Academics, commentators and past performers gathered in London on Friday 24 April to discuss the social, political and cultural influence of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) over six decades.
The conference, organized by the EBU, explored aspects of the annual Contest rarely explored – the role of this seminal TV event in forming communities and national identities in Europe since its launch in 1956.
Opening the Conference, EBU Director of Public Affairs and Communications Guillaume Klossa, said that there had 'never been a greater need for the Contest than today.'
"When we see European division and a return to the tension of the past, this TV show unites 200 million people in Europe and beyond. It celebrates diversity and provides a common space to be European. Since its launch, the Contest has developed new ways of connecting Europeans."
Dr Karen Fricker from Brock University, Canada, was one of three keynote speakers to address the audience of around 180 people. Ms Fricker said the Contest was a source of celebration in Canada, and was the means through which international audiences gained insight into Europe.
“For many audiences, the Contest represents their first significant encounter with Europe. It materializes concepts – Europe and Europeanness – ideas which are at the same abstract and complex,” she said. “For all that, the Contest is a paradox. It promotes European unity by pitting countries against each other in playful competition. Spectators cheer their homeland while simultaneously identifying with being European.”
Dr Dean Vuletic, Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Vienna, said the anniversary was the ideal moment to reflect on how the contest had shaped the history of postwar Europe.
“As one of the longest-running and most popular TV programmes in Europe, the ESC has endured," said Dr Vuletic. "Despite divisions in international relations and political upheaval, including revolutions and wars in its participating states. The contest has withstood all these political developments, while continuing to embody the aspirations and values that bring Europeans together."
In his keynote address UK academic Dr Paul Jordan said the Contest reflected "the changing map of Europe in the wake of the collapse of communism", citing the expansion of the contest since 1993 to include Eastern European countries such as Russia, Hungary, Poland and Estonia.
“For many newly sovereign nations, the contest has become a tool to define and express the state’s ‘European’ credentials,” he said. “The ESC offers a form of approval and also a chance for each host country to say something to the world on its terms – a platform for nation branding and a mechanism for nation-building.”
Also attending the conference was 2014 champion Conchita Wurst.
Following her win, the Austrian recording artist and drag queen, portrayed by Tom Neuwirth, was welcomed at the United Nations in November 2014 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as an ambassador for basic human rights.
Ms Wurst said the Contest was transformational and provided Europe with a platform to advance diversity and tolerance.
“The ESC is about love and respect for different languages, cultures and people, who in the end have more in common than differences,” she said. “To have won this celebration of diversity has changed my life. It’s a huge honor. To have met Ban Ki-Moon, to have breathed the same air as Meryl Streep! "
Ms Wurst said she had especially enjoyed raising awareness about the Contest and ‘introducing’ it to the United States. Asked what made a great song, she replied "it needs to touch people, to be authentic. Every song I sing, I need to feel it.“
The day included a panel discussion on the Contest’s impact on European family life, with a particular focus on the advent of social media.
Participants, who included Professor Brian Singleton from Trinity College Dublin, Aija Medinika, former Head of Press for Latvian TV, Estonian winner in 2001 Dave Benton, wiwibloggs journalist William Lee Adams and Music Lecturer Phil Jackson from Edge Hill University Liverpool (UK), concluded social media had 'enhanced the audience experience' and ‘extended the life of the competition beyond the contest period by stimulating conversation on Facebook and Twitter.'
“Whether it’s the frocks or the songs, what’s interesting is that through social media we are able to see what audiences in different countries are taking away," said Mr Jackson. "Ritual has spread beyond the living room, social streaming has created a global contest, creating continuity against a backdrop of change.”
Participating in an afternoon discussion on innovation was ESC Executive Supervisor Jon Ola Sand, ESC Event Supervisor Sietse Bakker, Executive Producer ESC 1998 (BBC UK) Guy Freeman, Executive Producer ESC 2014 (DR Denmark) Pernille Gaardbo, and Manager EBU Network Operations Centre Frank Saelens.
Mr Sand described the Contest as "one of the biggest success stories of public service broadcasting."
"It facilitated technological advances, including telephone voting, which was first introduced at the Eurovision Song Contest 1997 as an alternative to the traditional jury system and was tested by five countries," he said. "By 2004, the system had been adopted by every participating country."
EBU Director General Ingrid Deltenre said the Conference provided a perfect platform for exploring the Contest's wide reaching influence:
"The EBU is immensely proud of the Eurovision Song Contest and the impact it has had in the last 60 years. This is truly an event that builds bridges between nations, unites the people of Europe and encapsulates the values of public service media. The Eurovision Song Contest showcases the diversity, innovation and excellence that are the hallmarks of what the EBU stands for. In this anniversary year it is with pride that we look back at how the Contest has influenced the public sphere in Europe and look forward to the event remaining a huge part of its social, political and cultural landscape for many more years to come."