Iceland at Eurovision – How RÚV shakes-up what it means to be a Eurovision broadcaster
While smaller broadcasters have a tendency to struggle at the Eurovision Song Contest in the last few decades since the expansion of the contest in the early 1990’s, one nation has stood out from the rest – Iceland.
Others such as the Andorran broadcaster, RTVA, the Monegasque broadcaster, TVM, and the Slovakian broadcaster RTVS, cite financial difficulties and concerns as reasons for not returning to the contest, Icelandic broadcaster RÚV features Eurovision as one of the highlights of its calendar year.
And where these smaller broadcasters struggle to succeed and then consider the contest financially unviable, RÚV does something else – it plays around with its selection process, its national final, and the contest itself.
In celebration of ‘Icelandic National Day’ which is held today on June 17, a day which since 1944 commemorates the foundation of the Republic of Iceland, we look why the Icelandic broadcaster does better than its smaller counterparts.
The selection process
The Icelandic national final Söngvakeppnin (previously known as Söngvakeppni sjónvarpsins) has been running since before Iceland first took part in Eurovision, but is not the only way that RÚV has selected its entrant throughout its history.
Internal selections have also been a part of their history, with the broadcaster choosing not to hold their annual singing competition and instead simply submit an appropriately qualified song to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) should they receive one.
The broadcaster’s flexibility and non-attachment to their national final allows them to drop it when they choose to change things up a bit in the hopes of better results, or to even save money should financial difficulties strike the broadcaster.
One of Iceland’s most successful entries, Selma’s ‘All Out of Luck’ in 1999, is an example of a successful internally selected entry by the Icelandic broadcaster.
The national final
Even when Söngvakeppni sjónvarpsins has been held in the past, it hasn’t always been a guarantee of how the entry will be presented to the rest of Europe at Eurovision. RÚV’s willingness to play fast and loose with their Eurovision entries means that they are willing to change things if something looks like it isn’t going to work.
At their first participation in the Eurovision Song Contest in Bergen in 1986, Iceland was represented by a group called ICY. But the group hadn’t actually won Söngvakeppni sjónvarpsins, or even competed.
Söngvakeppni sjónvarpsins had been won by the singer Pálmi Gunnarsson with the song ‘Gleðibankinn’ (‘Bank of Fun’). At Eurovision, Pálmi was joined by singers Helga Möller and Eiríkur Hauksson to form the vocal trio ICY.
In 1994, RÚV completely changed who would be performing at Eurovision. While that year’s edition of Söngvakeppni sjónvarpsins had been won by Sigrún Eva Ármannsdóttir singing ‘Nætur’ (‘Nights’), the broadcaster decided that they weren’t happy with either the song or the singer.
Following Sigrún’s win, RÚV hired arranger and composer Frank McNamara to rearrange the song and choose a new singer for Eurovision. The song was eventually performed by Sigga in Dublin.
Söngvakeppni sjónvarpsins has also used single night shows of between three and fifteen performances, and even shows with multiple semi-finals, showing that RÚV doesn’t necessarily consider there to be only one way of choosing a Eurovision entrant.
Iceland doesn’t always stick to the cheesy, kitsch Eurovision performances we are so used to seeing at the competition, and aren’t afraid to think outside the box.
While many Eurovision fans will immediately think of Hatari’s 2019 performance of ‘Hatrið mun sigra’ (‘Hatred will prevail’) when thinking of Icelandic performances that don’t fit the Eurovision mould, it was actually almost twenty-five years ago that the broadcaster really chose to be different.
Represented by the singer Paul Oscar, RÚV had internally selected ‘Minn hinsti dans’ (‘My Final Dance’) to represent them at the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin in 1997. The risqué and sexually promiscuous performance featured Paul on a white leather sofa surrounded by four backup dancers wearing latex fetish outfits dancing provocatively around him.
The song itself featured contemporary pulsing and a hypnotic techno dance track, and was the first song of its kind to ever be heard at the competition. While the number wasn’t necessarily a hit with the juries, the few countries who were using the then-experimental televoting method ranked the entry high, meaning that the entry might have done much better the next year where televoting was the main voting method.
In 2006, the Icelandic public voted for the song ‘Congratulations’ from Söngvakeppni sjónvarpsins to represent them at the contest. The song was performed by a fictional character from a television show, Silvía Nótt, who was supposed to bring out all of the worst characteristic about human behaviour in modern society.
The narcissistic character did not do well at the contest in Athens, with the performance about how she would win the contest and how the audience were privileged to be in her presence being openly booed by the audience.
RÚV’s dedication to the Eurovision Song Contest, willingness to change up their selection method, and their openness to thinking outside of the box with performances has led to them becoming the second most successful country at the contest to not have won it (behind only Malta).
In an era of Eurovision where smaller competitors such as Andorran broadcaster RTVA failed to make it out of the semi-final stage on any of its six occasions at the contest, and Monegasque broadcaster TVM also failed to make it out of the semi-finals during its short-lived return to the contest in the mid-2000’s, Icelandic broadcaster RÚV has stood out and been willing to think differently about how being represented at the pan-European singing competition works.