Not many 65-year-olds make it across the Atlantic to break into US network television.
But that is exactly what has happened to the Eurovision Song Contest (b.1956) which is about to experience rebirth in America as the “American Song Contest”, under an agreement between NBC and the European Broadcasting Union, the original creators of the format.
The EBU, of which I am proud to be president, still organizes the event and has overcome the obstacles of the pandemic to stage it in Rotterdam on Saturday (22 May).
While on the surface Eurovision might look ideally placed to be a hit Stateside – competitive singing between the best talent of the 50 states, DC and 5 US territories, dazzling production and over-the-top acts – the idea isn’t really a very American one.
Founded more as an experiment in international co-operation to push the boundaries of what could be done with live broadcasting, Eurovision developed into an ever-bigger union.
In many ways, the growth spurts of the Song Contest, which began with seven entrants, had 22 by 1989 and then embraced the newly-liberated nations of the Soviet bloc before reaching its current 39 nations, echo the political development of Europe.
The Eurovision Song Contest has always been ahead of the curve when It comes to reflecting the changing face and values of Europe. In the early '90s, the competition showcased talent from the nations of the former Yugoslavia while war still raged in the Balkans and welcomed countries such as Estonia and Latvia as participants, and later winners, a full decade before they became EU members.
While national pride is of course on display every year, Eurovision has always been as much about fun as about competition and certainly more than about money: there is no grand prize at the end, just a trophy and the glory. And the winning public broadcaster gets the opportunity to shine when they host the next year’s event.
Of course, you can go on to greatness and no doubt great riches from the platform of Eurovision – Abba (1974 winners) and Celine Dion (who represented Switzerland when winning in 1988) as the best examples. And you will certainly become well-known. The combined TV audience in over 40 countries where the Contest is aired is around 200m people.
Yet there remains something of the Olympic spirit about Eurovision. The winning is not as important as the taking part.
And this year, the spirit of co-operation is at its greatest ebb. Defeating the problems posed by the pandemic became a matter of pride for the EBU. We lost Eurovision for the first time in 2020 and we did not want to let that happen again.
Together with our Dutch host broadcaster NPO we planned for every eventuality to ensure there would be a competition this year come what may.
We also are very aware that many of our members, the public service broadcasters of Europe, are experiencing threats to their independence for the first time since the EBU was founded in 1950. This was not a year in which we could pass up the chance to show what the spirit of international, mutual support, means.
The threats came not just from political parties wanting to nullify the independent media of their nations in order to hold on to power, which is a real issue in countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. The threats also come from global online platforms operating increasingly in an unregulated environment in competition with media in Europe.
The programmes they produce are much to be applauded for their quality, but they will have as little in common with the cultural mission of public-service broadcasters as America’s Got Talent has with the Eurovision Song Contest.
Indeed, the reason we value this colourful, unifying, unique and always-enduring institution so highly is that we know that if it were to be made by broadcasters in the thrall of populist politicians or made by platforms looking just to maximise profit, Eurovision would not be what it is today, nor what it will be tomorrow.