Back in 1997, when Marc Roberts finished 2nd in the Point to Katrina and the Waves, Ireland were the undoubted kingpins of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) – having won the contest four times in the previous five years and holding the record for the most Eurovision wins of any country (7). It seemed then as if it would be just a question of when, not if, Eurovision would be returning to Ireland. Since then however, Ireland’s Eurovision fortunes have fallen decidedly into decline. Between 1975 and 1997 Ireland earned on average 130 points (averaged out on basis of what scores would be with 25 countries taking part/voting in each contest – maximum possible tally would be 288 points) per contest and this average increased to 169 points during Ireland’s glory days of the mid 1990s, but has fallen to just 39 points per contest over the contests held during the 1998-2009 period. Between 1992 and 1997, Irish entries were awarded douze points (maximum number of points awarded by different paricipating countries) on 26 occasions, getting the “12” from 3 different countries in 1992 (Linda Martin), 7 in 1993 (Niamh Kavanagh!), 8 in 1994 (Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan), 0 (!) in 1995 (Eddie Friel), 7 in 1996 (Eimear Quinn) and 1 in 1997 (Marc Roberts). Since then, however, Irish entries have only been awarded the coveted douze points on three different occasions, getting a “12” from Lithuania in 1999 and getting “12”s from our nearest neighbour, the UK, in 2003 (Mickey Joe Harte) and the 2005 semi-final (the McCauls). Up to, and including, 1997, Ireland, on average, was receiving at least 4 points each year from all the other participating ESC countries (apart from Israel), but over the 1998-2009 period only the UK (and also Hungary, but they have only taken part in a few contests during this period) has regularly awarded Ireland more than 4 points on average in different ESC contests (although the UK gave Dervish no points in 2007). Much of Europe has now become a desert in terms of Irish Eurovision prospects, with many countries awarding Ireland less than half a point per contest in this period; most notably including many of the former Soviet states (with the notable exception of the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), but also Spain, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Montengro, Bulgaria and Greece.
As opposed to the ‘catch-all’ era of the 1980s and 1990s when Ireland could expect to win signficant votes from juries all over the continent, the source of Irish Eurovision votes has become become much more geographically defined with Ireland looking to our nearest neighbours, the UK, but also a host of countries located within the Nordic/Baltic bloc – Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Finland and (to a lesser degree) Iceland. Outside of this region, Turkey, Switzerland and Portugal, as well as the 2007 Albanian jury, has proven to be more generous to Ireland than the rest of their European* counterparts.
Ireland’s declining fortunes can be explained in part by changes made to the contest format over the past twelve years, with the main changes being:
- The introduction of televoting in 1997/1998: Ironically this is generally viewed as a response to growing frustrations that the jury voting system had brought about Ireland’s regular run of successes in the 1990s and the domination of the contest by MOR/ballad entries at the expense of more contemporary/uptempo numbers. The main impact of televotign was that it lead to the development of distinct voting Eurovision blocs as different ESC countries voting tended to become more consistent across the years. With televoting countries tending to (in what often has been termed political voting, but which can be more accurately termed geographical voting) favour songs of neighbouring states and (in the case of western European states, such as France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, as well as Ireland and the UK) also showing evidence of diaspora voting. Herein, for instance. large numbers of Turkish and Armenian migrants in north-western European countries meant that, with televoting, Turkey and Armenia could regularly expect “big” votes (10s and 12s) from these countries for their entrants. In a similar vein, Ireland tended to award its highest televotes to Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, as well as the UK, during the 2000s.
The combination of diaspora and neighbour/geographical voting during the televoting era lead to the creation of distinct voting blocs including a: (a) Western Diaspora bloc: including large western European countries, such as Germany, France and Belgium, characterised by a tendency to award large marks, based on the size of emigre populations living within these states, to countries such as Turkey and Armenia, (b) Former Soviet bloc: including most of the new states that emerged with the break up of the old Soviet Union, as well as other Orthodox Eastern European countries, such as Greece and Bulgaria, and Israel – these countries tend to mainly vote for other countries in this bloc but especially tend to award high votes to Russia: in the 2010 Final for instance 82 of Russia’s 90 points came from this voting bloc; Slovakia (6) and Portugal being the only countries outside of this bloc to award Russia points on the night while Georgia was the only one of the nine other competing Former Soviet states not to award Russia any points (Azerbaijan awarded Russia a lowly 3 point score), (c) the Nordic/Baltic bloc, including the Baltic and Nordic states, as well as Iceland, Ireland, the UK, in addition to Poland and Hungary: countries in this bloc tend to award/receive their highest votes to/from other countries in this bloc, with evidence of a diaspora effect also evident in the large number of points awarded by Ireland and the UK to Baltic states such as Lithuania during the 2000s – prior to recent years, Sweden was probably the most likely receipient of such ‘bloc’ votes but they have been overtaken by Norway and Denmark in recent years. (In the 2010 Final, Denmark proved to be especially popular amongst the Nordic Bloc countries, winning an average of 7.3 points from these countries, but contest winners, Germany (average of 9.7 points) was the most popular entry amongst the Nordic Bloc states, (d) Iberian bloc: including Spain, Portugal and Andorra, diaspora voting is evident here again with high votes being generally awarded to the entries from Moldova and Romania; this year’s strong entry from Romania won 20 points from Spain and Portugal, (e) Former Yugoslav bloc: encompassing all the former Yugoslav states and Albania, countries in this bloc generally tend to vote for each other, but in recent years have especially tended to favour Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
During the televoting era, countries such as Armenia and Greece, who can rely both on diaspora and geographical voting will be at a decided advantage, while countries lacking large numbers of “friendly neighbours” and diaspora populations in other European (or rather Eurovision) states, such as Ireland, the UK, Slovakia, Switzerland, Andorra and Belgium, will be at a decided disadvantage.
- The removal of the native language rule in 1999: English is by far the “most successful language” in Eurovision history – 23 winning songs have been sung in English. The “native language” rule, which meant that each country’s entry had to be sung in one of the official languages of that country, was in place between 1977 and 1999, during which time Eurovision was won eight times by English-speaking countries – six times by Ireland and twice by the UK – while Malta, the other entrant that would enter songs in English was to finish consistently in the Top 10 in all the contests held between 1991 (when it returned to Eurovision after a lengthy break) and 1998. Given the perception that English speaking countries were at an advtantage to other ESC countries, the native language rule was relaxed in 1999, since when the contest has been won won each year by entries performed in English with the exception of Serbia’s victory in 2007 (Ukraine’s winning 2004 was performed both in English and Ukranian). At the same time, the prospects of the offical English-speaking countries has dipped dramatically.
- The opening up of the contest to include new countries, mainly from eastern Europe: The first wave of new countries came in the mid 1990s starting with the inclusion of the three former Yugoslav states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia in Millstreet contest in 1993, and followed in 1994 by Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia. The inclusion of these new countries initially acted to Ireland’s advantage, given that they were entering the contest in the midst of Ireland’s mid-1990s period of ESC dominance, and the juries of many of these new entrants often proved to be more generous than the juries of the “old ESC countries” in western Europe, almost to the degree that one suspects that they were almost socialised into believing that they should be awarding their highest points to the Irish entry every year! From 1998 onwards however, with the notable exception of countries such as Lithuania and the other Baltic states, these countries tended to rarely vote for Irish entries, preferring instead the entries performed by their neighbours, with this trend towards geographical/neighbourly voting also evident in the voting patterns of the Eastern European states who joined Eurovision during the next wave of new entrants in the 2004-2008 period.
- The introduction of the semi-final system in 2004: Prior to 2004, the European Broadcasting Union addressed the problem of coping with the increased number of Eurovision entrants (given that there was a limit to the number of countries that could take part in the final; generally 24/25, although 26 countries took part in the 2003 final in Riga) by introducing a relegation system, in which the worst performing countries of the previous year were not able to take part in the following year’s contest in order to make way for new countries/’returning’ countries who had themselves been ‘relegated’ in the previous year. The relegation system had the impact of diluting the impacts of bloc voting, as a certain number of countries from different blocs would not be competing in a given year. However, the introduction of the semi-final system in 2004 meant that now every country who wished to take part in Eurovision could do so each year and strengthened the impact of the different voting blocs. Russia now, for instance, could benefit from votes cast by all the countries in the Former Soviet bloc (see above), instead of just a few. In 2003, Russia narrowly missed out on its maiden victory despite winning full points (36) from the three other former Soviet states taking part that year – Russia eventually won the contest in 2008 when it could now win 98 points from the other nine former Soviet state participants (including 10s and 12s from all bar Georgia and Azerbaijan).
But it’s not all about political voting (or rather diaspora and geographical voting) – while these voting trends have tended to favour the newer Eastern European participants – often to quite dramatic levels as in the 2007 semi-final in Helsinki where none of the ‘old’ western European participants managed to make the list of ten qualifiers) – western European countries can still do well with good songs and striking performances (Lordi for Finland in 2006, Norway and Iceland taking the first two spots and the much improved UK and French results in last year’s final). Another singificant development has been the reintroduction of professional voting juries as part of a new 50-50 jury vote-televote system, as a means of addressing growing concerns about bloc voting; this was used for the first time in the 2009 Final (in which much more jury votes, as opposed to televotes, tended to be awarded to ballads, such as those from Israel, France, the UK and Iceland) in which the fortunes of western European participants improved dramatically. Some commentators believe the improved western European fortunes in 2009 could be put down to stronger entries from these countries (the UK, for instance, making a very evident effort to take the contest more seriously with the Jade Ewan/Andrew Llyod Webber collaboration), but there is no doubt that jury voting did significantly improve these countries’ prospect.
This return of the juries offered hope for Ireland’s Niamh Kavanagh, given Ireland’s traditionally strong ranking amongst the old juries in the pre-televoting era, and seems (based on the first release by a country of their jury votes (from Romania – see below) to have been crucial in Niamh getting out of the semi final, but ultimately these jury votes seem to have largely desserted us when it came to the final.
Luck of the Draw: How well Niamh was expected to do was expected to be influenced by her draw position – she performed in 10th position on the night – a draw position that only other other Irish Eurovision entrant, Jump The Gun who finished 8th in the Point Theatre in 1988, had performed from. Certain draw positions tend to be more favourable than others, while it also helps an entry’s chances of “standing out” if they are drawn on or after distinctly different entries. The “draw of death” (especially during the televote era) is to be drawn to perform 2nd – being drawn in 2nd position in last year’s semi-final was as big a factor as the diaspora/geographical voting in Sinead Mulvey narrowly missing out on qualifying for the final – while being drawn to perform in 3rd or 4th position have similarly proven to be quite unfavourable draws. (The EBU have recognised this fact and now have changed the televoting format to allow televoting to commence from the start of the contest instead of this taking place just durign a 15 minute window after all songs are performed; did this work? Well in the secodn of 2010’s semi final, the songs performed in 2nd, 3rd and 4th position all got through to the final (though may be down to all of these entries having been amongst the contest favourites…)) With televoting, countries getting later draws have tended to do much better, with being drawn to peform in the 2nd or 3rd last positions statistically offering the best prospects for a Eurovision entry; indeed the ultimate victor in Eurovision 2010, Germany, enjoyed a late draw, performing on the night from 22nd position, as did also other Top 5 placed entries from Romania (19th) and Denmark (25th). The impact of being drawn to perform first or last often depends on the type of song – uptempo sings (e.g. Moldova in Semi Final 1) do well when performing first while ballads can fare poorly (e.g. Romania and Lithuania in the 2008 and 2009 finals), by contrast ballads/mid-tempo entries (e.g. Norway in 2008 final) often do well when drawn to perform last while uptempo entries (e.g. Spain in 2009 final) can do poorly. Some mid/mid-to-late draw positions have also proven to be very good draws to get based on past statistics, but especially the 17th position draw which has produced six winners in previous Eurovision finals and – with three of these winners being Irish – is an especially lucky draw for us!
In addition to its historical significance for Irish entries, this would have been an even more attractive draw position for Niamh’s ballad given the fact that the entry performing in this position (the Ukraine) was preceded by uptempo entries from Albania and Iceland and followed by an uptempo French entry, none of which was likely to be contesting for the ultimate prize (although France ultimately was to make it into the top half of the rankings). The draw we did not want to get was be to performing first, given the poor performance of ballads historically from this draw position and given that Niamh would have been on right before two highly ranked balllads from Spain and Norway – this draw instead fell to contest favourite, Safura from Azerbaijan, which probably had a negative impact on the prospects of the bookies’ favourite. We also wanted to avoid a draw that leaves us performing next to the other highly ranked Semi Final 2 ballad/mid-tempo entries (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Israel, Armenia) and we managed to do that. Admittedly, performing in 10th position Niamh was preceded by another ballad, from Belarus, but this was not one of the contest favourites and Niamh would also have been helped by performing just before what is probably the most uptempo entry in the final, Greece’s “Opa”, making for a good contrast and allowing Niamh a better chance of standing out on the night. Finally, 10th position during the televoting era was statistically the best position to get if you are drawn to perform in the first half of the contest, and this draw position had also produced two Eurovision winners, the most recent being Ruslana for Ukraine in 2004. So while the draw could have been better for Niamh, it was still not bad. The killer point to note however was that Niamh, in addition to following the Belarussian “butterflies”, also had to share the top half of the draw with other high ranked ballad/mid-tempo entries from Azerbaijan, Spain (who got a second chance to perform!), Norway, Cyprus and Belgium (who had comfortably won the first semi final), while Russia, Armenia, Portugal and Israel also would have suffered from a similar ballad overkill in the last part (last six songs) of the show.
Postscript: Ireland finished in 23rd position in the final with just 25 points, obviously a disappointing result. The main reason for this is probably due to “ballad overkill” in the final where – in the wake of the success of ballads from Iceland, the UK and France last year and in the expectation that the return of juries would favour ballad/mid-tempo entries over more uptempo entries – many of the entries making it through to the final were ballads, all of which proved to be quite strong entries and all of which would have had appeal for the voting juries, as indeed would the Danish entry. Our final result should not discount Niamh’s achievement in actually qualifying for the final from a very tough semi final draw; in the semi final she finished in joint 9th place with 67 points, just 5 points ahead of 11th placed Sweden, who missed out on the final. What is interesting about the semi final voting is that Niamh attracted votes from 13 of the 18 other “voting countries” in this semi final, thus suggesting that our entry did have appeal across the continent (albeit more so in the “old Eurovision” countries such as Switzerland (who in the semi-final awarded us our first douze points since 2005), the UK, the Netherlands (awarded us 8 in the semi final but no points in the final!) and Israel), but quite a number of these semi final votes were low points scores which translated into no-points scores when it came to the final where the competition became even more intense. Another interesting point to note is that our Nodric Bloc support base was key to us qualifying from the semi final (Niamh won an average of 5.8 points from other Nordic Bloc countries, including votes from the UK (10), Lithuania (7) Denmark (6) and Norway (6)), but this support base largely collapsed in the final where Niamh only managed to win an average of 1.1 points from the Nordic Bloc countries; only the UK (7), Estonia (2) and Finland (1) awarding us points. Some of these Nordic points would have been lost to the similarly sounding entry from the hosts, Norway, but votes also appear to have been lost to Belgium (see below).
The publication of the Romanian jury votes gives a hint as to what may have happened between the semi final and final. Niamh won 4 points from Romania in the semi final, but no points in the final. In the Romanian jury voting in the semi final Niamh was awarded 8 points (i.e. was ranked 3rd) but the Romanian jury (the same jury as for the semi final) then went on not to award Niamh no points in the final! The high position of Semi-Final 1 winner, Belgium’s Tom Dice, in the Romanian final jury vote leads to the suspicion that jury voters who supported Niamh in the semi final may have switched to voting for Belgium in the final. This must remain a suspicion until both the televotes and jury votes of each country are published in a few weeks time.
In terms of evidence of bloc voting in the Final, the following diagram shows that countries such as Turkey, Denmark, Russia, Romania and Serbia could still, with the inclusion of a 50% jury voting dimension, rely on strong support from their own voting blocs. The more successful entries (Germany, Turkey, Romania and Denmark), however, proved to be those “catch-all” countries who were able draw votes from all the voting blocs; countries like Russia and Serbia who were highly reliant on their own voting bloc for support were, on the one hand, protected from achieving a low position in the final but, on the other hand, could hope for no better than a “mid-table” ranking.
If a song is to do well in Eurovision (finish in the Top 5) it needs to be able to draw votes from all over Europe to do: reliable support from a voting bloc can help a country achieve a higher position but there is a limit on how well such countries can do unless they attain support from other parts of Europe/other voting blocs.
One final point to note: Belgium won Semi Final 1 and finished 6th in the Final this year, despite having failed (sometimes with very high profile entries, as with Kate Ryan in 2005) to qualify from every semi final between 2005 and 2009. Germany has finished in the Bottom 5 on five occasions in the last six years, but went on to comfortably win Eurovision this year. Denmark has had some poor results in Eurovision in recent times, but finished 4th in Oslo. These examples (and those of Norway, the UK and Iceland in 2009) show that, maybe partly due to the re-introduction of jury voting, that any Western European country (Ireland included), no matter how poor their recent Eurovision form, can still aspire to do well in, and even to win, the Eurovision Song Contest.
PS: For more information on Ireland and the Eurovision Song Contest, the All Kinds of Everything website is definitely worth a visit. All the voting statistics for the final and semi finals are now available from the Official Eurovision website soon after the final concludes.
(* As hinted by the inclusion of Israel in the contest, as well as the one-off participation of Morocco in 1980, participation in Eurovision is not decided by whether a country is European or not, but on the basis of membership of the European Broadcasting Union – because of this, the north African states, as well as Lebanon and Syria, are eligible to enter Eurovision if they so wished.)