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UK and Ireland at Eurovision - what happened?

United Kingdom and Ireland used to be the powerhouses of Eurovision. Ireland has the most number of wins ever, with seven, while the UK has won five times and finished runner-up 15 times.

Then, the turn of the century happened. Since 2000, Ireland has not made it out of the semi-finals 8 times and has come outside of the top 15 seven times. The UK are members of the Big 5 so sing in the Grand Final each year, but it has finished outside the top 15 a whopping 17 times.

So, this begs the question; what happened? We're going to have a look at some potential reasons for the decline.

Lift of the language rule in 1999

Modern Eurovision fans will know the Contest to be filled with large majority of English songs. From 1977 until 1998, however, countries were mandated to sing in their national language, so the only countries who could sing in English were the UK, Ireland, and Malta. English has always been a language of choice, given its popularity as a second language (as a case in point, only four of the winning songs since 2000 have featured a non-English language). In 1999, this rule was lifted, so countries were allowed to sing in whichever language they chose. The UK and Ireland no longer had the unique quality of singing in English, and with the proficiency of songwriters around Europe, the English language songs coming out of non-English speaking countries were of a better quality than the UK and Ireland, and had equal voting appeal if measured purely off language.

Terry Wogan and how he presented Eurovision to fans

The late Terry Wogan was the voice of Eurovision, providing commentary for the BBC from 1980 until 2008, and even co-hosted the 1998 Contest in Birmingham. His commentary style involved a lot of blunt humour, often at the expense of the performers. As Wogan came to the end of his commentary stint, he could sometimes be seen to be demeaning of the Eurovision Song Contest, with many believing he over-stepped the line on a few occasions. Wogan’s presentation of the Contest gave UK viewers the attitude of being somewhat separated from the show, seeing it as somewhat of a joke and not taking it seriously. For the generation growing up watching Eurovision in the late 90s and early 2000s, they won’t have seen that many good results from the UK, so the slapstick humour in commentary seemed appropriate. A study even found that many British viewers watch Eurovision simply to make fun of it, rather than for the Contest itself. There is no doubt that Terry Wogan dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to build Eurovision to what it is, but the attitude in commentary rubbed off on the general public, who maybe don’t take the Contest as seriously as some other countries.

More Eastern European countries competing – shift of music style

From 1995 until the mid-2000s, 12 new countries from Eastern Europe entered the Eurovision for the first time, and this signaled a shift in dominant music styles at Eurovision. In the 90s, when Ireland won many times, the ‘Irish ballad’ form was popular, but in the 2000s, due to this rise of Eastern Europe, the whole contest was swept over with ‘Eastern sounding’ songs, illustrated by use of distinct traditional instruments and other elements such as costume and dance were used. Winning songs from 2003-2007 (minus 2006), that of Turkey (‘Every Way That I Can’), Ukraine (‘Wild Dances’), Greece (‘My Number One’), and Serbia (‘Molitva’) all contain a distinct Eastern sound, so entries from the UK and Ireland, who stuck true to their music scene, became somewhat dated, and as such, results seemed to falter. Ireland seemingly gave up and sent a singing turkey, Dustin The Turkey, in 2008, who failed to qualify for the final.

Televoting only in the 2000s – neighbour and diaspora voting

The early 2000s saw an incremental shift from a combination of jury and televoting deciding the winner, to a total televote decison by 2004. This system decided the winners until 2009. Without throwing out heavy accusations, it is natural that neighbouring countries will have similar music tastes, and therefore be more likely to vote for each other. This seemed to be most beneficial to some of the Eastern European nations. Using the former Yugoslavian states as an example, these nations would now start to get votes from 4-5 neighbours with similar linguistic and musical traits. This is by no means the first time we had seen this, with the Nordic countries, and Greece/Cyprus being prominent examples in the past. However, at the time, these changes drew a degree of exasperation from the UK and Ireland and was of often labelled as purely political in its intention.

Big names don’t want to go to Eurovision – shift towards US music market

Coldplay. Adele. Ed Sheeran. The Script. Sam Smith. Lewis Capaldi. Dua Lipa. Harry Styles. Hozier. The list goes on and on (and on); these are all British and Irish artists who are massive names in the global music industry. But this begs the question – why don’t any of them go to Eurovision? The simple answer; they don’t need to. All of these big names simply don’t need Eurovision as a vehicle to advance their careers, and the potential embarrassment of sending one of these acts and they do not place well is far greater than the potential to do well. If the UK or Ireland sent a massive name, anything but a win would almost seem like a failure, so they don’t. These artists have huge careers, especially in the United States, so in terms of financial benefit, it is more worth their time to go on tour than to compete at Eurovision. There is such an arsenal of talent to wish for, but there is a clear divide between established artists and lesser-known ones, so there have been a lot of singing show contestants, which is perfectly fine to do, however, with such big names holding British and Irish citizenship, the sense is that these huge names do not need the Eurovision furthering the separation between Eurovision and the mainstream music market.

What Next?

It is not all doom and gloom for the UK and Ireland. Despite the lack of recent success, the selections of James Newman and Lesley Roy for the 2020 Contest, two decent names, especially in the songwriting community, potentially showed a step in the right direction for two nations with great talent at their disposal.

For the broadcasters, a great challenge for them is to bring Eurovision back into the mainstream and change the attitude of the public; potentially this could be by sending a strong name, or it could be a string of solid results to gain some credibility back. For the Eurovision fans, we love it when the UK and Ireland do well; they always have a presence, and their muscles are a bit depleted at the moment, but hopefully for them and the wider Eurovision fandom they can regain that strength and become a force to be reckoned with.


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