Weaver's Week 2008-06-01

Weaver's Week Index

As ever, there are many points coming out of this year's Eurovision Song Contest. We shall begin with a brief review of the finishing positions.

No-one came 25th.

No-one came 24th.

There was a three-way tie for 23rd, between Poland, Germany, and the UK. The German entrants, No Angels, won their Popstars contest in 2001, and would have done very well with their debut single "Daylight in your eyes"; the studio version of this year's song is better. And the UK was well-sold, and the best of another bad bunch. It did deserve better, but was never a winner.

The entry in Finnish finished 22nd, then there was a tremendous pile-up for positions 21 up to 13. Though Croatia finished bottom of this list, it leaps to 14th when considering the rankings as a Condorcet set. Romania came 20th, France and Sweden tied for 18th, Albania and Spain were level for 16th. The French entry was Gallic humour at its finest, and the Spanish one was one of those songs that make sense after a sangria too many. Denmark, Iceland, and Portugal finished from fifteenth to thirteenth; Iceland would be the main losers were entries ranked in strict preference order, though we found it worked far better in the middle of the show.

Georgia and Latvia tied for eleventh; Latvia's pirates either worked for the viewer or didn't, and Georgia was one we got second time round. Another song people either loved or hated from Bosnia and Herzegovina came 10th, Israel's entry finished 9th, Azerbaijan 8th, and Mr. Spock came 7th for Turkey. Serbia had their worst performance yet, finishing sixth with another song rooted in their ethnic traditions.

Norway finished in fifth place, with Armenia's instantly forgettable beats in fourth. Greece led the voting for a long time, but that was thanks to a useful voting draw; the later countries gave them little succour, and the entry finished third, clearly beaten by Ukraine. But the grand prize went to Dima Bilan, Russia's biggest export since Tatu. Even though the favourable votes were stacked towards the end, "Believe" was always there or thereabouts, and finished a healthy 42 points clear of the runner-up.

For some unaccountable reason, the main criticism of the show was not the poor television direction. The BBC's continued inability to properly credit anyone for doing their job of work means that Sven Stojanovi&ccarom; never got his name on a British screen. It's Mr. Stojanovi&ccarom;'s fourth time in the director's chair, and we rather hope it's his last. There appeared to be only three shots in his repertoire: a distant shot making the performers look like ants, an extreme close-up so that we could see the whites of their eyes, and a moving shot using a camera spinning around at far too fast a pace. The broadcast sound mix was also poor – for the first few songs in the final, it was almost as if the performer's mikes were turned off, and everything was being relayed through the microphones used to catch the crowd's cheering. This wasn't a problem last year, but we had a different director last year.

One clear improvement: we could see the scoreboard this time round. A simple, uncluttered board, and this year it included a progress bar so we could see how many countries had yet to vote. Two criticisms remain: there's still no distinguishing between the countries that have voted and those that have not. We forgot that Ukraine voted third, and was therefore in a better position than its other rivals for the top places. The other criticism was that someone thought it a good idea to focus in on the 12 points being awarded, forgetting that all that movement actually made it less clear where the song had ended up. Some have argued that the scoreboard should only adjust after each country has finished giving its points; this may be one to try in one of the subsidiary contests.

The main criticism of the show was, inevitably, the voting. "The people have spoken, the blighters", was the approximate tenor of debate. Pride of place must go to a correspondent to Teletext's teletext service, who said, "Xenophobia rears its ugly head once more." We find that a bit rich, coming as it does from the broadcast wing of Associated Newspapers, the publishers who make their money by publishing a diet of low-level hatred against eastern Europeans. More on that topic later.

So, let's run some analyses. Very usefully, the EBU website published this year's results ordered by the nation's (approximate) date of membership of the organisation. It's therefore easy to discard the votes of these Johnny-come-latelys from east of the iron curtain, and work out that, based on the votes of the eighteen competitors from the west, the final would have been won by... Armenia! They picked up ten or twelve from France, Spain, Belgium, Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece. Norway would have pipped Greece for second, Ukraine beat Russia into fifth. The main losers are Azerbaijan (8th to 15th); Romania the greatest gainers (20th to 14th). The UK still finishes tied for 23rd, level with Croatia, but ahead of Germany.

If we reverse the process, and look at the 25 countries that debuted in 1993 or later, we find the top three unchanged, Russia beats Ukraine and Greece; Azerbaijan join Armenia in a tie for fourth, with Norway just behind. Croatia are the winners (21st to tied 13th) and Iceland lose out (14th to 23rd). The UK slips into 24th, but Poland suffer the indignity of nul points.

Repeat this exercise for the semi-finals, and we find only one change – Iceland exit the Newcomers contest, replaced by Macedonia. Even in the combined contest, Macedonia finished 10th in the televote, but were rejected because Sweden were preferred by the juries. Speaking of the semi-finals, though the fans generally saw the first semi as the weaker of the two, it provided seven of the top ten; only two from the second semi reached so high.

There seems to be a fad in Russian circles to discard all but the top three preferences from a much larger field. If this had been adopted at Eurovision, Lithuania are going to the final, Russia beats Armenia in the final, and Israel slumps by 10 places. And our congratulations to Albania, who managed their first ever successful televote for Saturday's final; we reckon Andorra televoted in both contests, and only San Marino used a jury. Or was that a poll of the entire country?

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One question arising out of this exercise: how on earth did Armenia do so well in some western countries, and absolutely bomb in others? Even in the semi-final, the country had five firsts, three seconds, and just three other top five positions. The answer appears to lie, at least in part, in a concerted attempt by expatriates to show their support for their mother country. They're aided in this task by the auditing practices of the EBU's contractors Digame.

The full terms and conditions include vague promises like "The BBC reserves the right to disqualify votes if it has reasonable grounds to suspect that there has been any deliberate attempt to rig or manipulate the voting." In practice, voters are allowed to call up to 20 (twenty) times per phone line, and send 20 SMS messages per telephone, before votes are discounted. In nations with few viewers, it could only take a handful of well-organised people to deliver large numbers of points. The maxim "vote early, and vote often" certainly applies here.

None of this explains the success of the Russian entry. Very simply, it's Dima Bilan, the biggest pop star to come out of Russia since Tatu. Over the past two years, Dima has worked his socks off, promoting himself right across the former Stalinist bloc, and has become a household name in the region. Eurovision is, in part, an extension of Dima's ongoing promotional activities, a cog in his latest five-month plan.

For a British equivalent, suppose that the BBC had invited someone with the international stature of Mika or Katie Melua to write some songs for this year's competition, and release the UK's entry as the single for May across the continent. Is that cheating? No, it's exactly what the Russians have done for some years. Take the contest seriously, send the cream of local talent. It almost worked in 2003, and finally came to fruition as soon as there was no other obvious winner.

For the UK, all we got was a runner-up in the third running of an ephemeral Simon Cowell promotional vehicle, a man whose song was hand-picked by Mr. Wogan into the final four. That it was the least of three evils confronting him owes more to the BBC's paucity of invention than anything. But rather than confront the truth – that the BBC's method of finding a credible representative isn't working – they choose to blame everyone else. Even the Grate British Public declined to back Mr. Abrahams's song with their money; it ended last week at number 67 on the singles chart. It was even behind "Defying gravity" from the musical Wicked, given a lift by its appearance on the previous week's I'd Do Anything.

Almost inevitably, there has been much griping from the Old Eurovision tendency, the people who still see it as a lark, as an excuse to laugh at the rest of the continent making fools of themselves. The leader of the Old Eurovisionites, Terry Wogan, capped his thirtieth commentary by intimating that he might not bother coming back next year. Let's be charitable, and remember that he's seen a lot of forgettable dreck in the last thirty years, and it required the patience of a saint to get through some of the shows circa 1990 without punching people in the chops. His views have been supported by such old hands as Bruce Forsyth: "I've stopped watching it" and Simon Cowell: "If people enjoy it as entertainment, that's great, but it's all a bit empty and meaningless as a competition."

All that said, Mr. Wogan is right to step away from the microphone. We've found him increasingly difficult to bear; his habit of rubbishing every song, mocking the hosts, and finding fault with everything turns the night from a celebration of pan-European culture into a grouchy evening. This year, we understand that he completely missed the utter mega-stardom of Mr. Bilan, and presented him as some here-today-gone-tomorrow mayfly. His constant claims of political / expat / diaspora voting are generally unsubstantiated and utterly hypocritical – we said in May that the UK would give 12 to Greece, and that they duly did; and big marks to Turkey and Sweden, and that they did. Even in the semis, the UK gave 12 to Cyprus, their best result by far. Mr. Wogan's habit of talking over the performances is unforgivable. Take, for instance, Serbia's entry of 2004; the vocals don't kick in for about 30 seconds, and the BBC television host found this an acceptable time to blether on about something or other, completely ruining the mood of the song.

Who should replace him? Earlier in the decade, the succession was obvious: Christopher Price was going to become the BBC's big star, moving from BBC Choice to BBC1 with a style that was cheeky and respectful, and a great love of the Eurovision Song Contest. Mr. Price's career came to a wholly unexpected and tragic end when he suddenly died in April 2002. The gap at Eurovision has never been filled: Paddy O'Connell's been keeping the seat warm in the semi-finals, and he's been making a fine job of it. Should he be promoted to the Saturday night? Might we have Mel Giedroyc? Simon Amstell? A show without any commentary? We shall have to see.

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One fact is beyond dispute: the UK is hugely out of touch with European popular music and culture. Over the past ten Eurovision Song Contests, the UK's entries have only once placed in the top half. And it shows in the voting. While the European standard voting is provided by Poland, Israel, and Azerbaijan, the country with the largest average deviation from the norm is the UK. In the semi, nothing for winners Ukraine, nothing for Croatia, 12 for Cyprus and 8 for Lithuania is taking the mick. Putting the semis and grand final together, the UK showed the greatest difference from European culture. Even San Marino's juries were more in touch than the televoters from Little Blighty on the Down.

How has the UK come to be out on a limb from the rest of Europe? This column is not the place for an extended rant against the xenophobic tendencies of Britain's ruling classes, and the way they regularly find voice in publications such as the Daily Mail. It suffices to say that a general suspicion of all things European has seeped into the general consciousness, and it will take an awful lot of work to change that opinion. We originally wrote "all things foreign", but the UK seems to lap up American culture as though it were the best thing since sliced bread. Readers may wish to determine their own reasons why this might be, possibly with reference to the ownership of television channels and newspapers.

Here's another fact. In the whole of BBC1 and ITV's prime-time schedules this year, the only vaguely cultural (as opposed to sport or news) programmes made in Europe outside the UK are the Eurovision Song Contest and (er) Beat the Star; the latter hardly counts as showing anything of Germany, seeing as how almost everyone on it seems to come from within 50 miles of Manchester. Why, for instance, does ITV2 show the tepid Pop Idle Us and not the far superior Star Academy from France?

More generally, there may need to be questions asked about the operation of the televoting. The 20 calls per line limit is one thing: we suggest it's far too high, and could comfortably be reduced to five. There's the cost of calls – in Denmark, free. In the UK, 15p (about 20 cent in the euro). In Ireland, 60 cent. In Spain, 1 euro 25 cent. An EBU standard rate would be nice, or just some guidance for the broadcasters.

SMS messages are used for voting, except in the UK. Part of the fallout from the 0898gate scandal was that SMS voting isn't used by the BBC, as it's too easy to rig. Services exist on the internet allowing people to send SMS messages, and it's easy to imagine that a determined hacker could subvert these services, or build their own, making it even easier to change the will of the people. The BBC says it has raised these points with the EBU; whether the body will listen is to be seen.

People have suggested various mechanisms to address the perceived problem of diaspora / neighbourly / political voting. Saying that people from one country can't vote for the songs of another simply doesn't work; as we'll see shortly, Serbia has eight significant bilateral vote-trading relationships, France has precisely none. More sensible people have suggested discounting this year's results by the average of the previous years; this disadvantages countries like Greece and Serbia that consistently send good songs.

More palatable might be a combination of jury and televote rankings; this could be 50-50, or weighted one way or the other. We've previously advocated extending the voting to 12 marks, making the top worth 15 points. One could allow each country 200 marks, to be distributed in proportion to the number of votes each song receives; the large flaw here is that Spain would start with 180 points from Andorra, and Greece surely gets 100 from Cyprus.

Perhaps the way forward could be to do away with the whole national link-up shenanigans, and just have Svante come down clutching a gold envelope, containing the top ten, which the hosts read out with the maximum of fuss. Publish the voting on the website, but keep it away from the casual viewer. There's one other advantage: it'll cut an hour off the show, ensuring it'll finish well before 2am Moscow time.

We're not sure what should be done, and reckon that – after the initial fuss – it'll all die away. All we would suggest for next year is that Digame do far more to limit the opportunities for vote manipulation, perhaps to one call per country per line. If technical reasons prevent this – and we're not blind to the difficulties in running a phone poll – give the jury a balancing vote. That'll tackle the most egregious attempts at vote manipulation, and if the EBU's members publicise this widely, no-one can say they weren't warned.

How did our predictions in March do? Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Spain, Georgia, UK, and Greece all finished within our expected bounds for position. Finland, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and Sweden were lower than we expected, while France, Latvia, Norway, and Russia performed above our expectations. We incorrectly suggested qualification for Bulgaria, Belarus, Hungary, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands; their replacements were Albania, Israel, Croatia, Iceland, Portugal, Denmark, and Azerbaijan.

At this point, we were hoping to be able to give details of how the UK purchases have ranked. All we know is that the Greek entry from Kalomira has done very well, and may yet make the top 40 later today. Sebastien Tellier, the French entry, flirted with the top 75, but is unlikely to finish that high.

Eurovision Voting Map

Finally, an update on the work we did last year regarding reciprocated voting. The links we mention here are – generally – those averaging 4.75 points per year, high enough not to be by chance at 95% certainty. Adding this year's scores to those from 2004-07 show a few changes. We now have enough information to determine Georgia's associations, with Armenia, Russia, and Ukraine. We can also add in Montenegro's close ties, to Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Amongst longer-established countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina has lost its marginal ties with Albania and Hungary, Bulgaria has added a just-about significant link with Turkey, and the relationship between Belgium and the Netherlands has flipped back to being a significant link.

Finally, and most interestingly, Serbia has established significant links with Russia and Ukraine, meaning that it's juggling significant relationships with eight countries – Russia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Hungary, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Croatia. Clearly, not all of these can survive, as Serbia only has so many points to give out. We've re-drawn our map to show all these links.

This Week and Next

OFCOM passed judgement on a complaint relating to Big Brother's 2006 series. We'll discuss this matter further next week.

Ratings to 18 May are in, and Britain's Got Talent continued to beat all comers, 9.1m tuned in on Saturday night. The Apprentice held its own against the football and had 7.1m viewers; I'd Do Anything had 6.65m. A season's best for One Versus One Hundred (6.35m) saw it beat All-Star Mr and Mrs (5.85m). The Apprentice You're Fired had 3.2m viewers, leading the minor channels ahead of Saturday's HIGNFY (2.7m). Prime-time Come Dine With Me (2.45m) just beat daytime Great British Menu (2.4m). On the digital tier, Britain's Got Talent had 960,000 viewers for the Sunday repeat; further audition footage attracted 820,000 people. Pop Idle US moved towards a conclusion, and its 565,000 was just more than More4's Come Dine With Me reruns (550,000). There was a year's best for Basil's Game Show (175,000) on CBBC.

Coming up is the start of a new series of Big Brother (Channel 4 from Thursday). If people enjoy it as entertainment, that's great, but it's all a bit empty and meaningless as a competition.

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