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Here's How the Eurovision Song Contest Came to Be

In 1988, a 20-year-old French-Canadian singer took the stage on behalf of Switzerland at an international song contest in Dublin, Ireland, and wowed the world with her vocals on "Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi (Don't Leave Without Me)." She won the competition by a single point and went on to become a global sensation. That young winner was none other than Celine Dion, and the song contest was Eurovision.

Until the 2020 release of the Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams Netflix film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, many Americans were unaware of the competition, or simply dismissed it as just another music showcase — albeit one with campy, outlandish costumes. But with its roots firmly planted decades before American Idol or The Voice came along, Eurovision has long been more than just a talent contest. To the countries involved, it's one of the biggest cultural events of the year, akin more to the frenzied spirit of the World Cup than to any concert or awards show. Singers and songwriters compete to represent participating countries with an original song, which viewers and industry representatives from each country then vote on for top honors. The result is an extravaganza of musical showmanship, often accompanied by flamboyant fashion, flashy choreography, and special effects.

Famous alumni include ABBA, who won for Sweden in 1974, and British-Australian star Olivia Newton-John, who represented the U.K. and came in fourth that same year. Julio Iglesias also came in fourth when he represented Spain in 1970. And more recently, the U.K. sent '60s pop star Engelbert Humperdinck, who placed 25th in 2012, followed by "Total Eclipse of the Heart" singer Bonnie Tyler, who placed 19th in 2013.

Eurovision is now in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running annual TV music competition, and it's as popular today as it ever was. Viewership regularly hovers around 200 million, with 204 million viewers tuning in to the 2016 contest. (For comparison, Super Bowl viewership is usually around or slightly above 100 million.) Though it was canceled for the first time in 2020 because of the global pandemic, the Eurovision Song Contest will celebrate its delayed 65th anniversary May 18-22, 2021, from Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

The Origins of the Term "Eurovision"

A cup of tea on a saucer, typewriter, pad, and pencil on a desk.
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In 1925, back when radio ruled the airwaves, the International Broadcasting Union (IBU) was formed in Switzerland. Their purpose was not just to make sure the stations had the frequencies they needed to broadcast, but also to swap programming between nations to help them better understand one another. World War II and the Cold War later put a pause on that mission, but in 1950, the western European countries got together and created the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) with the same idea.

The name "Eurovision" arose soon after, but at the time, it was meant to describe the EBU's network of connections for sharing content internationally. Journalist George Campey coined it when he was trying to figure out a way to concisely describe the network in a story for the London Evening Standard. "It came about partly by accident," he later told the BBC, explaining that he needed a shorter way to say "European television." "I just put 'Eurovision' in the copy, which was a double entendre, in the sense that it was the vision of, as well as the actual picture."

An editor then pulled the term out of the story and into the headline. And although some BBC execs tried to quash it — even putting out memos to ban its use in internal documents — the name stuck. After all, the proposed alternative was "Continental Television Exchange." This happened well before any notes were sung in any contest, but Campey in essence coined a future piece of pop culture. "Apart from inventing the word, I also saved the world from having to watch the Continental Television Exchange Song Contest," he joked to the BBC.

The First Eurovision Song Contest

Swiss singer Lys Assia receiving a gold record from the Decca company in 1957.
Credit: Siegfried Pilz/ United Archives/ Getty Images

In the early years of the Eurovision network, the EBU's Marcel Bezençon became interested in coming up with a kind of programming that could appeal to many countries, across culture and language barriers, as well as utilize live television capabilities. He was soon inspired by the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy, which had been running since 1951. So in 1955, he began to plan an international version of the contest, to be called the Grand Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne. The first competition was held in Lugano, Switzerland, in May 1956, with the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, and Italy vying for the title.

That first event leaned heavily on radio broadcasting, although there were cameras filming it for those who had television sets. Only solo singers were allowed from the seven participating countries, and each had to perform two original songs — in their country's national language — with a 24-piece orchestra. The results were voted on by a jury made up of the participating countries, with the host nation (represented by singer Lys Assia) winning by an unknown margin for the song "Refrain." It was Switzerland's only Eurovision victory for more than 30 years, until Celine Dion's performance in 1988.

The band Abba performing in the during the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest.
Credit: AFP / Stringer/ Getty Images

The following year, the EBU made major changes to both the format and the voting process. The show moved to Frankfurt, began allowing duos, and limited each act to one song. Organizers also added a rule that countries couldn't vote for themselves, to ensure a fair result. That rule has stuck to this day, even for viewers voting at home.

Over the years, other rules came and went — including, notably, the one that said songs had to be sung in the country's national language, which gave an advantage to those with more widely spoken languages such as English. To skirt that requirement, some artists came up with nonsense lyrics like "Boom-Bang-a-Bang" and "La La La." The rule went away in 1973, a year before ABBA hit the scene with "Waterloo," but it came back again in 1977 and lasted until 1999, when it was officially abolished.

Another rule that went away just in time for ABBA's breakout performance was the one banning groups from competing. Today, a performance may include up to six people, all of whom must be at least 16 years old. Also: No live animals are allowed on stage.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, while the performers representing a country have to be human, they don't have to actually be from that country — which explains why Dion competed for Switzerland. "I was in Montreal, where I lived, and they wanted me to go to Ireland to represent Switzerland," the singer explained on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2013. "I didn't get it. What were the people in Switzerland going to think? ‘Where's she coming from? We don't even know her.'" After her win, though, all of those questions were erased. "Switzerland loved me after that," she said of her narrow victory.

The current scoring system for the contest may seem complex at first, but the structure for it has been in place since 1975. Juries of music professionals from each country rank the other countries' performances from their favorite to their least favorite, awarding their top choice the famous "douze points" (12 points), their second choice with 10 points, and then the rest with one to eight points. Beginning in 1997, some countries also opened up televoting to the public. Today, each country submits two separate sets of votes — one from the jury and one from televoters, in essence giving more weight to votes from viewers.

Eurovision Today

Flag poles with various national flags blowing in the wind.
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In recent decades, the contest has grown to include dozens of additional countries, with 41 participating in 2019, and 39 in 2021. Ireland has the most wins to date with seven, followed by Sweden with six, and France, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands tied for third, with five each.

While "Euro" is in the title, not all of the participating countries are in Europe. Any country that's  part of the EBU is eligible to compete. Australia, for example, has competed since 2015, when the EBU invited them to perform in the finals. (SBS, which has broadcast the contest in Australia for several decades, is part of the EBU.)

The U.S., of course, hasn't ever competed in Eurovision, but the contest is finally coming to America in its own way, with the upcoming debut of the American Song Contest. The competition will be set up similarly to Eurovision, but with states going head-to-head. "It's time for America to experience this spectacle, through its sister competition, the American Song Contest," Eurovision Song Contest executive supervisor Martin Österdahl said in a statement about the show, which is set for sometime in 2022. "Love of music is universal and celebration of music in different genres and styles can transcend boundaries and unite people."

Featured image credit: Review News/ Shutterstock

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