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Celebration or Cage Match? What Eurovision Teaches us about the Audience for Global Content

The Eurovision Corner at ABBA The Museum in Stockholm. Photo Credit AleWi [CC0]

At first glance, it looks like an odd creative choice. Will Ferrell plans to make a movie about the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ferrell’s Swedish wife introduced him to the event in 1999, and he quickly became a fan. Few Americans share his passion. In 2018, the Eurovision coverage on LogoTV attracted 74,000 viewers, a mere two tenths of one percent of the US viewing public.

In an attempt to explain the concept to an American audience, New York based journalist Arwa Mahdawi described it as “the Super Bowl of Camp”. From beauty pageants to Broadway, from John Waters to RuPaul’s Drag Race to…well, the Super Bowl itself, Americans consume camp ravenously. Yet Eurovision hasn’t become Must See TV.

Some countries embrace Eurovision and all it stands for. Other countries — including some which participate — show lukewarm enthusiasm.

Is it a simple matter of taste, or are there deeper cultural issues afoot? And what lessons does Eurovision hold for creators of global content?

Eurovisiophiles: Some very rough math

As one might expect, the European Broadcasting Union watches viewership numbers closely. It doesn’t release figures as a whole, but secondary sources[1] tabulate them from reports by member broadcasters.

Using these figures, if we divide the number of viewers for any viewing event by the total population[2]of the viewing country, we get an approximate measure of enthusiasm for the contest. I’ve based the calculations on 68 ratings events between 2016 and 2018, for which data are available.

What cultural characteristics predict a big audience for Eurovision? As an exercise, I correlated the index with the six dimensions of cultural difference developed by Geert Hofstede — known as Hofstede 6D. While the figures are extremely rough, they give us some tantalizing clues.

Masculinity. Is Eurovision competitive enough?

Ten years ago, I’d just arrived in Germany to take up a new job. A colleague felt he needed to explain Eurovision to me, a non-European.

“We never win, because of the tactical voting,” he explained. “Countries often vote for artists whom they think can beat larger countries like us. Or they will vote for other countries that have no chance of winning just to keep votes away from countries they don’t like. All of the Eastern Europeans vote for each other, just to increase their chances. It’s never about who’s the best.”

Citizens of several other countries agree. So much so, that long-standing BBC Eurovision host Terry Wogan resigned over the unfairness of the fight. At a 2009 Eurovision summit in Lucerne, Wogan cited military history as a partial explanation: “Britain has attacked nearly every country in Europe and people don’t forget.” Italian musicologist and broadcaster Franco Fabbri calls the ESC a “war without tears.”[3] As a Euronewbie, these attitudes perplexed me.

Germany, the UK, and Italy are among the Big 5 European nations; they get an automatic berth in the final, so the deck is already stacked in their favour. An English-speaking culture, the UK has a head start in what is arguably a lingua franca of pop; in 62 years, songs in English have won 31 times. And to prove my colleague wrong, Lena took the ESC trophy home to Germany in 2010.

While judges may conspire, it would be rather more difficult to get entire populations to agree on a complex, manipulative voting strategy[4]. There is much more evidence of what Annemette Kirkegaard calls “buddy voting”[5], particularly among Nordic and Eastern European viewers. Voters vote for artists that feel familiar, to whom they can relate, and who send them good vibes. Kirkegaard feels compelled to point out that some countries actually consider buddy voting a bad thing.

Hofstede 6D labels countries like Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom as masculine. Their cultures value assertiveness, toughness, competitiveness and success, especially among men[6].

Our Eurovision index shows a solid negative statistical relationship with Masculinity[7]. The twenty most lacklustre audiences on our list averaged a swaggering 60/100 on the dimension. Nations like Hungary (88), Italy (70), Switzerland (70), Poland (64), Australia (61), and the Czech Republic (57) all delivered relatively low TV turnout.

The Eurovision final performs best in countries which value quality-of-life over a constant thirst for success. Their Masculinity score averaged a mere 22[8]. A great many of the top twenty audiences came from Estonia (30), Finland (26), Lithuania (19), Denmark (16), The Netherlands (14), Iceland (10), Norway (8), and ultra-cuddly Sweden (5).

Don’t you hate it when your team trains hard, works out a game strategy, and loses to people who just show up and play for fun? One can only imagine how Mr. Wogan felt.

Uncertainty Avoidance. Don’t look under the dress

As I type, I’m watching the Eurovision final from 1958. A gentleman in tails kisses the hand of a guest star as he escorts her off-stage. Next, a female announcer appears in a flowered décolletage, to explain that a technical fault prevented some countries from seeing the first song. Scrupulously fair, the authorities have decided the audience must now see a second performance of Italy’s entry, Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu, better known to English-speakers as Volare.

The orchestra flips their pages back to the beginning — every song is accompanied by a full orchestra, and the same orchestra accompanies every singer. Domenico Modugno steps onstage, a light baritone with a neat pencil moustache who later became a member of the Italian parliament. The rest of the gentlemen wear tuxedo or tails, but Modugno sports a racy white dinner jacket. Ball gowns abound.

1958 provided a glimpse of déjà vu to 2014, when the winner again chose a full orchestra to accompany her. She, too, wore a formal gown. And a beard.

Over six decades, Eurovision has moved from uptight to unpredictable. That’s a shift along Hofstede’s dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance.

Uncertainty-accepting cultures feel less discomfort with ambiguous situations or unknown outcomes. They’re curious about difference, and more tolerant. Viewers in such countries warm to Eurovision; there’s a modest but statistically significant relationship[9].

Nations which took part in the first Eurovision were strong Uncertainty Avoiders: Belgium (94), France (86), Italy (75), Luxembourg (70), Germany (65), Switzerland (58) and the Netherlands (53).

As more countries joined, Eurovision loosened its corset and formality all but disappeared. We can thank participants like Ireland (35), Sweden (29), and Denmark (23). Ultimately, the enormous influence of the United Kingdom (35) on the world’s popular music proved decisive to change the tone. Such cultures found the original ESC far too stuffy.

Eurovision audiences prove tolerant of diverse expressions of gender and sexuality — indeed, they revel in it. Before drag queen Conchita Wurst won for Austria, transgender woman Dana International won for Israel in 2004. In 2007, Serbia’s Marija Šerifović filled the stage with women in tuxedoes. In 1958, the only people in men’s suits were self-identified men.

The sheer creativity and abundant energy of Eurovision make it appeal to cultures that enjoy the excitement of surprise.

2016 co-hosts, ESC winner Måns Zemerlöw and comedienne Petra Mede channelled their inner Neil Patrick Harris to offer some advice for contestants. Their half-time number Love Love Peace Peace paid tribute to what makes a song succeed.

Buff men without shirts beating drums might get the audience on your side. On the other hand, you could ask your grandmother to beat the drum. Use a folk instrument. Or use a DJ playing CDs, another form of folk instrument, they joke. Try acrobats in giant hamster wheels, Russians on skateboards, or set your piano on fire, they helpfully suggest.

Chaos works. Viewers from 1958 surely must be clutching their pearls.

Content and culture

Where does this leave Mr. Ferrell, and American audiences for the Eurovision broadcast? And what of other audiences beyond?

At 46, the US score for Uncertainty Avoidance sits in the middle of the pack. Like viewers in most cultures, American audiences crave an element of novelty and surprise, and Eurovision can provide it in great abundance. I would suggest that there isn’t a pressing need to adjust the format — or the content itself — to make it more disciplined and predictable.

In many ways, bringing order to the chaos may discourage one of Eurovision’s most loyal audiences, the LGBTQ+ community.

For centuries, queer folk have been stigmatised for their difference. Different, odd, weird; in English, that’s what the word queer means. Watching Eurovision, an oddball can feel very much at home. The final turns cultural contrast up to 11; everyone on stage looks like a weirdo to almost everyone else. And they all have an equal chance to shine.

For those who have been stigmatised for their difference, that’s comforting message.

Ferrell’s team might find it tough to fit Eurovision into a classic Hollywood narrative, the product of a masculine culture. Nobody’s in jeopardy, and tension doesn’t build throughout the course of the broadcast. It’s not a heroic fight against evil; there are too many good guys and no clear bad guys — though Iceland’s 2019 entrant would do in a pinch.

Much of the assertiveness and quest for dominance which are elements of 6D Masculinity would need to be engineered into the movie’s plot.

Plots can be invented, of course, but engineering Masculinity in to the competition itself poses different questions.

Eurovision Asia covers not just Asia, but Oceania and the Middle East. The cultures it serves lean toward the masculine — from India (56) to China (66) to Japan (95).

Creating tension and drama will become far more important. In both structure and tone, Eurovision Asia does well to pitch itself on competitiveness more than inclusion.

The promotion material for Eurovision Asia has already adopted a more assertive tone than its counterpart for the ESC.

Existing song contests in Masculine cultures beef up competitive elements.

The Enueichikei Kōhaku Uta Gassen, or the NHK Red and White Song Battlefrom Japan is a New Year’s Eve ritual which appears superficially similar to the ESC. But it is visibly more competitive; it divides singers into two teams, male and female. Their rivalry is apparent, like a football match.

The Pop Idol franchise and The X Factor both started in the UK, a relatively high-Masculinity culture at 66. It’s no accident that the shows feature some confrontational judges who deliver blistering critiques, and the threat of sudden-death elimination always looms. (By contrast, The Voice, which began as The Voice of Holland, includes coaching and encouragement. The Netherlands scores a low 14 on Masculinity.)

Should Eurovision itself take a lesson from Eurovision Asia? The largest potential for audience growth for the ESC comes from cultures that score high on Masculinity, the USA prominent among them.

This becomes less a question of culture, and more a question of principle.

The first Eurovision Song Contest was borne of war. It sought to unite cultures that spent much of the twentieth century in conflict. Scrupulously fair, its relatively gentle competition is deliberate. Remember Zemerlöw’s words: love and peace. The broadcast is not just sensitive to cultural differences, but aims to be a force for what it sees as positive cultural change.

The Eurovision case prompts us to ask content creators: what does your content ultimately create? What we call content in the 21st century is not just a passive amusement designed to catch stray attention. It’s a force that responds to culture, and which it helps to shape it. Music has shown itself to be powerful content, capable of revolutionising politics and morality.

But such matters will weigh very little on the minds of the audience tomorrow night. It’s just about pop songs, not War and Peace.

Or is it?


[1]OnEurope and ESCToday proved very helpful.


[3]Empire of Song; Europe and Nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, Dafni Tragaki, Ed. Scarecrow Press, Lanham MD, Introduction, p.9.

[4]Ginsburg, Victor and Noury, Abdul. The Eurovision Song Contest. Is voting political or cultural? European Journal of Political Economy, Volume 24, Issue 1, March 2008, pp. 41–52

[5]The Nordic Brotherhoods: Eurovision as a platform for partnership and competition, in Tragaki, op cit p. 93.

[6]While the dimension of Masculinity does not refer to male or female biological gender traits, we note that it is the only cultural dimension where responses differ between men and women.

[7]r=-0,57, p=0,000

[8]Greece (57) and Serbia (43) attracted their relatively masculine local following to finals in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Otherwise, the average would fall even further.

[9]r=0.27, p=0.03

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