As the National Final season gets under way, many broadcasters are revealing their plans for selecting their Song for Europe. The format is settled for many countries, but the rather vocal fans in the United Kingdom are still trying to guess the BBC’s decision to either go for another internal selection or some form of televised selection process. This is complicated by the budget available to the BBC, and in recent years there has been less money available for programming – which may have been a consideration when the live selection show was rested after Josh Dubovie’s selection in 2010. If it comes down to money, many fans think there shouldn’t be a problem… because the phone-votes will pay for the show. But would it? Time for some back-of-the-envelope calculations to make a best guess at how much the BBC could make from a live National Final phone vote.
Going on the audience figures for the 2011 Song Contest (around 120 million viewers), the EBU reportthat nine million votes were cast. I’m rounding these numbers in such a way as to try to be generous and create more income, not less. With that in mind, we get a percentage of the audience casting a vote as approximately 7.5% This percentage is steady throughout the last few years where we have the numbers from the EBU, and it will take account of people casting multiple votes. There may be local variations, but I’m going to assume that this sample size is generally indicative of the watching audience across Europe.
This is one of the big questions that the BBC will ask. Even though they have a public service remit and don’t always have to chase viewing figures, if we’re looking to get as much income as possible, we’re going to need to have as many people watching as possible. The upper limit of course would be to match the viewership of the Eurovision Song Contest’s Grand Final. The average viewership on the BBC this year was 7.47 million(yes it peaked higher during the scoring but I doubt they would have cast a vote).
The last time a UK National Final was given pride of place in the Saturday night schedule, which arguably is the best that a 2013 show could hope for, was the Andrew Lloyd Webber / Jade Ewen ‘Your Country Needs You’. Running over six weeks, it picked up an average of 5 million viewers. Outside of the prime-time Saturday night slot, Josh Dubovie qualified to fly the flag for the UK on a one-shot Friday night show. The numbers were not bad for a mid-week show, with 2.9 million viewers.
In terms of income from a phone vote, the BBC Charter is very clear on two areas. The first, in black and white, is that the BBC cannot make a profit from any phone vote. It’s not clear if you can offset the income against program budget, but let’s assume in the labyrinthine regulations held in the Corporation there’s a way to do it. The Charter is also clear on how much can be charged. Outside of a charitable vote (such as those used around the charity telethons of Children in Need or Comic Relief), shows must charge the lowest possible amount. That works out as a 25p call to the viewer. After the operator cut and taxes are taken out, that leaves just under 10p for the BBC coffers. Let’s round that up, take the 7.5% conversion rate, and apply that to our viewing figures.
The Eurovision Song Contest 2012: £56,000.
Your Country Needs You 2009 (Saturday night): £37,500.
Your Country Needs You 2010 (Friday night): £21,750.
Thanks to the nicely rounded viewing figures, we have some rather nice numbers to go on as well.
So we have the income, what about the expenditure? Although the BBC have been asked several times for the production costs of many programs, including their Eurovision coverage, accurate numbers are not in the public domain. What we do have are some averages and maximums in place, from the BBC Charter and public documents available as part of the general BBC commissioning process.
The ‘average’ production cost of a one hour show on the BBC is £160,000. There are some recommendations for the maximum cost. Saturday night variety shows can go as high as £285,000 an hour, while the Friday night slot which selected Josh Dubove has a top end of just £140,000. If the BBC Eurovision team do go for a National Final, there is no way that the phone vote income will be able to pay for the show. Even a ‘budget’ mid-week one hour show, which would need to go out live, is probably going to cost around the £100,000 mark. By our calculations, a UK phone vote would barely cover a fifth of the cost of a National Final.
In a climate where the BBC is being asked to keep costs down as much as possible, the budget allocated to the Eurovision 2011 and 2012 campaigns did not include the money for a National Final. The idea that a National Final will be covered by the money from a phone vote is simply not true. Even if there’s a huge viewership on the order of five million viewers, for a cut-price show on a Saturday night, a televised UK final is only going to happen if there is a conscious decision in the management team to put the weight of the broadcaster behind the 2013 Contest.
My money is that the Eurovision Song Contest will continue to be regarded as the ‘bottle’ show in the schedule, where money can be saved to spend on other programs throughout the year. But there is value in involving the public in the decision. If the decision is to be shared, as many fans hope, it will have to be done without spending any more money than last year What alternatives are there to the ‘Song for Europe’ style show? We’ve got a few ideas here…