heat of the Festival Of British Popular Songs was shown to the EBU in the autumn of 1956, and the idea of using juries and a scoreboard was incorporated into the 1957 Contest, and has remained ever since.
Another rule was that only solo artists or duets could take part. A few groups managed to get around this rule by having one (or two) of their singers named, and the remaining members of the group appearing as backing vocalists.
The next few years brought more participants, from the original seven countries to twelve, with United Kingdom, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Monaco joining the event, which brought more excitement and of course, new winners.
Although some of the songs did not win, they did become worldwide hits: the Italian Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu from 1958 (better known as Volare) and its 1959 entry Piove (famous as Ciao Ciao Bambina), both sung by Domenico Modugno, went on to become classics.
1960s The Eurovision Song Contest grew more glamorous and exciting in the 1960s as more countries began to take part and European superstars, including Cliff Richard, Françoise Hardy and Nana Mouskouri, took to the stage in what was now one of the must-see TV nights of the year.
Early Contests had been held on various weekdays, but from 1963, the event was held on a Saturday for the first time, a tradition that has continued ever since.
The host with the record for presenting the most finals is Katie Boyle for the United Kingdom who first undertook the task in 1960 and went on to host the Contest in 1963, 1968 and 1974.
The list of participating countries grew to 18, with Norway, Spain, Finland, Yugoslavia, Portugal and Ireland swelling the ranks. This also resulted in more popular hits, like Congratulations and the Puppet On A String, both representing the United Kingdom. The latter sung by a barefooted Sandie Shaw won with one of the largest margins ever witnessed in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest as the song garnered more than twice as many votes as the runner-up, Ireland. But it wasn’t just the juries who were charmed by Sandie Shaw’s song. It became a huge success all over Europe and remains one of the Contest’s biggest successes stories.
The Eurovision Song Contest also witnessed major technical advances during this decade. The 1968 contest was the first to be produced and broadcast in colour by the BBC, despite the fact that very few TV viewers across Europe owned colour TV sets at the time. Even in the United Kingdom just over half a million viewers saw the colour transmission when it was repeated on the only colour channel the following afternoon.
Growing competition between participants led to the record-breaking four winners in 1969 when France, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom all got 18 points. Since there was no solution for this situation, all four countries were declared winners. Luckily, there were enough medals available for the winning singers – the medals had been intended for the winning singer and three winning songwriters.
However, having four winners caused lots of criticism from the media and several TV channels reconsidered participating in the first Eurovision Song Contest of the 1970s.
1970s The 1970s started with a major drop in participation numbers. Only 12 countries decided to take part in 1970 due to the “voting scandal” from the previous year which resulted in four winners. A new rule was devised; if two or more songs gained the same number of points, each song had to be performed once more and all the other juries had to select their favourite song. If there was still a tie, they would both share first place.
The rule of performing either solo or as a duet was abolished in 1971: groups of up to six persons are now allowed to perform in the Eurovision Song Contest and many groups have won the Contest since then.
More changes were in the air. Between 1971 and 1973 there was a short-lived voting system, involving just two jurors from each participating country, awarding between 1 and 5 votes to each song. This confusing system led to some countries awarding more votes than others and the system was quickly discredited.
Another important rule change for the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest was that the participants were free to choose the language in which they wanted to sing their songs. This rule remained in place until 1976, although exceptions were permitted for the 1977 Contest. The “free language” rule was brought back in 1999 and continues today.
The current voting system was first used in 1975 (when the contest was first held in Sweden). Juries in each country would give 1–12 points to their 10 favourite songs, with the famous 12 (douze) points going to their favourite song, then 10 to their second choice, 8 to their third , 7 to their fourth, and so on, ending with 1 point for their tenth favourite. For the rest of the decade the votes were cast in the order the songs were performed.
The 1970s saw many Eurovision winners become worldwide hits including Ireland’s All Kinds Of Everything by Dana, Luxembourg’s Après Toi by Vicky Leandros, DingA-Dong by Teach-In from The Netherlands, Save Your Kisses For Me by the UK’s Brotherhood of Man and the song that was chosen to be the best Eurovision Song Contest entry ever (in 2005) – Waterloo by the world-famous Swedish foursome ABBA who won in 1974.
ABBA had actually already tried to enter the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest with the song Ring Ring, which later became a hit for them in many European countries, but they only reached third place in the Swedish national selection.
Big stars also appearing in Eurovision in this decade included Olivia Newton John for the UK in 1974, Julio Iglesias for Spain, Gianni Morandi for Italy in 1970, and disco acts Silver Convention and Baccara for Germany and Luxembourg respectively in 1977 and 1978.
Malta, Israel, Greece and Turkey also entered the contest for the first time in the 1970s. Israel triumphed in 1978 and 1979. They were the second country that decade to win two successive Contests. Luxembourg won in both 1972 and 1973.
More and more countries all over the world decided to broadcast the Eurovision Song Contest, including Brazil, Chile, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Dubai and Thailand.
1980s 1980 saw the 25th Song Contest but the event had a last minute organizer: Dutch broadcaster NOS stepped in after Israel’s refusal to host the competition twice in a row. In fact, Israel didn’t even take part the year after winning with Hallelujah as the selected date clashed with one of its national holidays. The first, and so far the last, time a country has not returned the year after winning.
A special silver anniversary event took place the year after in Norway, where most of the Contest’s winners performed at a special concert in Momarkedet in Mysen.
The 1980s brought more up-tempo winners than in the past, like Norway’s first victory with La Det Swinge in 1985. Another first time winner was Germany with Ein Bißchen Frieden, composed by the legendary Ralph Siegel and performed by Nicole who finally claimed victory for her country in 1982. Belgium also won the Eurovision Song Contest in this decade with 13 year-old Sandra Kim’s J’aime La Vie. However the lyrics of Sandra’s song said she was 15. Shortly before breaking up, Yugoslavia finally won in 1989 with Rock Me by the Croatian group Riva.
Writing himself into Eurovision history was Australian-born Irish artist Johnny Logan, who secured Ireland’s second victory in 1980 with What’s Another Year and again in 1987 with Hold Me Now. From then on he’d be known as ‘Mr Eurovision’, especially after Linda Martin won the contest with another Johnny Logan song Why Me? in 1992, making Logan the only person to have won the contest three times.
More superstars launched their careers at the Eurovision Song Contest in the 1980s. For Céline Dion, winning the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest was just another step on her way to becoming a household name. Germany and Austria both had entries in 1989 written by the German pop titan Dieter Bohlen, who became famous in Germany as one half of the duo Modern Talking.
As the performances became more visual, so did the presentation. The contest in Gothenberg in 1985 was hosted by former participant Lill Lindfors who shocked the audience when it appeared that her skirt was torn off. This was of course well rehearsed – she had another dress underneath. It remains one of the most remembered highlights in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The list of participants grew again in 1980s. For the first time in its history an African country, Morocco, took part in 1980. Samira, a star in all Arabic-speaking countries, sang Bitakat Hob which ended up in 18th position with just 7 points. Cyprus and Iceland also joined the Eurovision party in the 1980s.
1990s This decade saw arguably the greatest changes in the competition since its inception, changes that led to the Eurovision Song Contest as we know it now.
Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, Russia, Poland and FYR Macedonia joined the Eurovision family in the 1990s.
The enlargement of the contest led to new challenges. The show still had to be around three hours long, which was hard to achieve when more than 25 countries decided to take part. Several solutions were found.
Seven countries from Eastern Europe took part in a preliminary heat in Ljubljana in 1993. Three of them went on to the final in Milstreet, Ireland. An audio pre-selection in which 22 countries out of 29 were selected to go through to the Final in Oslo was used in 1996.
In 1997 the average results of all countries in the last five song contests were calculated and the 25 countries that had performed the best qualified for the final in Dublin. This method of selection continued until the early 2000s.
It was also decided that France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, as the highest paying European Broadcasting Union subscribers, would automatically be allowed to take part every year, irrespective of their five-year point average.
After the participation of two children in 1989 for France and Israel caused some controversy, it was decided that from 1990 the minimum age requirement would be to turn 16 in the year of participation. The UK’s Emma took advantage of this rule change in 1990.
The rule has been modified since then: now performers must be aged at least 16 on the day of the Final, while younger singers are able to participate in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest launched in 2003.
Malta returned to Eurovision in 1991 after an absence of 16 years.
In 1999, the long-standing rule that each country had to sing in one of its own national languages was abolished. Having an orchestra also became optional in 1999 and no orchestra has appeared on stage since.
Televoting was introduced in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and Germany in 1997 and was extended to almost all participating countries the following year.
The 1990s were halcyon days for Ireland, which won the Contest four times in total including three times in a row: 1992, 1993, 1994 and then also in 1996.
The Contest also produced some big hits in this decade, such as Gina G’s Ooh Ahh…Just A Little Bit for the UK in 1996 and the 1998 winner Diva by Israel’s Dana International.
However, the biggest commercial success of the 1990s wasn’t one of the songs but the interval act in Dublin in 1994, Riverdance, which later became a hit worldwide touring show.
2000s The new millennium saw a continuous rise in the popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest all over Europe, leading to more format changes.
With Latvia and Ukraine joining the Contest in 2000 and 2003 respectively, and with Belarus, Serbia & Montenegro, Albania and Andorra on the waiting list, the system of choosing who would take part each year was already overstretched.
So, for the first time in its history, a televised Semi-Final was introduced for the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest.
The Big-4 (Germany, the UK, France and Spain), the host country, and the ten bestplaced countries from the previous contest would directly qualify for the Final, while all lower-ranked countries, as well as new participating broadcasters had to perform in the Semi-Final and be in the top 10 to qualify for the Final. This system was big step forward, as it allowed all countries to participate every year, without taking a one year break after a bad result.
The Semi-Final system also introduced a new element of suspense, not just for TV viewers. At the end of the Semi-Final, the 10 qualifiers are announced. Now artists and fans hold their breath to see if they have made it through to Saturday’s Grand Final.
This decade saw the first of the eastern European countries who joined in the 1990s win the competition. Estonia took the title with Tanel Padar, Dave Benton & 2XL’s Everybody in 2001. That kicked off a whole series of first-time victories from 2002 through till 2008, with Marie N winning for Latvia, Sertab for Turkey, Ruslana for Ukraine, Helena Paparizou for Greece, Lordi for Finland, Marija Šerifovic for Serbia, and Dima Bilan for Russia.
More and more countries expressed an interest in sending their own entry to the Eurovision Song Contest: Bulgaria and Moldova joined the show in 2005, Armenia followed suit in 2006, then Montenegro, Serbia, Georgia and the Czech Republic in 2007 and Azerbaijan and San Marino in 2008.
The high level of interest led to a situation in 2007 where 27 countries were fighting for only 10 available spots in the Grand Final. A Second Semi-Final was introduced in 2008. Now, only the Big-4 and the host country would automatically qualify for the Final. All other countries had to gain a top 10 place in one of the two Semi-Finals.
Televoting was the sole decisive force in the contest for 10 years, but in 2008 the national jury system was reintroduced alongside viewer votes to decide the winner. That year only the top 9 countries in the televote of the two Semi-Finals qualified for the Final. The tenth qualifier in each show was the highest-ranked entry in the jury vote that had not yet been part of the televoting qualifiers.
The juries began to have a say in the Final in 2009, when in each country, a 50/50 combination of televoting scores and jury scores was used to calculate the traditional Eurovision ranking, culminating in “douze” points. From 2010, the same way of combining televotes and jury scores was also introduced in the Semi-Finals.
2010s In 2011, Italy returned to the Eurovision Song Contest after a 13-year absence and joined, what is now, the Big-5 countries who automatically qualify for the Grand Final. The Contest also journeyed to its most eastern host city when Azerbaijan won, taking the Contest to Baku in 2012.
Competing songs also started to enjoy chart success across the world again with both Germany’s winner Satellite by Lena in 2010 and Loreen’s 2012 winner for Sweden, Euphoria, becoming big hits around Europe.
In 2014, runners-up the Netherlands also proved to have cross-over appeal with their entry Calm After The Storm by The Common Linnets climbing the charts in many countries.
Finally, Austria saw its first win since 1966 when bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst swept all before her to take the title in Copenhagen in 2014 with Rise Like A Phoenix.