Should ‘Big 5’ status be based solely on financial contribution?
When sets of ‘nil points’ came in over and over again for the United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain during the televoting portion of the Grand Final, it came as little to no surprise to fans of the contest.
These nations have been doing poorly at Eurovision for years: Spain has failed to place higher than tenth since the introduction of the semi-final system in 2004; the United Kingdom has only managed to break into the top ten twice in the more than two decades since the implementation of the ‘Big 5’; and Germany has only made it out of the bottom three once since Australia started participating.
These three countries have one big thing in common: they’re all ‘Big 5’ countries – the five competing nations who make the largest financial contributions to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
Why does the big 5 exist?
Following Germany’s failure to qualify from the audio-only pre-qualification round trialed in 1996, the EBU realized they had a big problem on their hands. Without Germany’s place in the contest, an enormous economic burden was placed on the smaller broadcasters of the competition, who were less able to afford it.
In order to resolve this issue and ensure that it didn’t happen in the future, the EBU created what was known at the time as the “Big 4” in 2000. France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom would automatically be guaranteed a place in the final of the contest, regardless of factors such as their placing at the previous year’s competition, and without fear of relegation or failing to qualify from a semi-final round.
In 2011, when Germany was due to host the contest (the first time one of the ‘Big’ nations had won the competition since their implementation), the EBU asked Italy to return to the contest, stipulating them as one of the new ‘Big’ countries, and making it a ‘Big 5’.
But automatic qualification into the final has worked as a curse for some of these countries, which certainly came to a head in 2005, when Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany came 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th respectively (the bottom four in the competition). And this year, three of the big five finished in the bottom three places.
Of course, not all of the ‘Big 5’ countries are doing badly at the competition. Italy’s return to the contest came with eight top ten placing results in ten contests, including a win, and four medalists. And France has made a comeback in recent years following the appointment of a new Head of Delegation with a fresh outlook on the competition.
But when so many members of the ‘Big 5’ are failing to make it out of the twenties or even on to the left-hand side of the scoreboard, is it right for these nations to be given an automatic qualification to the Grand Final?
The benefits of the 'Big 5'
First, let’s have a look at what the ‘Big 5’ bring to the contest.
The big one that can’t be denied is the funding. The ‘Big 5’ are larger broadcasters with bigger budgets and world-renowned technique, and with their larger budgets they bring with them the ability to subsidize the participation fee for smaller broadcasters.
If the 38 participating broadcasters (the hosts don’t provide a participation fee) provided equal funding for the competition, they would be paying a total of more than €163,000 each.
The issue with this is that the same bill would have uneven effects on a broadcaster like the BBC (with an annual budget of almost £5 billion) when compared to a much smaller broadcaster like RTÉ (with an annual budget of around €300 million).
(RTE figure is based on their 2012 annual report, and BBC figure is based on the 2019/20 annual report.)
But it isn’t just finances that the ‘Big 5’ bring with them to the contest. It’s also the simply massive viewing figures they bring as well that allow the EBU the claim to fame of the world’s most-watched non-sporting event.
France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom are five of the most populous countries in Europe, and in 2021, these five countries alone brought in almost 30 million viewers to the grand final alone.
However, these five countries are also five of the largest music markets in the world, with Germany and the United Kingdom coming third and fourth behind the United States and Japan.
This gives domestic artists from smaller countries the opportunity to be exposed to some of the largest markets and populous in the world, a once in a lifetime opportunity that many will never get to experience again. Artists like ABBA, Johnny Logan, and Conchita Wurst would never have had the opportunity to become globally recognizable names.
But, for such large music markets, they should be able to provide the contest with quality and diverse entries that inspire. But with two decades of poor results behind them, it appears to be coming clear that some of these public broadcasters are unable to inspire their music sectors to perform at the contest.
When nations are guaranteed a place in the final, the contest loses some of its ability to proof all of the entries, leading to some less-than-top-quality entries being performed during the final. And these nations are unable to build up a following from casual viewers throughout the semi-final stage of the competition.
So what is a potential option for the ‘Big 5’?
If the 'Big 5' competed in the semi-finals?
If the ‘Big 5’ nations competed in the semi-finals, and only the host nation was guaranteed automatic qualification for the final, then the semi-finals could have an expanded qualification admission from ten slots to twelve, with a twenty-five performance final show.
Another option could be to replace the financial contributors of the ‘Big 5’ with a evolving committee of ‘Big 5’ members based on an average prior performances from the last five years, or even using the last five host countries.
If the ‘Big 5’ were required to qualify from the semi-finals, there’s a higher chance of them sending quality entries for better results, and taking the competition more seriously, for fear of failure to make the final.
But it also brings with it a great risk of the nations pulling out of the competition, and financially burdening smaller broadcasters who cannot afford to carry the cost. Each 'Big 5' broadcaster to pull out of the competition could potentially take with them a litany of smaller broadcaster unable to continue due to the increased participation fee caused by their withdrawal.
There are a great many opinions on the position and status of the ‘Big 5’ countries, and a great many people who stand on both sides of the argument of whether they should be given an automatic qualification or not.
The current system as organized by the EBU releases the financial burden on smaller, underfunded broadcasters at the cost of a few positions in the Grand Final, and is a system that both works as designed and has its flaws. No matter your opinion on the situation, it cannot be ignored that without the ‘Big 5’, the Eurovision Song Contest would not exist in the form it does today.