NOT ‘NUL POINTS’!

Eurovision Song Contest 2022

Panorama of Turin at evening with Eurovision logo against sky
An evening panorama of Turin, Italy, host to 2022’s Eurovision Song Contest; image by spamchronicles.com

Wide Support for Ukraine

I settled down to watch the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest 2022 knowing in advance that I would vote for Ukraine. Never mind the music, I am just determined, like most other British voters, to show support for that embattled country.

I have not watched Eurovision recently. It was founded by the European Broadcasting Union in 1956, when I was still a child watching Juke Box Jury. When I lived in South Africa, I preferred their wonderful music to fill my earwaves.

The peoples have spoken

Since Brexit, the position of the UK with regard to Eurovision has been dismal. As it is one of the big five countries to be always allowed a place in the finals (along with Germany, Spain, France and Italy) it was embarrassing to read in the newspapers how poorly it had been ranked by our fellow Europeans, coming last in 2019 and 2021 (the pandemic causing the cancellation in 2020). Is this ranking a proof that most other TV watchers are casting their votes on political sentiment rather than the quality of the songs?

Unlike Strictly Come Dancing, the votes of the professional panels are not given immediately after each performance. Nor are the three hosts allowed to comment or influence in any way, although one host did give some guidance as to genre. He said that heavy metal had been excluded (to my relief as I would have switched off) and that there were several ballad-type songs in the programme. This made me rather curious about the assessment criteria that can be fairly applied to different genres.

This is similar to the problem of applying the same criteria to essays of different genres. My brain clicked into professional mode, as I have taught assessment theory and practice at Masters level, and acted as examiner for various boards.

Not all subjects are the same

There is a big difference between subjects like Maths where most marks can be allocated on the basis of totting up correct results, and a text-based subject like English or History where more time has to be spent on ranking and digesting multiple criteria. The one term I taught in a secondary school, I noticed that the Maths staff were done with their marks several days earlier than us poor teachers of English still poring over the scripts.

So, before I viewed the Eurovision performances, I jotted down what I thought might be appropriate criteria. My list was: musical composition, lyrics, vocal quality, stage performance, stage visuals. So, judging by those, very few got an all round A on each of my criteria. Several were outstanding on one of them: for example, Serbia’s handwashing sticks in the mind under stage performance, Poland’s male singer had superb opera-quality resonance, and Estonia’s hopeful words were the final ones of the show.

Comparisons of stage craft

The British entry was outstanding for the sparkling colour of Sam Ryder’s costume and the stage array of lights pointing diagonally upwards, to indicate the space journey that was the subject of the lyric. The Ukrainian show had the back-up team doing vigorous acrobatic moves all over the stage. The Spanish show, which unsurprisingly emerged third, was a sexy dance of half-naked females in fishnet stockings butting buttocks in every other move. The French entry, sung in Breton, was a spooky gothic dance-round of witches. Compared to this, the single solo meditative female singer of Sweden or the Netherlands would draw a different score.

The sentiment behind the songs

I was interested in noting what type of emotion a song was drawing on. They were not all crude crooning of a male voice seeking female love. The Italian entry drew on love between men, the Spanish one was raw heterosexual. The solo females were not all after love: the Serbian seemed to be satirising private health insurance. Sam Ryder for GB was trying to choose between infinite space travel and the more homely pleasures of this earth.

The Ukrainian team were all men, and their song ‘Stephania’ was a mother grieving for her son (I looked it up afterwards) ending with the now familiar words, “Slava Ukraïni”, so a patriotic song. Moldova had some brisk words about catching a train, perhaps a satire on whether they are one country or two with Transnistria.

I cast my vote and went to bed

I phoned in my verdict for Ukraine and went to bed, unwilling to spend another two hours listening to the results. What happens is that the professional jury of each of the participating countries phones in their ranking of the finalists, with the top scorer allocated 12 marks, the runner-up 10 marks, and then the next eight given marks down from 8 to 1.

It does not seem as if there is much time for discussion within each five-person jury to align their views, so probably the chairperson just does quick arithmetic on the ranking given by each judge and averages that out for the team.

What happens if there is one very divergent judge? This is a problem that Exam boards know how to deal with. As Chief Examiner, I was trained how to deal with this. It has to be discovered if there is one criterion or question that causes the divergence, then the errant examiner (or team) has to be retrained until the consistent marking is achieved.

It is okay if the error is consistent, say marking too high or too low, as this can be adjusted statistically, but if the marking is inconsistent, then, as a last resort, those scripts have to be re-marked by more reliable examiners. 

A little statistical difficulty

Another statistical problem with multiple criteria is that some result in bunched scoring around the median, and others stretch out across the full scoring range (a large standard deviation). This has the effect of giving those criteria with large standard deviation a greater weight in the final score. I once resigned from a job because of this.

We were responsible for a high stakes professional examination for civil servants: the finance results always had large standard deviation, and our Communications department tended to bunch scores. As the scores of the five key subjects were simply added up and divided by five, this resulted in those scoring high on finance getting promoted more easily than the best of the communicators, so I protested but could not get the system changed as those in charge thought it would be manipulating the exam results to adjust this statistically. Funny how pondering on the scores of the Eurovision contest brings up all these memories!

The judges’ official criteria

Actually, I checked up on the internet later what the criteria used by the professional jury are. They are vocal capacity, stage performance, composition, overall impression. So I suppose lyrics get rolled up into composition, and stage visuals get marked along with stage performance. Maybe it is unfair to allocate too much to stage visuals as the richer countries would have more resources. But poorer countries were resourceful – Armenia with a room with a wall covered in paper that the singer gradually stripped off, or Serbia with the obsessive handwashing, or even Ukraine with just a stage full of acrobatic movement.

The TV audiences of the participating countries have just 15 minutes to phone in their impressionistic score. So probably most listeners are not bothering to work out their criteria, but are reacting on gut feelings. This means sentiment for or against a country probably plays a big part. Would this mean that fellow Latin speakers vote for each other, and Slavs with Slavs? This could be checked out as the results for each country’s ranking of the others is available. I noted that Croatia voted most for Serbia: they are neighbours but have not always been political allies.

Why the UK has done so badly recently

It is likely, as the British press pointed out at the time, that the bottom ranking of the UK in 2019 and 2021 was the result of being shunned by fellow Europeans because of Brexit. So is the fact that the British entry came second in 2022 a sign that this Brexit odium is being overcome, or was Sam Ryder’s song just outstanding?

The UK has won five times since the inception of Eurovision in 1956. By contrast Ireland has won seven times, Ukraine twice before (since joining in 2003) and Russia once in 2008 (since joining in 1994). Russia was excluded from the competition this year, so politics does interfere with entertainment.

All eyes were on Ukraine

The news on the day after the competition focused on the reaction of Ukraine. President Zelenskyy said defiantly they would locate next year’s Eurovision in Mariupol. The missing member of the Kalush orchestra (who had stayed behind because he is a medic involved in the war) went even further and suggested Yalta in the Crimea. Now that would infuriate Putin who regards the Crimea as historically Russian (forget about the Tartars). But maybe we can dream of a time after him when Russia will again take its place in musical Europe, and Ukrainians can happily welcome a Russian troupe into a Ukrainian Crimea.