Eurovision 2018: everything Australians need to know before watching

From voting blocs to cheering on Jessica Mauboy – and how come Australia can even enter? Here’s your definitive guide to this year’s song contest

Why is Australia in the Eurovision Song Contest?
Great question. It’s because Australia is part of Europe, just next to Germany.

Oh, that’s funny.
All right, it’s because SBS, the TV station that shows Eurovision in Australia, is part of the European Broadcasting Union and that is the most important determining factor as to whether a country can compete. Seriously. Other countries outside Europe have been in the competition – most notably Israel, but also Azerbaijan (technically not Europe, though you could argue it is on the border) and Morocco – so it’s not like there are hard-and-fast EU passport rules that would prevent Australia’s poptacular entrant, Aria-award-winning Jessica Mauboy, from getting involved.

Fine, so we can compete – but should we?
There are two schools of thought on this. The first is that we have great talent and this is an opportunity to overcome our geographical disadvantage and showcase that talent to the world. Then there’s the counter argument: that treating Eurovision like a legitimate talent quest and global marketing platform tarnishes its magic as a showcase of white pants, uplifting key changes, ghastly instrument miming and gloriously godawful music you’d otherwise never hear outside of very specific regional Spotify playlists. Pick your side.

So you won’t be cheering for Our Jess then?
Honestly, watching Dami Im do so very well in 2016 – the first year in which Australia competed properly after Guy Sebastian performed as a guest artist the previous year – was exhausting. There should be no patriotism at work here: for Australians, Eurovision should be about arbitrarily pinning all your tipsy hopes on a bunch of Russian grandmothers, Slovenian drag stewardesses or Finnish heavy metal monster-people.

It’s about respecting heritage. Somehow, it feels like we’ve abandoned the true meaning of Eurovision by actually having a team in the competition. Why, people will be watching it sober next!

Aysel Mammadova
Aysel Mammadova from Azerbaijan performing at a rehearsal for the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon. Photograph: Vyacheslav Prokofyev/TASS

Can Our Jess actually win?
Sure can. She’s one of the favourites, along with the German Ed Sheeran (Michael Schulte), Justin Timberczech (Mikolas Josef), and Hyperactive Norwegian Fiddle Model (Alexander Rybak).

How does the voting actually work, anyway?
Very predictably, for the most part, although the system was rejigged in 2016 so that there is now a panel vote and a public televote.

Countries can’t vote for themselves because that would defeat the purpose, so they tend to vote for their neighbours in blocs. There are two large blocs – statistician Derek Gatherer characterised them as “The Baltic Bloc” and “The Viking Empire” in his 2006 paper Comparison of Eurovision Song Contest Simulation with Actual Results Reveals Shifting Patterns of Collusive Voting Alliances – which are statistically almost impossible to defeat, depending on how many members get into the final 26. And yes, this was an actual published study in an academic journal: stay in school, kids!

And then there are old enmities playing out – the UK barely ever vote heavily for France, countries with strong local Russian ties attempt to placate them with votes, and so on. The competition is a well-recognised form of soft diplomacy, both well-intentioned and otherwise, only with more key changes and less embassy expulsions.

Switzerland Eurovision 2018 entrant ZiBBZ
Switzerland’s ZiBBZ performs at a rehearsal for the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon, Portugal. Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

Is it still possible for a country to score that legendary honour that is Nul Points?
Technically, it’s possible to score a complete zero from every country, but in practice it’s now all but impossible with the voting system changes (although Spain did come tantalisingly close in 2017 with zero jury votes). Even so, I still suspect the UK got Australia into the competition purely to guarantee some Commonwealth expat votes in case they ever had another Jemini–in-2003-level zero points disaster. #neverforget

Speaking of Jemini, why is the UK always in the finals despite so often having objectively the worst song in the competition?
Because the five countries that pony up the most funding for the contest – the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany – get a guaranteed spot in the finals regardless of the quality of the song – and given that a majority of Britons would like to Brexit from Eurovision it’s not like they exactly send the current Beatles equivalent to compete on the nation’s behalf.

The host country also has a guaranteed finals berth too – which can sometimes be embarrassing when said entry gets nul points, as poor Austria did with the Makemakes’ turgid I Am Yours in 2015 after winning the year before.

So what happens if Our Jess wins?
The Eurovision rules stipulate that the contest must be held in Europe, so if she wins, SBS would partner with a European country to stage the event.

Just as well – much as some European contestants might enjoy a trip to Sydney, we’re eight hours ahead of most of Europe and there would be a grim choice: would we start the broadcast while Europe was having lunch, or lay bets that Australia could successfully fill a stadium with thousands of enthusiastic broadcast-ready fans at 3am?

Also, wouldn’t that be in breach of the lockout laws? It would be a nightmare.

Eurovision semi-finals happen on 8 May and 10 May (that’s the one with Jessica Mauboy performing), with the final on 12 May. You can find all the Australian broadcast details on the SBS website


Andrew P Street

The GuardianTramp

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