The Eurovision Song Contest proves that H.L. Mencken’s famous dictum about quality standards in the US media – “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” – also holds for Europe. The pan-European ‘talent’ show is big on kitsch and schmaltz, pathos and bombast, blandness and gimmicks. It rarely produces genuine hits or memorable evergreens. And yet, the Eurosong is one of the longest-running tv programs in the world (organized annually by the European Broadcasting Union since 1956), and one of the best-watched ones (hundreds of millions of viewers every year, many outside Europe).

The basic procedure of Eurovision is thus: each year, an EBU affiliate in each participating country chooses a song to compete in the contest, held in the country that won last year’s contest. The contest, broadcast live, is usually held on a Saturday in May. After all the songs are performed, a jury (more recently, the viewing public, by televote and text message) in each country grades the other countries’ songs and a new winner is chosen.

The votes are generally perceived to be only partly about the songs performed. They are used to express closeness (or to counterbalance antipathy) between nations. It is expected for countries who share a geographical or cultural affinity to vote ‘in blocks’: the Balkan countries can usually be counted on to give each other the highest marks, as are the Scandinavian countries, or the former Soviet republics.

This musical nepotism has always been a factor, but as the playing field has gotten a lot more crowded since the Eastern European nations started participating (necessitating the institution of semifinals and a system of relegation), irritation about the practice has grown – especially in the West, since the Eastern countries tend to keep their votes ‘in the family’. Terry Wogan, who has provided the contest with ironic commentary for the BBC since time immemorial (1980, actually), has stated that he doesn’t want to present it again for this very reason. Italy has refused to participate for the last few years for the same reason.

This map, sent in by Richard Mellor and to be found on the Diamond Geezer blog, shows how far east the epicenter of Eurosong voting was in the recent 2008 edition.

And finally, just because lists are fun, some Eurosong trivia:

• The Eurovision Song Contest, modelled on the Sanremo Music Festival, was first held in Lugano (Switzerland) on 24 May 1956; 7 countries participated, each submitting 2 songs – the only time this happened.
• In 1968, the UK contended that Spain had not voted for their entry (Cliff Richards’ ‘Congratulations’) to keep it from winning. Recent press stories seem to indicate that General Franco himself orchestrated this, enabling that year’s win by Spain.
• In 1969, France, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK all tied for first place and were all declared the winner. Five countries stayed away in protest from the 1970 contest. A tie-break rule has since been agreed upon.
• In April 1974, a military coup was planned in Portugal, and the trigger for action was the broadcast of its Eurovision entry that year, E depois do adeus, sung by Paulo de Carvalho, on national radio. The following year, the Portuguese entry was the aptly titled Madrugada (April Dawn), sung by Duarte Mendes, then a serving officer with the Portuguese army.
• Participating countries must lie within the ‘European Broadcasting Area’, which not only includes Israel, but potentially also Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. And other areas: in 1980, Morocco participated.
• In 1978, Jordanian tv cut to pictures of flowers during the Israeli performance, and ended transmission when it became apparent Israel was going to win. Jordanian news afterwards reported that the contest had been won by Belgium, which came in second.
• A win in Eurosong only rarely leads to a succesful, rockstar-sized international career. Exceptions are ABBA (Sweden, 1974) and Céline Dion (Switzerland, 1988).
• Since 1989, a strange Eurovision pattern emerged regarding the winning countries: in 1989 Yugoslavia wins for the first (and only) time; in 1990 Italy wins for the second time; in 1991Sweden wins for the third time; in 1992 Ireland wins for the fourth time; in 1993 Ireland wins for the fifth time and in 1994 Ireland wins for the sixth time.