The production team of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest will decide the running order of the shows instead of the drawing of lots; the Executive Supervisor of the Contest says the running order does not impact on the final result so the focus can be on making a good television show; and the Eurovision community are up in arms about changes they believe are to the detriment of the worlds biggest Song Contest. It’s time for Ewan Spence and ESC Insight to take a look at the new rule change, try to make some sense of it, and see if there is room for improvement…
Wednesday saw the announcement on Eurovision.tv that has led to a huge amount of discussion online. To recap:
The running order of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest will be decided by the producers of the show. The contest’s governing body, the Reference Group, decided that during its last meeting. The decision was approved by the Television Committee of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) as well.
Not surprisingly, many fans of the Eurovision Song Contest have an opinion on this, and have been vocal in their dislike of this change for the 2013 Contest. What’s more surprising is the reaction of the public when you ask them what they think of the new rule. They immediately think of shows like The X-Factor and American Idol, with their lingering suspicion of chosen performers gaining prominent positions, manipulative judges, and the production team emphasising favourites in the editing process.
Is that the sort of company that the Eurovision Song Contest wants to be seen in?
Changes to the Contest are not taken lightly, but through the last decade the rules have continued to be tweaked to try and find the best format for one of the most popular television shows on the planet. What impact this new rule change will have on the perception of the Contest is up for debate, but the EBU believe that change is needed.
To understand the EBU’s viewpoint, ESC Insight spoke to Jon Ola Sand, Executive Supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, on the issues that led to the rule change and the thinking behind the change.
Let’s be honest, opening this year’s semi-final with Euro-Neuro was bonkers, but it was not a decision that a TV producer would have made. It made for an inaccessible opening, and if viewers switched off that early in the show, it’s unlikely that they would come back. The 2012 Grand Final had a rather sedate opening, with three slower numbers before Donny Montell gave us a little spin. And as many have reminded us in the last few days, the first six songs in 2006 ensured a good night’s sleep for the elderly Eurovision watcher.
Explaining the rationale behind the change, Jon Ola Sand believes that “a well composed program with a proficient mix between the different elements are key factors for a good result. That’s why TV programs in general are not made randomly.”
Looking back at the viewing figures in the UK, you can see that the number of viewers of the Eurovision Song Contest does not stay constant as the show progresses. It fluctuates throughout the show as people come and go, switch off, or remember that it’s started (peculiarly, there’s a block of people that seem to wait until the songs are finished and tune in just for the voting).
Eurovision is a living, breathing, television show. It’s clear that there can be moments in the running order that can cause viewers to switch off. By placing the running order in the hands of humans, rather than luck, these moments can be minimised and create a more coherent and attractive television event.
But the Eurovision Song Contest is more than a television program. Dr. Paul Jordan points out that “the event is significant in terms of nation branding and image building, particularly in the context of the return to Europe of post-communist countries” (“Nation Branding and Nation Building in Estonia and Ukraine” (2012, Dr Paul Jordan, University of Glasgow).
As well as one of the biggest television shows in the world, Eurovision rightly gathers a huge amount of expectation and examination. It has taken pride in creating a level playing field of competition within the context of a three hour television show. And this is where I think the new rule on the running order needs to be re-examined.
Contrary to popular belief, Jon Ola Sand told ESC Insight that “there is indeed no significant statistical impact of the running order on the result.”
This may come as a surprise to the many followers not just of the Eurovision Song Contest around the world, but anyone who’s taken a remote interest in the reality TV competitions of the last decade. It’s a courageous claim, and I was hoping that Sand would be able to illustrate this with the data provided to the Reference Group. “We can unfortunately not provide you with detailed televoting analysis, but I would like to point out that a similar principle is successfully applied at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest for 10 years already.”
Outside of the Reference Group, there have been a number of academic studies looking at the impact on running orders in competitions, be they televised song contests, reality shows, one to one interviews, and judged sports in the Olympic games. Some of these papers include:
But if you want to look in-depth at the running order ‘s impact on the results, and have time to read just one paper, may I recommend “A Field Study Of Biases In Sequential Performance Evaluation On The Idol Series” (Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (2008), by Dr Lionel Page, University of Westminster and Dr Katie Page, University of London). Picking out some of the highlights as they would apply to the Eurovision Song Contest:
These results suggest that there seems to be an increasing linear trend such that contestants in the later positions have an advantage relative to those contestants in earlier positions. The worst positions in terms of bias seem to be positions two and three.
Irrespective of ability, contestants who perform first are more likely to be positively evaluated than those who come in second and third positions, which provides evidence of a primacy effect. Contestants who perform in the later serial positions (particularly last position) have the largest advantage with respect to positive evaluations, implying a strong recency effect. The curve showing performance evaluation by serial positions is J-shaped for this dataset implying a much stronger recency effect.
Overall the order effect is very significant and implies that, with the exception of the first position, moving one position closer to the end of the show provides an additional 5 percentage point chance of being safe for a contestant [appearing in the bottom two in The X-Factor]. Therefore, ordering plays a major role in the competition, at least to discriminate between contestants close in ability.
Reading through the published academic articles and studies available to me, there is little doubt in my mind that the Eurovision Song Contest’s running order has a significant effect on the outcome of the Contest.
By placing the running order into the hands of the production team, the EBU have introduced a human bias into the Song Contest, a bias that has a significant impact on the final result. In previous changes to the Contest, the EBU has strived to be fair and equal to every country taking part in the Contest.
This rule change is simply not fair.
This leads us into an interesting quandary, where the needs of the television show must be balanced with the needs of a fair competition, something that Jon Ola Sand is particularly aware of. “What does impact the Eurovision Song Contest as a whole in terms of ratings and televoting participation, and most likely the result as well, is if numerous ballads or up-tempo songs follow each other up.”
Let’s return to Sand’s thoughts about the draw and the Junior Eurovision Song Contest; “I would like to point out that a similar principle is successfully applied at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest for 10 years already.”
This is true to a certain extent, but it’s not completely up to the JESC producers. First up, the host country’s position is determined by a random draw (the same as the new rule for Malmo); then the countries to sing first and last are drawn at random; finally the remaining countries are split into two groups, filling the top half and the bottom half of the draw; and the producers organise the running order of these two groups for the best viewing experience.
It’s also worth pointing out that of the nine JESC winners, six of them have come from the bottom half of the draw, and five of them have sung in one of the last four positions. But the positions where victory is statistically more likely are determined by the two draws, for the opening and closing positions, and then into the two halves of the draw.
Drs Page point out the shape of the bias due to primacy and recency effects through a competition is a J-Curve:
If we were to split the J Curve into a number of sections, then each section would have a roughly equal distribution of bias points. By tweaking the Junior Eurovision 2012 model, we could create three sections of the running order that are roughly equal in terms of good and bad slots. Yes, the third section would have a slightly stronger chance of winning, but this would be decided not by a production team, but by chance. Rather than the production team being faced with a list of twenty six countries to perform that night and deciding themselves who will be in the preferred section of the running order, performing countries would draw their section out of a hat. Then the producers would decide the running order inside each section. The Host Country’s position should be drawn beforehand, just as it is at Junior Eurovision.
The 2013 semi-finals are already using something very similar to this process. Each country will be randomly drawn the first half or the second half of the running order of each semi-final (as reported by EscXtra) so that the delegations know which day they will need to be in Malmo to start rehearsals. Bringing a similar system into the Grand Final process would not require a massive change to the rules already agreed by the Reference Group.
This tweaked draw process would allow the production team to have the diversity of music required to craft a good running order which benefits and entertains the millions of viewers around the world. But it also retains a significant element of fairness to the performing artists, by adding enough of a random element to the draw so that the majority of competitive advantage is gifted by luck, and not the production team.
This proposal balances the needs of the competition with the needs of the television show.
Discussing the rule change, Jon Ola Sand stressed that “the ESC Reference Group are confident that both artists and viewers will benefit from this decision.” The reasons for taking the decision are sound and a producer-led running order would benefit the viewers.
The process announced on Wednesday fails to take into account the academic evidence of the impact that the running order has on the final result. It introduces a significant level of human bias into the Contest, and while I have no doubt that SVT and the EBU will conduct the process in a fair and equitable manner, it does not have the appearance of being fair or equitable.
With a small tweak, the EBU could create a more transparent process that increases the quality of the television show while retaining the sporting integrity of the contest. That benefits everybody. It would deliver a stronger show to the viewers, it would treat the artists with respect, and it would be a result that people could trust.