The ESC is probably the only truly European television program. A singer from each country competes and call-in votes decide the victor.
Whatever differences remain over debt to GDP ratios, refugee allocations and views on chlorine-washed chicken, if there’s one event that’s immune to any type of crisis and is capable of uniting the whole of Europe, it’s the Eurovision Song Contest. The song contest is one of the world’s longest-running television events. A huge viewing public (this year, 200 million) tune in to watch competing singers from countries located in Europe (and beyond) perform their compositions. The Eurovision Song Contest dates back to 1955 when Sergio Pugliese, the director of the then nascent Italian state broadcaster RAI, proposed the project as a way of bringing Europe’s populations closer together. While raw materials such as coal and steel were scarce in Italy, the country boasted an abundance of one particular resource: il bel canto, “the beautiful song”. Taking its inspiration from Italy’s national song contest, the Sanremo Festival, the Eurovision Song Contest was launched the following year. The event was an overwhelming success, attracting more countries and viewers and quickly becoming a TV highlight of the year (except in Italy, where poor ratings and a disastrous edition hosted in 1991 led RAI to shelve Italian involvement from 1997 to 2011, proving the old adage that a prophet is not respected in his own country).
The contest has a simple format. After an initial elimination phase, 26 singers (or groups) reach the final. They battle it out with arrangements and performances that are joyously overdone and ironically kitschy, with no lack of cliché or provocation. A jury of experts and the votes of viewers in the competing nations determine the winner with one proviso: TV viewers are not allowed to vote for their own country’s contestant. This rule, created to prevent jingoistic voting patterns, has given life to a complex system of alliances between states, which has even become the subject of in-depth studies. Serious scholarly articles have demonstrated the existence of a cohesive block of eastern countries, often aided by rivalries between the countries of northern and southern Europe (who are inclined to not vote for one another).