Is Eurovision getting its sexy back?
This Saturday, Justin Timberlake will debut his new single in front of a live TV audience about 50 per cent larger than the Super Bowl's. As interval act for the world's biggest music competition he'll perform alongside two dozen European stars, whose entries have already been viewed over 50 million times online and many of whom have already topped charts across the continent. It'll be yet another defining moment for an entertainment property which has over a million subscribers and 1.5 billion views on its YouTube channel.
UK journalists have been paying close attention for months: covering controversial changes in the voting procedure; our low key selection of two The Voice contestants to represent us; the sad disqualification of Romania; the ever inexplicable inclusion of Australia; politically charged rules on which flags can be waved; and news of a contestant who plans to sing naked with wolves. One of this year's entries has previously had 14 UK number ones and spent 189 weeks in the top 40 (though admittedly only as one quarter of boy band Westlife). Meanwhile in the world of marketing one of the UK's biggest brands has already kicked off a Twitter Amplify activation around the event which will see their pre rolls appear in front of official content, right through until the night itself.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that we're talking about the VMAs, MTV Music awards or perhaps even Glastonbury, but of course we're not, we're talking about the Eurovision Song Contest. Now heading into its 61st year the often inexplicable event is once again going from strength to strength. Already attracting more than 200 million viewers, the show airs as far away as Australia, China and now, for the first time this year, also the US. It is consistently Twitter's most Tweeted European event of the year, and when the bearded Conchita Wurst won two years ago she even beat out Beyonce in Google search traffic.
Although one of the most successful ever countries, the UK has had a curious relationship with the event. Having not lifted the trophy since 1997, a string of poor results have made for a self fulfilling prophecy - assume we'll do badly, rule out sending anyone mainstream as a result, do badly. In true British style we've retaliated by increasingly trivialising the contest in reply, led first by the phenomenal commentary of Terry Wogan who tragically passed away this past year. In handing commentary duties over to Graham Norton he ensured that a similar tone ensued, albeit one that has had to acknowledge the increasing quality and genuine entertainment of entries over the years.
Five years ago the Swedish winning song 'Euphoria' became a dance & chart hit across Europe, whilst Dutch runners up 'The Common Linnets' made the Uk top 5 not long after. It was however Austrian icon Conchita who finally outlasted the month-long news cycle and still managed to be a recognisable talking point when she returned to help host the following year. I'm not sure the same can quite be said for last year's winner Måns, but regardless the seed has been planted that winning Eurovision can once again be a good thing for a career.
The Swedes, the most successful modern entrant, embody the absolute opposite approach to the British. Their six week long national selection process is their most popular TV show and is best described as a version of the X Factor in which all the contestants are already established local artists. Such is the appeal and exposure of appearing in 'Melodifestivalen' that acts fight hard to even participate in the heats, and some have returned half a dozen times in hope of eventual triumph. Most of the entries wouldn't sound out of place in global charts, and they call on a jury of European representatives to help them pick a final winner which caters to all tastes. It also doesn't hurt that Swedish writers and producers are responsible for some of the biggest pop music in the world right now, Timberlake's new song included.
In fact the majority of European countries run serious competitions to select their acts, or flat out pick one of their leading talents to perform. Accordingly it's a fairly cocky attitude to assume we should ever come anywhere other than last, especially as we typically send a song that struggles to chart even on home soil. Of course that doesn't stop us blaming the gimmicks, over production and of course the politics for holding us back. Whilst the latter is certainly an issue, it increasingly reflects the fact that acts can have established fan bases and received heavy radio play in their region before they step foot on the stage.
We are starting to take things a bit more seriously though, and almost 10 million tune in each year. The BBC reinstated a public national selection this year and even attracted a song written by Leona Lewis to proceedings, though she didn't opt to sing it. By hiding the contest on BBC 4 they did however limit truly mass appeal and no doubt played into the hands of Joe and Jake, familiar faces to a dedicated Voice audience. The boys have gamely participated in the build up tour ahead of the show which lines up a series of local promotion opportunities across the continent, and their song is almost indisputably our best in years. Though that's not saying a lot. On their social media channels the BBC has been heavily criticised for an editorial stance that plays up the wacky and tends to ridicule the other competing entries, perhaps marking the beginning of a small but vocal rebellion.
This year's favourites are Russia, who's upbeat cheesy male pop song will divide fans who will instinctively love it, but typically choose to boo Russia for its human rights record. Fittingly for this 'non-political' contest the unexpected second favourite is now a dark Ukranian number offering a personal take on Joseph Stalin's brutal invasion back in 1944. If that's all too heavy then the French entry, which takes the bookie's bronze place, may get a well meaning boost from voters still feeling empathy after what's been a very a tough year for Parisians. Sadly it's still rather a long shot for the UK this year.
Eurovision revels in a celebration of cultural quirks and diversity, and like any entertainment show should never be taken too seriously. That said, when Justin Timberlake takes to the stage on Saturday could the penny finally drop - because however hard it might be to say what Eurovision is it's definitely no longer a joke, and it's a lot bigger than viewers and marketers alike tend to believe.
Jerry Daykin is The Drum's semi-official Eurovision correspondent. For 51 weeks of the year he is a global digital partner at Carat.