Admiring the BBC’s turnaround in Eurovision commitment

As Eurovision creeps ever closer, the BBC has started rolling out dedicated additional programming across its network of television, radio and online services. The additional programming is all-encompassing and shows the BBC disassociating itself from the comparative lack of care it had for the contest just two years ago. Callum Rowe analyses the BBC’s Eurovision coverage turnaround. 

Image – BBC / James Stack

The BBC has a long tradition of success that turned into a long tradition of failure at the contest, yet throughout the broadcaster’s 66-year-long relationship with Eurovision there has been a loyal commitment to participation. Where there hasn’t been loyal commitment, however, is in the wraparound programming associated with the contest. Until now. 

In 2021, Eurovision embarked on the quest to be the biggest entertainment event to return with a live audience post-pandemic. Its return to our screens was momentous and 183 million worldwide viewers witnessed it. Those 183 million people also saw James Newman suffer the indignity of receiving nul points after the British singer-songwriter’s breathy and underwhelming performance of his song Embers

The BBC must have been aware of Newman’s poor live vocal capability before the whole world saw him on stage in Rotterdam. Knowing how bad it was going to be might have influenced bosses at the corporation to not honour Newman’s flying of the British flag with stellar wraparound coverage in the runup to the contest. Then Director of Entertainment at the BBC Kate Phillips said Eurovision was coming back in 2021 “bigger and better”. Eurovision certainly was coming back “bigger and better”, but additional programming was smaller and worse. Other than the live Grand Final on BBC One and the live Semi Finals hiding away on BBC Four, the corporation offered little in the way of additional programming. Describing the offering as a smattering would be generous. Reruns of 2020’s The A-Z of Eurovision, 2015’s Eurovision at 60, and the boringly ever-essential ABBA at the BBC were the only on-screen highlights for viewers hungry for contest coverage after a two-year Eurovision hiatus. That’s right, there was absolutely no original television programming to complement the live shows on BBC One and BBC Four. 

James Newman performing at Eurovision in 2021

There was little else to get excited about on the airwaves. On Radio 2, James Newman popped up on Ken Bruce’s Tracks of My Years feature, Zoe Ball’s Breakfast Show featured “lots of build-up” and 1993 Eurovision runner-up Sonia appeared on Rylan’s Saturday afternoon show. All of this barely prompted a whispered “whoop-de-do”.  

A nod has to be given to original productions on Radio 2: The UK’s All Time Eurovision Top 50 and Richie Anderson’s Eurovision After Party which accompanied listeners on the day of the Grand Final. Other than that, the radio was threadbare. 

The one highlight – airing only on BBC iPlayer – was Radio 1 Newsbeat’s exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary following James Newman’s journey to representing the UK at the contest. 

There isn’t a blame game to be played here. Some were frustrated at the BBC for not offering fans wall-to-wall content during the miserable years in the Eurovision doldrums. That probably wasn’t the right attitude. Why on Earth would the BBC want to commit to extra broadcasting content for an event it was struggling to succeed in? 

What’s changed in 2023?

Yes, the BBC is hosting the event this year, but it’s costing the corporation a skip load of cash to do so. It would have been easy to do away with upscaled additional coverage and excuse it by blaming the tightening of belts. The BBC has done the opposite, unapologetically serving audiences young and old, and Eurovision fans new and existing with an overflowing amount of content. 

Kate Phillips, now BBC Director of Unscripted, has expressed her pride in the BBC offering a “huge array of world class Eurovision content”. And she ought to be proud. Her quote in the official BBC press release two years ago didn’t even mention additional programming. This year it’s the headline piece of her quote. 

Mae Muller is representing the UK at Eurovision this year | Image – Harry Carr / Capitol Records UK / EMI

The Semi Finals have been upgraded to BBC One from their 2021 home on BBC Four, and even from last year’s home on the then newly reinstated BBC Three. Broadcasting the Semi Finals on the corporation’s second channel would have been a glowing upgrade anyway, but BBC Two has been entirely bypassed which shows the BBC’s commitment to Eurovision shining bright. There’s a faith in viewers wanting to be nourished by the warmup to the Grand Final on the main channel. 

On the BBC’s flagship channel, BBC One, three brand-new dedicated programmes have been commissioned: Eurovision: Everyone’s A Winner, Eurovision Calling: Jason and Chelcee’s Ultimate Guide and Eurovision Welcomes The World. These shows will all broadcast during Eurovision week itself, and in primetime slots. News and magazine shows BBC Breakfast and The One Show will both relocate to Liverpool for Eurovision week. Saturday Kitchen, Pointless Celebrities, The Hit List and Bargain Hunt (coloured fleeces included) will all have Eurovision specials. On Radio 1, Dean and Vicky will broadcast their daily weekday afternoon show live from Liverpool during Eurovision week. A selection of programmes on Radio 2, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live during the same week will also broadcast live from Liverpool. A non-exhaustive list of extra content, yes, but it barely scratches the surface of what’s on offer across those services and beyond. 

This isn’t all built solely on Sam Ryder’s success last year which brought the contest to the UK. The BBC was already building its portfolio of Eurovision programming and content in 2022 before Ryder even took to the stage. The announcement that he would be flying the flag for the UK was made on Radio 1, and the station continued to champion him and the contest in the following two months. Scott Mills, then a DJ on the station and predecessor of Dean and Vicky, appointed himself as the unofficial “Head of Marketing” for the UK and talked about the contest almost every day on his daily show. As a result, Eurovision was reaching the crucial 15-29 audience, and they stayed hooked. In all of Eurovision’s global viewing markets last year, 56.7% of the possible viewers aged 15-24 were watching, up 3.9% from 2021. It would be reckless to suggest this rise came exclusively from the UK, but 8.9 million viewers watched the Grand Final on the BBC, up more than 18% from 2021’s figure of 7.4 million. The BBC’s commitment on Radio 1 to younger audiences paid off with the mammoth year-on-year rise in viewing figures. 

The BBC’s intention to target younger viewers isn’t limited to those as young as 15. CBBC – the BBC’s dedicated children’s television channel for youngsters aged 6-12 – will also feature additional Eurovision content. Last year’s UK representative at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, Freya Skye, will be reporting live from Liverpool during Eurovision week for the children’s news programme Newsround. On the eve of the Grand Final there will be a Eurovision-themed Live Lesson available to all primary school pupils via CBBC, BBC iPlayer and the BBC Teach website. The decision to target 6-12 year olds wasn’t made for the sake of it. There is value in bringing Eurovision to the attention of youngsters as they are the next generation of licence fee payers and Eurovision is a magnet to attract them to further BBC output. 

Freya Skye performing at Junior Eurovision last year | Image – Corinne Cumming / EBU

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the BBC wouldn’t have rewarded the loyalty of new, younger Eurovision audiences with additional content if the contest wasn’t hosted in the UK this year. Why wouldn’t the BBC want to cater towards a Eurovision audience that has grown year-on-year for two consecutive years? 

At the coalface securing additional Eurovision output is the BBC’s Lead Commissioner for Eurovision, Rachel Ashdown. In the role since 2018, Ashdown is a Eurovision enthusiast herself and has her finger on the pulse of what fans want to see across the BBC. She’s a shrewd operator and leads her team with fans – old and new – in mind. So long as the UK continues to succeed and Ashdown is in her role, we’re in safe hands. 

The BBC increasing its Eurovision output is a move to match the changing attitude towards the contest in the country, and for that we have to be thankful. It means the long tradition of failure is morphing back into a tradition of success. After all, seeing Carrie Grant and Andy Abraham in red and blue fleeces selling tat at auction they bought at Sandown Park Antiques Fair is worth anyone’s licence fee.

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