Eurovision 2023: Quality over quantity matters

Of the withdrawing countries, Bulgaria was the worst performing country at Eurovision in 2022 with Intelligent Music Project | Image – EBU / Sarah Louse Bennett

It’s an adage that might be spouted in reassurance of someone with few friends and in other circumstances where numbers are lacking, and when it comes to the number of countries competing in Eurovision, quality over quantity matters. 

With the announcement that 37 countries will participate in Eurovision in the UK next year, the contest will feature the lowest number of competing countries since 2014. Bulgaria, Montenegro and North Macedonia have all withdrawn from the contest for various reasons but their absences from Eurovision are more positive for the contest – and its growth – than some may consider. 

If I were put on the spot Popmaster style and asked to do ‘three-in-ten’ for Bulgaria’s, Montenegro’s and North Macedonia’s Eurovision entries, I would struggle. I’d get there eventually but the names of artists and their songs don’t come to mind as instinctively for those that consistently languish in their Semi Final as much as they do for those who reach more successful heights in Eurovision’s Grand Final. 

2023’s absentees

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that a country with a fickle history of participation has withdrawn ahead of the 2023 edition of Eurovision. Montenegro debuted in Eurovision in 2007 before dropping out for 2010 and 2011. It rejoined the contest in 2012 for eight consecutive editions before withdrawing again for the ultimately cancelled 2020 contest, and 2021. Montenegrin broadcaster RTCG spent its usual €130,000 participation fee in 2020 on a new fleet of company cars instead, with a spokesperson at the time citing the “safety of our crews” more important than trying to improve its “modest results” at Eurovision. 

RTCG returned to Eurovision for the 2022 contest in Turin, Italy but its entry Breathe by Vladana didn’t yield anything on the positive side of a modest result. For 2023, RTCG has withdrawn its Eurovision efforts. This time it blames “significant costs of the registration fee” as well as the cost of staying in the UK. Perhaps reassuring for some that it’s not just fans who are aggrieved at the state of the accommodation market in and around Liverpool. And yes, popular American singer Enisa was lined up to represent Montenegro next year, but a blue tick on a Twitter profile doesn’t guarantee success at Eurovision. 

Montenegro’s 2022 Eurovision entry Breathe by Vladana

Bulgaria’s absence can be viewed as similarly unsurprising as Montenegro’s having withdrawn and rejoined previously too. Often prone to hyperbole and making use of its own unique social media management style, broadcaster BNT confirmed it would be withdrawing from the contest earlier in October in a private message to OGAE Greece on Twitter. It confirmed the Black Sea nation would be absent in 2023 and “most probably in the future editions as well”. Why? Because the broadcaster simply isn’t interested in Eurovision. 

North Macedonia’s 2023 non-appearance is more surprising than its withdrawing counterparts. Debuting in the mid-1990s, North Macedonia (under the name FYR Macedonia until 2018) hasn’t missed an edition of the contest since 2003. Its record of success is just as stable. But stability isn’t always attractive. Only two Grand Final appearances in the last 14 contests, and a best ever finish of seventh in 2019 is hardly something to be lauded. Broadcaster MRT took the decision to withdraw due to the registration fee for participation increasing from the circa €40,000 fee for 2022 and the global energy crisis. 

Andrea singing for North Macedonia at Eurovision 2022 | Image – EBU / Andres Putting

It is easy to sympathise with broadcasters RTCG and MRT that have a desire to participate in Eurovision but simply cannot due to financial constraints. Equally, it’s just as easy not to sympathise with broadcaster BNT that announced its departure with ugly levels of indecency. If it is so uninterested in participating in Eurovision, I am just as uninterested in it making a return under its current governance. 

Money’s too tight not to mention

With the growth and expansion Eurovision has gone through over the last 18 months, costs have undoubtedly and evidently grown; North Macedonia’s justification for withdrawal alone proves that. With increasing costs, extra demands are piled onto Europe’s smaller broadcasters that have a much harder time footing the bill than the continent’s largest broadcasters. 

SMRTV, the national broadcaster of San Marino – Eurovision’s smallest active competing country – announced this summer that it will be charging artists that put themselves forward to compete in its elongated national selection Una Voce per San Marino 2023. Sammarinese artists pay €50, international artists pay €100 if they applied before the end of September, while late applications made before January 20, 2023 will cost €150. With more than 400 applications made already, estimates suggest the broadcaster could have raised in the region of €40,000. It’s unlikely a broadcaster would charge artists to apply if it didn’t need the money. So, questions have to be asked about whether SMRTV’s model is sustainable and whether its participation in the long term is at risk. 

The winner of Una Voce per San Marino 2023 will follow in the footsteps of Achille Lauro | Image – EBU / Sarah Louise Bennett

On the other hand, for a comparatively enormous broadcaster like the BBC that is continually tightening its belts, paying in the region of £300,000 – and maybe even more – on its participation is a drop in the ocean for the eight or so hours of primetime television it gets back. 

Less is more

Despite the sympathy many will feel for broadcasters and countries that won’t be participating in Eurovision next year, and perhaps sympathising even more with fans from those nations, a smaller list of competitors allows Eurovision to drill down and give more focus to a smaller pool of songs. 

Eurovision is growing at its fastest rate ever. Måneskin were turned into international megastars almost overnight when they won the 2021 contest. The 2021 contest itself was the world’s first fully international competition in the wake of a global pandemic. 2022 saw Kalush Orchestra win for Ukraine in the face of adversity and war. Also in 2022, the UK’s Sam Ryder bagged his country’s best result at the contest for a quarter of a century, bringing new audiences to the contest and sparking the rekindling of love for the contest that others had lost. 

The performance that brought Eurovision back to the UK

With those snapshots and headlines of impact and growth, Eurovision will want to capitalise on having new viewers, followers and fans. Having less than credible and more than forgettable songs fighting over the bottom places in the Semi Finals wouldn’t be a good advert for Eurovision, especially since the host broadcaster of next year’s contest will be screening the Tuesday and Thursday shows on its flagship channel for the first time. Yes, a very UK-centric point of view, but television viewers who sit on the fence when it comes to Eurovision may be more inclined to make up their mind for good based on what they see and hear next year. Broadcasting Eurovision Semi Finals on BBC One won’t go down well with everyone, but those who are aggrieved at their usual Tuesday and Thursday viewing being disrupted may warm to the disruption more if there aren’t any substandard songs marring their experience. 

There is no guarantee the reduced number of participating countries will prove to yield an increase in the quality of music. However, given the comparative lack of musical quality in recent years of those countries that are giving way ahead of 2023 to the more recognisable powerhouses of the contest, next year’s Eurovision should have more roses and fewer weeds in the garden. 

If countries such as those withdrawing ahead of 2023 that rarely advance to the Grand Final, submit often forgettable songs and ultimately make up the numbers, what do their broadcasters really gain from participation? In the case of Montenegro and North Macedonia, two countries that have tried and failed to send successful songs that represent their respective music scenes, two countries that have tried and failed to send successful songs that are more commercially relevant, what’s the point? Further, if their broadcasters aren’t getting the same value for money out of participation as the likes of broadcasters such as the BBC, really, what is the point of taking part? 

I’m not pushing for similarly unsuccessful broadcasters to quit, but it’s worth welcoming and appreciating the decisions made by BNT, MRT and RTCG – all of which are dedicated public service broadcasters – to better serve their audiences. 

Conchita won for Austria the last time Eurovision had 27 countries competing | Image – EBU

The last time that just 37 countries competed in Eurovision was in 2014 when the contest was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. The calibre of songs that were featured that year was staggering. From Austria’s winner Rise Like a Phoenix and the Netherlands’ era-defining Calm After the Storm to serial song quality troublemakers Spain’s Dancing in the Rain and Iceland’s infectious and energetic No Prejudice, there was barely a bum note that year. 

If that’s anything to go by, 2023 should be top class. I’ll still tune in next year and enjoy Eurovision and so too will 160million people. If nothing else, the absence of Bulgaria, Montenegro and North Macedonia means that my Eurovision Popmaster stats will begin to recover.

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