How the juries and the public have differed in voting at the Eurovision Song Contest Semi-finals
This was originally going to be an editorial for ESCBubble, in which I would have vented my frustration at the recent news Eurovision 2023 will have no jury vote in the Semi-finals. However, when I realised the data analysis opportunity, and also the fact that pretty much everyone else has done a speculative piece, it became this. It's a bit wordy, and I may have put in far too much effort for something so in vain, but I'm incredibly proud of it. I've been sitting on it for the past two weeks, and thought it should be somewhere. Read it or don't, and don't feel obliged to agree with my conclusion. TL,DR: the stats show that getting rid of the juries will change what qualifies at Eurovision.
No, you’re not dreaming, Eurofans. Your arch nemesis of all that is pure and holy about the Contest you love has been defeated. Well, sort of…
Seemingly out of nowhere on Tuesday 22nd November, the Eurovision Twitter account announced one of the biggest shake-ups in Eurovision voting rules since 2009. In short, the semi-finals will no longer feature a jury vote, other than a backup in case the televote fails. In earnest, we’re back to a 100% public vote in terms of who decides who makes the Final in Liverpool, and possibly beyond.
Bedlam fast ensued, gearing this up to be one of the most controversial Eurovision seasons ever, before a note has even been sung in the National Finals. For context: while Saudi Arabia were beating Argentina in one of the biggest upsets in FIFA World Cup history, “#Eurovision” just about snuck into the Trending tab on Twitter, as fans flocked to either celebrate this out-of-the-blue voting reform or utterly deride it and wish it was shredded and chucked in the bin like David Beckham’s reputation as an LGBTQ+ icon.
The reasons behind this decision could be multiple. Is it a money thing? Was it to avoid a repeat of the six naughty juries in 2022? Is it an attempt to ‘modernise’ the Contest and try to keep the brand new, much younger fanbase the show has found in, seemingly, a matter of months? Is it another attempt to give the Big 5 a little boost in the Grand Final, as my good friend Ben Robertson pointed out in this Twitter thread? Or has the EBU really caved to a faction of ultra-fans who don’t want their favourite songs trampled on by unelected musical bureaucrats? It could be all of those reasons, it could be none.
So much of the argument about these changes have come down to speculation and personal preference. While a lot of my conclusion to this piece will be my own opinion, I realised that what we really need to understand just how this might change the course of Eurovision is some cold, hard facts.
Among the tons of tweets of fans creating filters throwing tomatoes at Martin Österdahl’s face, or getting confused about what will happen to the jury show, or how Fiji will give their points, many fans have been doing posts about songs that would have qualified and not qualified if a 100% televote system was used in the semi-finals since 2010, and not a 50/50 system. These were usually only for the purpose of pointing out their own favourites, but, as it turns out, the juries and the public have not seen eye-to-eye on a fair few songs, and to understand the kinds of entries both camps want to put through, and how a 100% public vote would change what goes through to the Final, it was time for me to stop watching “the Foot Ball”, activate my Data Analyst mode, and do all the work so you don’t have to.
In a nutshell
On 139 occasions out of 419, or a third of the time, since the 50/50 jury-public voting system arrived in the Semi-finals in 2010, the Semi-final Top 10 for the jury and the public have contained different songs, some of which eventually qualified, some of which didn’t. I’ve taken all of these songs and put them into four groups, which, in turn, fall under two larger subgroups:
A – Songs that qualified thanks to a Top 10 from the public, but were not Top 10 with the juries
B – Songs that didn’t qualify, but were in the Top 10 with the public
C – Songs that qualified thanks to a Top 10 from the juries, but were not Top 10 with the public
D – Songs that didn’t qualify, but were in the Top 10 with the juries
Each song was assessed on various criteria, such as the country and voting bloc it came from, the language it was sung in, musical elements like genre, bpm and time signature, and also several other factors that correspond to hunches the fanbase have about jury and public voting tendencies, such as the gender of the lead singer and the number of people on stage.
The entire raw data sheet I used can be found here.
Since 2010, 38 songs have qualified thanks to the public alone, while 32 have qualified on only jury votes, meaning Group A contains 38 songs, B contains 32, C contains 32 and D contains 38. You may notice that adds up to 140 entries rather than the 139 mentioned earlier, and this is because of one interesting outlier: Tick-Tock by Albina, which represented Croatia in 2021, and, to this day, is the only song not to have qualified despite featuring in the Top 10 with both the juries and the public, so features in groups B and D.
So, with all the data collected and analysed, here are some of the key insights into voting patterns over the last 12 editions-worth of Semi-Finals from the juries and the public:
1. Both the juries and the public have their favourite regional blocs
First up, we have to mention regional bloc voting, or what the mainstream media calls “political voting”, a phenomenon that the 50/50 era was arguably created to end, the juries returning in 2009 following many countries’ disdain at the 100% televoting system, including the UK, whose commentator Terry Wogan quit in a huff the year prior, saying the show was “no longer about the music”. Although it’s associated with the televote more often, it’s arguable that both the juries and the public can sometimes be held guilty of unduly favouring certain nations, but crucially, these “favoured” voting blocs are quite different in both cases.
While it’s been banded around for years, especially in the British mainstream media, that Eurovision public voting massively favours Eastern, former Soviet nations, this isn’t really relevant to the 2023 Contest. Yes, the Eastern bloc initially wins out with the public (15 out of 70), but if we take out Belarus, Bulgaria and Russia, they only account for seven saves by the public, less than half the original total. Topping the table now are Scandinavia (12), followed by the Balkans and Central Europe (both on 10), and Southern Europe (8 when Turkey is removed). The Central region is hugely buoyed by Poland, who’ve been in the public’s top 10 six times out of 12, qualifying on four of those occasions. Other stand-outs with the public include Finland, Lithuania and Norway (all on 4).
Meanwhile, with the juries, the resounding winner is Southern Europe (19 out of 70), followed by, surprisingly, the Eastern bloc (11 when Belarus is removed) and the Balkans (9). In addition, entries saved in Northern Europe (Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands) more than doubled with the juries, from 3 to 8, and Scandinavia has truly suffered, with only two of their entries in the 50/50 era being favoured by the juries and not the public, both of which coming from Denmark. The Baltics have also faired slightly better with the juries, being saved on 6 occasions compared to 4 by the public.
2. Some countries have never been saved by the juries, and others never by the public
While the majority of countries on the list have been saved by both camps at least once, there are some that you’ll only find on one list. The countries that only the public have saved from a poor jury score are: Cyprus, Finland, Norway and Poland. Meanwhile, the countries that only the juries have saved from a poor public score are: Australia, Israel, Latvia, Malta, Slovenia and Ukraine.
Perhaps the most stand-out edge case here is Malta, who’ve been in the juries’ Top 10 a whopping seven times out of 12, and have missed out on qualification on five of those occasions. They and Israel, who have been Top 10 with just the juries 4 times, massively account for the high position of Southern European nations with the juries. The other nations on 4 saves from the juries are Estonia and Georgia, both of which have only been saved by the public on one occasion.
3. The public prefers non-English songs
When it comes to upholding linguistic diversity after the end of the Language Rule in the 90s, the public is far better than the juries. Since 2010, 28 out of the 70 songs the public placed in its Top 10 against the juries contained verses in native languages, compared to just 16 for the juries. When we only count songs solely in non-English languages, the split is 18-11, with the public saving songs in 15 non-English languages, and the juries only 9.
This has arguably led to one of the more noticeable changes about Eurovision throughout the 50/50 era. Since 2010, there hasn’t been a single year when more than half of the entries contained a language other than English. The highest percentage of non-English language songs came in 2013 and, interestingly, 2022, both with 44%, the latter probably thanks to such recent winners as Amar pelos dois and Zitti e buoni. In 2015, just 18% of songs contained non-English lyrics, many of which were still peppered with English.
4. The public likes faster songs
From a more musical standpoint, taking average bpm (beats per minute) into account, the public, unsurprisingly, prefer up-tempo songs more often than the juries. As the majority of the songs are in 4/4, if we remove all songs in compound time and round the averages to the nearest multiple of 4, the public’s average song speed is 108bpm, about the speed of ABBA’s Take A Chance On Me, while the juries’ average speed is 96bpm, which, I’ll vouch, still isn’t slow, it’s about the speed of Party in the USA by Miley Cyrus.
The standard deviation for both jury and public is also about the same (25/27), which means, broadly-speaking, the range of tempos for their respective songs is similar. 30 of the juries’ 70 non-public Top 10s were under 90bpm, the point where a song might start to be considered “slow”, while only 20 of the public’s were. Incidentally, the jury’s fastest song was Mia Dimšić’s Guilty Pleasure (Croatia 2022), which comes in at 160bpm, while the public’s was Aina mun pitää by Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (Finland 2015), which is a huge 188bpm – that’s over three beats per second!
5. The public likes to have more people on stage
I chose to look at this one because I had a theory that the public responds to visual stimuli over audio stimuli, so seeing more people on stage, perhaps a group of dancers or backing singers, or a band of some description, might influence how they vote, maybe because it makes the performance more “human” to have more “humans”. Turns out I wasn’t wrong: the public, on average, preferred performances with 4-5 people on-stage, while the juries preferred 3-4 (well, actually, the averages were 4.5 and 3.8, but since you can’t have .5 of a person, I decided to round it to whole numbers). Not a huge difference, but I think it’s still worth mentioning.
6. The gender balance is better with the public
The adage goes that the public will only ever vote for up-tempo “party bops” sung by women, and it’s the juries who are saving the men. However, while we know the public likes faster songs, if we look at the gender of lead singers being put through by both camps, the split is actually far more equal with the public (31 female, 28 male). Meanwhile, the juries have massively favoured female artists, with 45 out of 70 of their disagreed Top 10s being songs sung by female soloists, compared to just 22 by men. In addition, the public is far more likely to go for songs with lead vocalists of multiple genders and NB artists, which accounts for 11 occasions, compared to just 3 from the juries. However, when it comes to the “party bops” element…
7. The juries prefer a greater diversity of genres
At first, the result of this was surprising. In terms of sheer numbers of songs being put through not belonging to the “Pop” genre, the public comes out on top again, putting through 20 non-Pop songs compared to 12 by the juries. However, when “Folk” is removed as a primary and secondary genre, the difference is stark. The juries now account for 11 non-Pop/Folk songs, and the public only 5. Of these five songs, 4 have ‘Rock’ as a primary genre, and the other one, the only outlier, is ‘Rap’. That is, of course, Who See’s Igranka from 2013.
Meanwhile, the juries have favoured all sorts of fringe genres: Jazz, Soul, Country, Indie Rock, Trip Hop, Acapella, Rave…the list goes on. Take 2011’s Motown-esque Čaroban for Serbia, 2021’s Massive Attack-inspired slow jam The Wrong Place for Belgium, 2018’s epic dad rock ballad Mall for Albania and 2016’s psychedelic Britpop fever dream Midnight Gold for Georgia. None of these songs would’ve been in the Final if it weren’t for the juries.
8. The juries like more musically-complex songs
In addition to preferring a range of genres, the juries have also voted far more for songs in complex time signatures than the public. Songs in compound time were in the Top 10 ten times with the juries, and only 4 times with the public. It would be interesting to see how other musical tropes have faired in these lists (major/minor keys, modulations, number of chords, changes in speed/time signature, subject matter of lyrics etc.), but, quite frankly, I’ve got a day job and only just have enough time to look through all the above criteria. Try it yourself at home if you fancy it!
9. The public has more influence over the final result even in a 50/50 system
One last point of fact to make before I launch headfirst into opinion: if we look at the final placings of the entries that qualified through only the juries or only the public, on average, the public’s favourites have finished higher than the juries’ favourites. The average finishing position of entries qualified thanks to the public is 15th, compared to 18th for the juries.
What I’ve noticed over the years is that the public tends to be a huge monolith of voters, with far less variation between countries than the juries, and this can lead to huge scores at one end and much lower scores at the other. In the Final, the highest score from the public has been higher than the jury’s highest on all but one occasion, and since 2010, 14 countries have received ‘nul points’ from the public, compared to just 4 from the juries. Even if the system is 50/50 on-paper, the public’s favourite has won the Contest three quarters of the time due to how both parties vote.
So…you’ve seen the fact, now for the opinion! What will scrapping the juries mean for Eurovision Semi-finals?
Well, if these results are anything to go by, it’s a pretty grim outlook for music fans.
“Power to the people!”, Eurovision Twitter’s headline screamed when the changes were announced. But if that’s what this is about, the reform makes no sense. It’s arguable that that was always the case in a 50/50 system where the public actually wins 75% of the time. Not to say the jury is totally redundant, but I’m just saying it’s definitely not “ruined” the Contest for the viewing audience in a way that certain fans will have you think.
It’s not like the televote is a bastion of perfection either. If this was about corruption, countries can still buy SIM cards, call centres etc. We’ve had those controversies, and nobody’s called to scrap the televote.
Regardless of politics and moral issues, it’s not a disadvantage to have two different factions voting in different ways. Eurovision with a 100% jury vote until 1996 was wildly different to a Eurovision with a 100% televote in the Noughties, and the 50/50 system, while still not perfect, seems like the fairest compromise for everyone. Some make it even more complicated: Sanremo has about five different parties voting precisely because one particular result in 2010, decided by a 100% televoting system, caused a small riot, with the orchestra throwing their music to the floor and the live feed being cut.
Forgive me for being cautious about giving the crowd all of the say: I’m from a nation where a dancing dog won the most prestigious talent show (twice), where a research vessel was named “RRS Boaty McBoatFace” and where I’ve lost the right to work and live in 27 countries. All because of a public vote. I suggest watching this old Tom Scott talk if you were in any doubt that the “Wisdom of the Crowd” theory doesn’t always work.
Some will argue that the juries are not made up of the “music experts” they’re sold as, more “people who work in the music industry”, but, regardless of who these people are, the way the juries vote is also crucial. For 2-3 hours, their entire energy and attention is trained on the songs and performances, before they rank each individual entry from top to bottom. Nothing is left untouched. The public, on the other hand, don’t do that. They come in and out of the room, they chat, they have a drink etc. before voting on impulse, based on what they remember, how well-known the artist or the song is, and what visual stimuli cut through the noise of the room they’re watching in. Not everyone who watches Eurovision is an avid Eurofan with a pre-determined Top 26, for better or worse.
At the 2021 French national final, Duncan Laurence said something that has stayed with me for a long time: “There is no ‘Eurovision sound’. Eurovision is for every music genre and every artist.” One of the charming things that gets so many people into Eurovision is that, in one night, you can hear Greek Ska, Serbian Hyperpop, Belgian Trip Hop, Italian Rap, Czech Musical Theatre, Lithuanian Jazz and so much more. In short, different music to what you’d normally listen to. This is what the juries have been looking out for, and this is what we might now be losing as a result.
Without the all-seeing eyes and all-hearing ears, the focus for countries needing to qualify will be far less on writing good, nuanced music that’s performed well, and more on pandering to the lowest common denominator, with fancy visuals and cheesy dance moves, without a moment’s thought for whether or not the artist can string two notes together, especially, it turns out, if you’re from Poland or Scandinavia.
And there are fans who want this. Probably the same fans who have, in the past, abused artists who don’t correspond to their narrow view of what Eurovision “should” be when they qualify. They’ll take this change as something of a “win”, as if fan favourites not qualifying had anything to do with this decision. They’ll be emboldened by this, and that’s why this is a worrying decision. Diversity isn’t just about “slay huntey”, it’s about genuinely different musicians coming together under one roof. Who cares if every song is in its native language if they’re just 37 versions of the same party anthem? The “party atmosphere” of Eurovision has nothing to do with the songs that actually enter. This is Eurovision, not Eurofest. Remember when these fans complained that all the upbeat songs sounded like Fuego in 2019, or like Euphoria in 2013? Well, that might be where we’re actually heading.
Under a 100% televote system, the notion that there is “no Eurovision sound” may be out of the window. Certain genres may be seen as “toxic”, particularly fringe genres that aren’t bold, brash and attention-grabbing in three minutes. At the same time, the Big 5 will get another unfair advantage, as they can pick entries that please both the juries and the public. Artists with huge pan-European fanbases, the likes of Saara Aalto and TIX, might as well go straight to the final. Certain countries who don’t have loyal neighbours or strong diasporas, and who’ve relied on the juries as a result, like Malta, Israel, Georgia and Slovenia might get left behind altogether, and have to resort to underhand tactics to get noticed and have any chance of qualifying. We’ve been here before: in 2008, about 5 or 6 nations entered comedy songs that had no musical prowess whatsoever and simply served to mock what the Contest had become. Ireland’s Dustin the Turkey posed the question: “Oh Europe, where, oh where, did it all go wrong?” Might we see the renaissance of Leto Svet and Weil der Mensch zählt from these frustrated nations?
Possibly not right away. We are in a different place to 2008, given how many more fans the Contest has, and how the “political farce” reputation has mostly been shed and more legitimate artists are having a go, so while we might not get 37 versions of Wolves of the Sea next year in protest, we are entering dangerous territory nonetheless. There’s nothing wrong with making Eurovision more TV viewer-friendly, and getting rid of live instruments and backing vocalists, while annoying to some artists, have allowed for a more streamlined, slicker TV event that more people can enjoy. But not even having a musical basis for judging the songs leaves Eurovision just a few steps away from being nothing more than a Butlins karaoke showcase, and no legitimate artist would want to compete at that.
Everyone refers to 2008 as a low-point in the Contest’s history, and indeed, it forced UK commentator Sir Terrence Wogan’s hand, when he quit in a huff, saying the show was “no longer about the music”. But there was one other big televoting scandal that hit the headlines in the UK that year that I remember even clearer, in the sixth series of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, when BBC News journalist John Sergeant, despite finishing bottom of the scoreboard every week, was voted in over actress Cherie Lunghi, who’d scored highest up to that point, and been tipped to win the series. On being voted out, her partner implored the public, saying: “This is supposed to be a dance contest. Please, please, people at home: vote for the dancing.”
This plea may fall on deaf ears, but channelling it, if the result of the Semi-finals is really now only in our hands, let’s not give undue attention to the John Sergeants of the music world. It’s called the “Eurovision ‘Song’ Contest” for a reason.