Reading between the lines of the UK’s Junior Eurovision return

2021 Junior Eurovision Trophy | Image – Andres Putting/EBU

The recent announcement that the United Kingdom will return to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in nearly two decades came as a surprise to most. But with the BBC at the helm of the country’s participation for the first time ever, what is it doing making its debut at the contest six months before it hosts the adult contest for the first time since 1998? 

UK’s Junior Eurovision history

The UK has a short history with Junior Eurovision that began with the contest’s inaugural edition in 2003. The country’s participation that year – and the subsequent two – was organised by commercial broadcaster ITV, rather than the UK’s participating broadcaster for the adult contest the BBC. Things started well in terms of competitive results. Having won a televised national selection in September 2003, Tom Morley became the country’s first Junior Eurovision representative with My Song For The World. He secured third place at the contest in Copenhagen, Denmark but a paltry 5million UK viewers watched him do so on ITV1. This was low by standards of the time. On the same Saturday night in the UK, serial hospital drama Casualty drew 8.7m viewers and even the National Lottery results programme garnered 6.7m. For reference, the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003 was watched by an average of 7.9m viewers on BBC1 six months prior to Junior Eurovision. 

Tom Morley’s Junior Eurovision performance

ITV immediately lost confidence in the format and relegated live coverage of Junior Eurovision to its digital only channel ITV2 for 2004. Cory Spedding’s participation and runner-up result was broadcast on a tape delay on ITV1 later in the evening but the two broadcasts only reached 2.1m viewers. The country’s presumed swansong in 2005 when it was represented by Joni Fuller was watched by even fewer people, 0.8m, across a live showing and tape delay. 

Among the mixed results at the contest, ITV was embroiled in a hosting struggle with the EBU. With the contest’s rules at the time not necessitating the winning country having first refusal on hosting the following year’s edition, the broadcaster signed up to participate in 2003 with the agreement it would stage the 2004 contest in the UK. However, in May 2004 – just six months before the event was due to take place in Manchester – ITV pulled out of its hosting rights citing disagreements with the EBU about the financial requirements. The souring of the relationship between ITV and the EBU probably didn’t help matters but woeful viewing figures saw the United Kingdom withdraw from 2006 onwards. 

Although something of a footnote in the UK’s Junior Eurovision record, Wales participated in the contest twice in 2018 and 2019 with Welsh language broadcaster S4C. Singers Manw and Erin Mai were the country’s two representatives but their efforts saw them secure last and second last place respectively. S4C withdrew ahead of the 2020 contest. 

Wales first Junior Eurovision representative, Manw | Image – EBU

Returning rumours

During a press conference at the 2021 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam, Executive Supervisor Martin Österdahl gave a one-word response to a question that got the juices flowing at clickbaity media outlets across the continent. “Yes” was the Swede’s answer when asked if the EBU was working to get all of the ‘Big Five’ countries participating in Junior Eurovision. 

Österdahl went further seven months later when asked directly at another press conference – this time in Paris during France’s hosting of 2021’s Junior Eurovision Song Contest – about the UK joining, saying it was “possible” that the BBC would be involved in future participation. Little under a month later absolutely unsubstantiated rumours began circulating in the press that the UK would return to Junior Eurovision in 2023. Where those rumours came from is unknown but it’s certain that some websites rubbed their hands together as the ad revenue came in as fast as the clicks did. 

Bucking the trend

We now know the UK is returning to the contest and that the BBC will be the participating broadcaster. But why did it choose 2022 – the year of its biggest success in the adult contest in a quarter of a century – to make its debut as a broadcaster? 

Director of BBC Children’s and Education Patricia Hidalgo didn’t give a reason or justification in her quotes when the news was announced last week so it’s a case of reading between the lines, digging deeper and looking at past trends. 

There is recent precedent that countries that have just won the Eurovision Song Contest return the kids version of the competition later the same year. Portugal returned after a ten year absence in 2017, Israel returned after a year off in 2018 and Italy rejoined in 2021. There is good reason to suggest that all three broadcasters – RTP, IPBC and RAI – committed to returning to Junior Eurovision with the intention of acquainting themselves further with the broadcasting, hosting and backstage rigours of Junior Eurovision ahead of staging the adult contest on home soil. Admittedly, Italy may be an outlier as broadcaster RAI communicated that it pulled out of the 2020 edition owing only to the COVID-19 pandemic, so a return in 2021 was expected. The Netherlands was already fully active in Junior Eurovision after their adult contest victory in 2019. 

Although the United Kingdom didn’t win the contest this year, we know that the country will host Eurovision in 2023 after Ukraine was stripped of the right earlier this summer. Host broadcaster BBC hasn’t organised the hosting of Eurovision in 25 years so getting some hands-on experience from Armenian organising broadcaster ARMTV in December is a no-brainer and would buck the recent trend set by RTP, IPBC and RAI. 

A strategic decision

At the end of March the BBC unveiled its strategic priorities for the year ahead. The five priorities are as corporate as you might imagine and allow the corporation to tick some boxes and deliver maximum value to all audiences. 

“Delivering reform of the BBC, getting closer to audiences across the UK, and managing the impact of the first year of the new licence fee settlement,” is the most interesting of the five priorities. The part about getting closer to audiences is key because there are certain sections of the UK population that interact with the corporation less than others. As well as those from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and those from lower income groups, the BBC struggles to reach and get younger audiences under the age of 35 to interact with its services. 

CBBC presenters Rhys Stephenson and Hacket T. Dog | Image: BBC

When the 2022 Junior Eurovision Song Contest takes place on December 11 in Yerevan, Armenia it will be the BBC’s free-to-air channel CBBC that will broadcast it, along with a simulcast on the corporation’s flagship channel BBC One and video on demand service BBC iPlayer. CBBC is the BBC’s dedicated channel for those in the 6-12 year old age bracket. Earlier this year it was announced that CBBC would become an online-only channel in the middle of the decade which was seen as a negative decision by many media commentators. Truth be told, CBBC has a bleeding viewership with those in the channel’s target group reaching to the likes of Disney+ and Netflix for their entertainment. With the move online and the drop in viewing figures in mind, it’s both surprising and unsurprising to see a commitment to original programming on the channel. It is worth adding that just broadcasting Junior Eurovision is a commitment to free-to-air services ahead of a winter that is set to be financially desperate for millions of families in the UK. Owing to the cost of living crisis in the country, many families may be forced to leave behind expensive entertainment output and switch to FTA television. 

Another way of looking at Junior Eurovision participation is through a long lens into the future. Children are the next generation of licence fee payers so this could be a step towards enticing younger audiences back to the broadcasting output of the BBC with the aim of maintaining their loyalty to, and respect of, the corporation. 

It also could be a confidence-first approach by the BBC. In a year it remarkably transformed its fortunes at the adult contest in Turin with the help of now superstar Sam Ryder, does the corporation see the wind in its sails navigating it towards further success in the kids version?

Despite Ryder almost single handedly changing perceptions of Eurovision in the UK, there remains an ill informed section of the population that likes to argue in the comments section of MailOnline about the usefulness of the licence fee being spent on participation in the contest. The BBC clearly doesn’t see using further licence fee money on Junior Eurovision as a risk to give those people any further fuel to use against the corporation. There is both financial value and broadcasting value to the BBC in Junior Eurovision participation. 

There are a number of reasons why the BBC might have elected to debut in Junior Eurovision this year: to learn further about being a conscientious contest host, aligning with its strategic priorities in its milestone centenary year, self-confidence on the back of the adult contest and many more aside. Whatever the reasons were that drove the decision for the BBC to take, it is certain that participation in the world’s biggest children’s live music competition provides value to an audience that the corporation is targeting and it is possible that it provides value to those that it isn’t. Competing in and broadcasting Junior Eurovision is too a vote of confidence in the future of the Eurovision family of events during a period of explosive growth of the EBU’s flagship brands.

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