Wednesday 17 January 2018

Eurovision flops beg question - why us?

Nicky Byrne in action in Stockholm. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
Nicky Byrne in action in Stockholm. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

David Blake Knox

As someone who was involved in Ireland's memorable string of Eurovision Song Contest wins in the 1990s, I find it hard to believe that it has now been over 20 years since we last carried off the grand prix.

Sadly, the statistics speak for themselves. In the 1990s, we won the contest four times - including pulling off a unique hat trick in 1992, 1993 and 1994.

By contrast, this year marks our third successive failure to make it out of the semi-finals. In fact, over the past 10 years, we have failed to qualify no less than five times.

There are a number of reasons for this dramatic collapse, and, to be fair, some of them have been outside our control.

When Linda Martin won with 'Why Me?' in 1992, just 23 countries took part - and that was a record number at the time. This year, there were 42 national entries, and the competition has become much more intense. When Linda won, only three countries were permitted to sing in English - the international language of pop music - and we were one of them. This year, there are only two songs in the final that are not in English.

But the past 10 years have also seen some bad judgment calls by RTÉ. At a time when the Eurovision was becoming more ambitious in its staging, we sent a number of performers who had little professional experience, and who seemed out of their depth on the big Eurovision platform.

However, the real damage to our reputation occurred in 2008, when Dustin the Turkey was chosen to represent Ireland. This was a disastrous move by RTÉ - and I speak as a fan of Dustin. It was predictable that the rest of Europe would not appreciate our sending a puppet to the contest, and no surprise when we failed to qualify for the final.

With the new millennium, the horizons of the Eurovision have greatly expanded. The "Eurovision family" now includes countries in North Africa, the Middle East and western Asia - as well as transcontinental states, such as Russia.

Last year, Australia was invited to compete for the first time, and an Australian entry is back again this year - with a good chance of winning. More than half the world's states are now connected to the European Broadcasting Union, and, through it, to the Song Contest. This is, after all, the biggest and most watched entertainment show in the world.

The Eurovision has also become much more sophisticated in its staging, and in its use of cutting-edge technology.

For many years, the success of the show seemed to bewilder American TV executives. Perhaps, it also annoyed them that the viewing figures of the Eurovision were much larger that those for the Superbowl.

The impact of reality talent shows that have obvious similarities to the Eurovision - such as 'American Idol' - may have helped to change their minds. This year, the final is being broadcast in the USA, and tonight's guest performance by Justin Timberlake is another indication that American attitudes to the contest are no longer so dismissive.

There are even reports that Simon Cowell is planning to produce a version of the show in the US.

In one of the most popular episodes of 'Father Ted', Dougal and Ted win Ireland's national song contest with an awful dirge called 'My Lovely Horse'. The reason for their success is because the national broadcaster does not want to win - due to the expense involved in staging an international event.

There may once have been an element of truth in that notion, but it is long gone.

I have no doubt that RTÉ would love to win, and the failure of Nicky Byrne to reach the final must have been a bitter disappointment for all concerned.

They must also have felt a good deal of frustration - with so much effort, and nothing to show.

I believe that many Irish people view the Eurovision with a special degree of affection. It may be an expensive show to stage, but the financial benefits heavily outweigh the costs.

A win would be good for our economy. It would be good for our music and audio-visual industries.

And I think it would also be good for the morale of the country. There is a strong democratic impulse at the heart of this contest.

Any country can win the event. All it takes is the ability to choose the right song, and to match it with the right act.

Of course, a little bit of luck also helps.

David Blake Knox is the author of the book 'Ireland and the Eurovision'

Irish Independent

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