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Thursday, June 08, 2006

The New Medium brings Death to the Eurovision

In writing this article, I feel loath to admit something: I watched the Eurovision Song Contest from start to finish. However, in my defence, this was purely for professional reasons. An early press release sent my way indicated that the Eurovision Song Contest 2006 would be broadcast in High Definition. (In fact, it was only produced in High Definition and not ultimately broadcast as the availability of HD TV among viewers was considered to low to be worth the bother.) So out of professional curiosity, I tuned in to see what difference a live HD-produced show would be compared to a live standard definition presentation.

In reality, considering that the Eurovision is so extraordinarily camp, it was very difficult to tell whether the definition was higher or whether it was just the over-powering brightness of the participants’ garish apparel. But before we could switch channels to avoid blindness, our professional curiosity was further aroused by another phenomenon – Lordi, the Finnish Death Metal entry. So what could this example of profound teenage angst possibly have to do with digital media?

Well, I have an interesting supposition, which goes like this: The success of Lordi in the Eurovision song contest, we believe, signals the death of the traditional broadcast analogue medium and the triumph of the New Medium. Since I’m sure that Lordi would quite enjoy the idea that they have been part of the death of something, we’ll explain ourselves. 2005’s failed entry from Athlone. Rumour has it they were eaten by Lordi.

The European Broadcasting Union is the television and radio equivalent of the EU. It is the representative body of all European broadcasters and among its many and considerable duties, it is in charge of putting on the Eurovision song contest each year. In many ways, the Eurovision has become its flagship and in its own way, the song contest has pushed the technological boundaries of European broadcasting through the sheer scale of the show. John Bowman, RTE’s Questions and Answers front man, told an amusing anecdote at a Digital Media conference a few years ago recounting how the year after Dana won the Eurovision in 1970, RTE technicians picketed the Gaeity Theatre (where the Eurovision was being held) because RTE has decided to broadcast the song contest in colour! The technicians union felt that there was no need to foist colour television on a consumer audience that were plainly happy with black and white. How quickly things have changed and how little things have changed!

The Eurovision has also made leaps and bounds in other television technologies such as satellite link-ups, multi-point live television coverage and now high definition. The sheer popularity of the show, frightening as that is, means that the EBU can use it as an ideal vehicle to introduce new broadcasting technologies Europe-wide. One such innovation was the replacement of the closed voting of yesteryear (where a selected panel voted on behalf of a nation) to a far more democratic texting and phone voting solution that would empower the general public. Or so you might thing. In reality, this is where the trouble began.

You see the Eurovision is a phenomenon of the state public service broadcast model where the state once decided what should and shouldn’t be called “entertainment” for the people. It is the kind of show that Devalera would have approved of in its early incarnation as a celebration of culture and diversity. The Eurovision was the collective brainchild of public servants drawn from across Europe who lacked taste but promoted decency.

The fact that their brainchild would develop an almost cultish devotion from a largely homosexual fan base, further underlines the sheer absurdity of the whole endeavour. But an enjoyable absurdity it is too and one that remains remarkably popular. But is it popular because everyone gets the joke accept perhaps the people who stage the event? One need only listen to the venerable Terry Wogan’s commentary on BBC to realise that the Eurovision works on many levels.

Unfortunately, what electronic voting has done has made the joke obvious. This is how a young, free and technically savvy audience mocks the tyranny of the broadcast service model (albeit that they don’t get that the viewers were mocking it quietly from the start!). They vote for the worst and make them the best. So as Lordi strutted on to stage to accept flowers it was hard to tell who was the real loser… was it the Eurovision whose absurdity had finally been revealed? Or was it Death metal which has finally gone main stream? Will teenagers now be dressing in garish Eurovision costume and hanging outside the Central bank?

It’s hard to tell. But what is obvious is that with a generation brought up on the a new medium where they are used to getting what they want when they want it, the European Broadcasting Union is really going to have to re-assess its role lest it become rapidly obsolete. A new generation with a new medium will no longer be dictated to through the traditional broadcast model and by attempting to marry elements of the new medium, such as text voting, without addressing the core deficiencies of the medium, will simply open the door to…well, Lordi.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 11:29 a.m.

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