Sunday, 20 August 2017

Eurovision imperialism?

Eurovision Asia is coming. Get ready for the battle of the song contests, as the European Broadcasting Union tries to head off global upstarts.

The Eurovision Song Contest has come a long way since it was established as a small project between Western European countries in 1956. 

Since the contest was extended to post-Communist countries in the 1990s, it has grown to become the most-watched non-sporting live television event in the world. Last year it attracted 204 million viewers, achieving an audience share of 36.3% across the markets in which it aired. That means that 1/3 of the people watching television on that night were watching Eurovision. That's more people than watch the Oscars or the Superbowl. In fact, it's only beaten by the World Cup.

Compare this to the 1990s, when the struggling song contest was weighed down by a French-imposed rule that countries could only sing in their national language and with a live orchestra. Viewing figures averaged around 50 million.

All of this has opened the question of what the contest should do with the increasing global success of its brand. This week, the European Broadcasting Union, the association of broadcasters that organizes the conference, announced the launch of Eurovision Asia. It will use the Eurovision format but for Asia Pacific countries. The official website was launched on Friday -

It took many by surprise. The name itself is bizarre, given that 'Euro' has been maintained in the title rather than calling it Asiavision. But there is a reason for this strange situation. The Asian Broadcasting Union, which has been trying to get their own ABU Song Festival off the ground since 2012, opposes the EBU's foray into Asia.

The stage has been set for a showdown between the ABU's song festival efforts and the EBU's new project. 

So why is the EBU reaching out beyond Europe? It all has to do with the exploding popularity of the Eurovision Song Contest, and an anxiety that if the EBU doesn't extend into global markets, competitors are going to get the first-mover advantage. It isn't just the ABU. Russia and Turkey are also moving in with their own contests, threatening the European supremecy.

Turkvision extends its grip

Participants in the Turkvision Song Contest, in green
Since 1999, when the language and orchestra restrictions were ended and the Eastern Europeans burst into the contest with unbridled enthusiasm, ratings have increased every year (until this year - more on that later). 

As the song contest's popularity has increased, the European Broadcasting Union, the association of public broadcasters that organizes the contest, has tried to cash in by launching spin-offs. The most notable has been Junior Eurovision, which has the same format, but for children. They've also tried to cash in on the ESC's popularity in non-participating countries, for instance by inviting Australia to participate in 2015. 

In the press release announcing Australia's permanent participation in 2015, the EBU signaled that this was not a one-off. "We strongly believe the Eurovision Song Contest has the potential to evolve organically into a truly global event," said ESC executive supervisor Jon Ola Sand. "Australia's continued participation is an exciting step in that direction. It remains to be seen what such an event may look like in the long run."

It's not just a question of ambition. It's also a question of anxiety. Developments in recent years have the EBU worried. In 2012, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan pulled his country out of the song contest, ostensibly over an objection to the fact that the 'big five' countries don't have to participate in the semi-finals, but Turkey does. In reality it was more likely to do with the fact that it was the last practicing Muslim country to participate in the contest alongside Israel, and his Islamist AKP party didn't like that. Another contributing factor was probably the show's increasingly gay-themed content.

After pulling out, Erdogan launched Turkvisiona song contest for countries and communities that speak Turkic languages. Participants include countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. They also include the Turkish community of Germany, and Turkic-speaking regions in Russia.

So far the ratings for this show have been dismal, and many Turks jokingly refer to it as 'Erdoganvision' because they see it as a vanity project. But there has been concern at EBU headquarters in Geneva that if Turkvision were to gain in popularity, it would threaten Eurovision's popularity in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Intervision's family-friendly alternative

Turkey isn't the only country to have grown increasingly uncomfortable with gay themes in Eurovision. In 2014, after a drag queen named Conchita Wurst won the contest, Russian politicians called for the country to pull out of the contest. They wanted Moscow to revive the old Intervision Song Contest, the Cold War alternative to Eurovision, as a more "family-friendly alternative".

Russian President Vladimir Putin obliged, and the Russian broadcaster announced the return of Intervision in 2014. But at the same time, they kept Russia in Eurovision.

That is, until 2016, when a provocative song entry from Ukraine, clearly referencing the Russian annexation of Crimea, was the surprise winner of the ESC. Russia pulled out of the song contest this year and did not attend in Kiev - a huge blow to the EBU considering the contest's huge popularity in Russia.

Planned participants in the 2015 Intervision Song Contest
The Russian broadcaster did not air the contest, and as a result, viewing figures decreased in 2017 for the first time in 16 years - down to 182 million.

It is still an open question whether Russia will return to the contest. Many politicians and religious leaders in Russia want Moscow to permanently pull out and focus instead on Intervision, trying to create a song contest for former Soviet states and others in Central Asia that will rival the EBU's contest. 

The efforts so far have not gone well. The first planned Intervision revivial was called off because of funding problems. But what if Russia does get Intervision off the ground? It is another threat to the EBU, particularly in countries where people speak Russian as a first or second language. The ESC is very popular in those countries right now. They cannot afford to lose any more viewers because of Moscow's opposition.

Asiavision attempts

Countries participating in the ABU TV Song Contest since 2012
Green: Sang, Yellow: Eligible but never sang, Red: Planned
The EBU is only one of the world's international broadcasters' associations, but it is the most powerful. The Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, formed in 1964, has a significant size but has always been plagued by infighting between member countries.

The ABU hoped that establishing a song contest on the European model would help encourage unity in the fractious union. They tried such an experiment in 1985, but it didn't work out.

In 2008, talks began for a proposed partnership between the ABU and the EBU to establish an Asiavision Song Contest. But the talks fell apart. The right to use the 'Asiavision' name was sold to a private company from Singapore, but they also couldn't get anything off the ground.

The ABU decided to launch its own contest without cooperation with the EBU. In 2011, the ABU announced that they would organize their own TV and Radio Song Festivals, the first to take place in Seoul. They were called ABU TV Song Festival and ABU Radio Song Festival - the rights to use the name Asiavision having been sold to the Singapore company.

The contest is now in its sixth year, but viewership has been low. The fifth contest was held last year in Bali, Indonesia, and the sixth will be held this year in Beijing on 1 November. 

Australians appeal to Europe

Among other problems, the ABU contests have suffered from conflict between the Australian broadcaster and the others. Australians have wrung their hands at the poor production value, and have yearned to participate in Eurovision instead. 

But the Australians didn't give up on having a contest for Asia Pacific, even after they were let into Eurovision. And so they appealed to the EBU to move forward with a new project in Asia. The idea is that the rivalries between the Asian broadcasters can be avoided by working around them on the production side, but working with them on the airing and distribution side. The effort will be spearheaded by Australian broadcaster SBS.

However the problem remains that the ABU has not given up on the ABU TV Song Festival Project, and it has opposed the SBS-EBU effort to launch a rival program. The EBU's project is at very early stages, but it looks as if a battle is set to commence between these two giant broadcasting unions.

Manifest Eurovision destiny

Buoyed by the steadily rising success of the ESC over the past 15 years, the EBU knows it's on to a winner. The question is, how can they capitalize on that success by expanding the Eurovision brand around the world - heading off competitors who are keen to establish their own brands, often for political reasons?

The 'Euro' in the title presents an obvious hurdle. Calling the song contest "Eurovision Asia" conjures up all kinds of colonial images that the organizers probably haven't fully thought through. But at the same time, the name Eurovision is recognized throughout the world and has enormous brand value.

Is there any way to thread this needle without causing offense? 

We'll see how this project plays out. But it seems to me that the better solution is to overcome the issues around using the Asiavision name. Such a name is still close enough to the Eurovision brand that people will get the reference.

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