Pathways to victory: Recent recipes for #Eurovision success

As the voting system for the Eurovision Song Contest has evolved, so have the routes toward the crystal microphone. The douze points framework is now in its fourth decade, but how it has been deployed continues to change. The current iteration separates the jury and public televote components and puts them on an equal footing.

In this article I look at some of the recent results at the world’s most epic television song competition and how different pathways to victory have been found. 

2015

In Vienna, Italy’s Il Volo arrived with Grande Amore having topped the rather convoluted scoring system of Sanremo by massively winning the televote (they were reasonably well ranked win with the very flat public jury but well back with the experts jury). With more of a balance between jury and televote scores at the Eurovision, Il Volo were banking on a big televote score, but were worried about the juries (rightly so, as it turned out).

Russia’s Polina Gagarina represented something different for Russia: internally selecting one of your biggest stars rather than hosting a national selection. From its release A Million Voices was seen as a contender—particularly from the handful of live performances prior to Vienna—but internal selections mean there’s no data about from where points are most likely to come. However, Russia has the biggest voting bloc behind them—and their usual rival to top the Russophone bloc, Ukraine, were not in Vienna. 

Like every Swedish entry, Heroes had to get out of its heat and win its national final. Mans Zemerlow and his stick boy pal had been at or near top of the betting odds for months. Heroes massively topped the Melodifestivalen televote and nearly swept the jury scores—but these are not properly constituted juries. Heroes seemed destined to top both polls, particularly as the head of the Scandinavian bloc.

In the end the integrated (combined jury and televotes) gave Sweden 365 points, with Russia on 303 and Italy on 292, all massive scores. 

But the split results were also interesting. Italy topped the televote with 366 points—80 more than Russia and 90 more than Sweden. Sweden topped the jury vote with 353 points, with Russia in third place on 234: the sniffy jurors awarded Italy 171 points (6th!). Under the current system, Sweden would still have won (629 points), with Italy second (537) and Russia just behind (529). 

This would be the last year that delegation televote and jury scores would be integrated into a single allocation of 58points. Which changed the game massively. 

2016

The following year in Stockholm, Australia, the “special guest” was “invited” back; however, unlike 2015 they would have to qualify from a semi-final. The internal selection was Dami Im, who had won the Australian franchise of the X-Factor, but not really gotten her career off the ground subsequently. Sound of Silence was a big pop ballad—well suited to her powerhouse voice. Score-wise? Nothing to indicate where its support might come from. Another question was whether the Eurovision voting public would be as open to an Australian entry that might earn a Grand Final slot over other participating delegations that have struggled to do so. It turned out, largely, they would. 

Russia decided that having a star worked so well in 2015 that they went for one of their biggest. Sergey Lazarev has a massive profile in the Russosphere. The preview video for You Are the Only One was of a very high standard and implied some epic staging was being planned. The Russian invasion of Ukraine the previous year was still an issue: how this bloc’s votes might be allocated, particularly since Ukraine was back in the competition. 

Anyone who’s followed the various iterations of the Ukrainian national selection over the years knew Jamala before she released 1944. In 2011 she dropped out of the car crash Ukrainian national final after massive televoting irregularities. But no one expected her to submit a modern, thumping, mixed language cri du coeurabout her great-grandmother’s deportation by Stalin. But she did. As she just squeaked through her national final (on a tiebreak, having topped the televote), there was some indication jury support might not be strong enough to challenge for victory, given her own domestic jury ranked her second. 

Unlike previous years, we would first get all the jury scores from each delegation. Australia ran up a massive lead with the juries: Dami Im’s 320 points were over 100 points ahead of Ukraine (211) and Russia only managed 130 jury points (5th place).

Russia might have seemed out, but most expected Sergey to top the televote handily. When it was announced that Australia was “only” fourth with the public (191 points), it became apparent that either Ukraine or Russia would win. By any metric Lazarev’s 361 televote points is a massive score—but it was only 38 points more than Jamala’s. Ukraine won, Australia finished second, and Russia third.

2016 showed that juries and the public sometimes have different preferences, which is why we have both score components. Doubtless many delegations left Stockholm with a very different strategy for point accrual. 

2017

The lessons from Salvador Sobral’s victory in Kyiv are simple: if you send something amazing, it will be rewarded. Language? Doesn’t matter. Genre–who cares? Staging–just keep it authentic. Well done Portugal! Amar Pelos Dois showed that you don’t need bloc support or to sing in a commonly understood language to win. Portugal topped both the jury and televotes by a significant margin. 

But it’s worth noting Sobral won his national final after finishing second in the Portuguese televote on Saturday night: in his semi-final he was third in the televote.   Sometimes getting to the Eurovision is the most challenging aspect of the journey to winning the Eurovision. 

2018 

Before we arrived in Lisbon for rehearsals the bookies had settled on the Israeli entry as the likeliest winner, but we had no indication of how Netta would perform Toy. My first impression of her early rehearsals: car crash. 

Since their return to the Contest in 2011, Italy was always considered an entry to watch, though Non mi avete fatto niente, an anthem against xenophobia was presumed by many to not transfer well to a pan-European audience. As well, Ermal Meta and Fabrizio Mora’s Sanremo fortunes varied across that multi-night format. I think my characterisation of it was “two cross Italian guys admonishing me to not be racist.”

The surprise contender was Fuego. Cyprus’ internal selection of Eleni Foureira meant we saw no live performances prior to her first rehearsal. This was also the only rehearsal in week one to have the entire press room cheering. Portugal had zoomed to victory from nowhere in 2017, was it finally Cyprus’s time?

The scores were all over the place in 2018. The juries had Austria (!) first (271 points), with Israel in third (271), Cyprus fifth (183) and Italy seventeenth (59). When Austria was announced as 13th in the televote, they fell out of contention. The final three scores would be Italy, Israel and Cyprus. Italy’s 249 points lifted them to fifth overall, but it remained to be seen if Cyprus could win the televote by more than 88 points. In the end Israel topped the televote (317 points) with Cyprus quite a ways back in second (253 points). 

2019

For our most recently held Contest, let’s look at things though two different lenses: jury love and public love, since there was a fair bit of disparity between the two scoring components. 

Once a reporting error was fixed, the surprise jury winner was North Macedonia’s Tamara Todevska and Proud(247 points), with perennial jury favourites Sweden just behind (241), the Netherlands in the mix (237) and Italy in the mix as well (219). John Lundvik’s Too Late For Love, Duncan Lawrence’s Arcade and Mahmood’s Soldi were all considered contenders before their high jury rankings.

For the televotes, the scores were read in the same order as the jury rankings—not from the lowest televote score to the highest televote score between 2016 and 2018, which was confusing for everyone. We didn’t learn until after the show that Norway’s KEiiNO had topped the public vote with Spirit in the Sky (291 points). Instead, we found out North Macedonia only scored 58 televote points. Mahmood’s 253 points moved Italy into first. Lawrence’s 261 points moved him into first. That left Sweden:, Lundvik’s televote score of 93 was announced: the Netherlands won. 

Arcade was second with the public and third with the juries. Italy was ranked third and fourth, respectively. The difference between their total scores was a mere 26 points, which is tiny in a competition with 40 competitors. 

This year

Let’s consider some of this year’s fancied entries and where their fortunes might lay.

Russia hosted its first open national final in several years and the surprise winner was feminist artist and human rights activist Manizha and Russian Woman. She narrowly won in a televote-only scenario, their song is mostly in Russian (rather than English) and she’s not a star in the Russosphere. As well, with both Belarus and Armenia out of this year’s Contest, so the Russosphere bloc’s power is depleted. But Russian Woman a cracker of an entry—don’t count it out. 

The Scandinavian entry that seems to be the biggest contender is Daði og Gagnamagnið, whose 10 Years is the Icelandic entry. Many believed Think About Things was going to finally give Iceland its first victory in 2020: Think About Things went viral before the Contest was cancelled last year and managed to chart across Europe without the exposure a Eurovision victory would have brought. Depending on how many viewers make the connection—with or without the commentators’ assistance—might determine their fortunes with juries and the public. 

Italy has again sent the winner of Sanremo: this year it’s rock band Manėskin (Moonshine) and Zitti e buoni. At the start of Sanremo 2021 the demoscopic jury only ranked them 7th. They moved up to fifth place on the fourth evening, but managed second in the televote and then massively won the televote in the super final. So Manėskin  are capable of getting points from both juries and the public. As this year’s only true rock entry, that might also help them stand out. 

France and Malta have taken turns leading the betting odds. Barbara Pravi’s Voilà topped the jury and televote rankings in Eurovision France: c’est vous qui décidez. But Voilà is very French (and entirely in French) so while its jury fortunes might seem very bright, France has only landed in a televote top 10 once in the last decade. Malta’s Destiny is singing Je me casse, but the song is actually in English. Having won her national final last year, her song was internally selected. Je me casse seems like a good fit and Destiny has pedigree in terms of winning televotes: X Factor Malta, Junior Eurovision, and Junior Sanremo.
Lithuania’s The Roop had to win its national final again in 2021, unlike many other returning acts. Discotequeswept the juries and scored more televotes than all the other finalists combined. Lithuania is looking confidently at their first top five finish. Were The Roop to win, Lithuania would at last join its Baltic brethren with their first Eurovision victory. 

Conclusion

Russia’s points fortune seem to be skewed towards a very good televote score from the Russosphere. Manizha’s been getting cut-through with the anglosphere about the reaction in Russia to her entry. Could that help with the rest of Europe? Unlike 1944, she’s only singing the chorus of Russian Woman in English. 

Iceland could do well across the board and it is the obvious winner of the Scandi bloc, which means perhaps a 120 point start. Italy has been racking up big televote scores year after year and has potential for a lot of jury love too. 

Malta, France and Lithuania don’t have blocs from which to draw, but each of them stand out in different ways. Duncan Lawrence and Salvador Sobral managed to win without many reliable “friends” so don’t count them out.  

There is a reason many delegations calibrate their entry towards the jurors rather than the public: there are a lot fewer jurors than punters! This year there are 39 competing entries in Rotterdam, which leaves 190 jurors (38 other delegations times 5 jurors each) to persuade. There are millions of persons who can televote if they so wish. The public are a larger, more diverse population to convince. 

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