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The idea of the Big Five (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK) is controversial. Since 2000, these countries have automatically qualified for the finals because they are the EBU’s biggest contributors. I don’t know exactly what portion of the budget comes from these countries, or if there is a certain threshold a country has to meet so that there could potentially be a Big Six or more; however, it’s easy to see why this is controversial.
On the one hand, we need to think about economics. Without these contributions the EBU may not be able to fully fund Eurovision and if the Big Five were repeatedly knocked out during the semifinals their funding levels might fall. On the other hand, it’s unfair that they get an automatic final spot. In fact, Turkey allegedly dropped out of the contest because of this rule. But, alas, that’s the way that it is; they have the money so they make the rules!
We can discuss whether or not it is right that the Big Five automatically qualify, and I would love to hear your input, but for now I want to focus on whether it is advantageous to skip the semifinals. Personally, I don’t know if it’s helpful in terms of doing well in the contest. Germany is the only Big Five country to win since the rule change and they have placed relatively well in the past few years. Italy has also done very well since rejoining the contest in 2011, but apart from that it’s safe to say that the Big Five usually don’t place well. The UK typically places lower than they think they should – whether or not that is fair I’ll leave up to you. France and Spain are also often on the lower end of the results.
Since 2004, when the semifinals were first introduced, the Big Five collectively have had 28 bottom ten place finishes. By contrast, they have collectively had eleven top ten finishes. France has had one, Germany four, Italy three, Spain two, and the UK has one. Italy rejoined the competition in 2011 and has placed in the top ten each time (accounting for almost one-third of the Big Five’s top ten finishes). This stands in contrast to the other Big Five countries, who each have more bottom than top ten finishes.
I can’t say whether or not the automatic qualification is the reason for the Big Fives’ poor performances, but I believe there’s bias against them because of it. The semifinals are a quality check for the finals. The Big Five get to skip this “quality check” and in that way do not necessarily live up to the quality of the other performances. I say do not necessarily, because there is no way of knowing; they could be better or they could be worse; we don’t know ahead of time because they were not ranked in the semifinals.
Skipping the semifinals, in addition to not weeding out lower quality entries, also has a disadvantage in that viewers are less familiar with the songs. True, we can all know the entries in advance, but most viewers are not like many of the readers of this website. Many viewers just watch the contests and nothing more. Take, for example, last year’s contest; Only Teardrops was in the first semi final. A viewer had four days of Only Teardrops being stuck in his/her head before the Big Five songs took the stage. That kind of familiarity bias is hard to overcome. True, Germany was able to do that in 2010, although if I remember correctly, Satellite received a lot of hype before taking the stage.
Statistically, the Big Five do poorly. In my master’s thesis, I found that there was not a single positive voting bias for the Big Five group under the televote; but 17 countries were unlikely to vote for them – including France, Germany, and the UK, meaning that even the Big Five members don’t like to vote for one another. Moreover, not a single country’s televoters were statistically likely to vote for either France or the UK, and while three were likely to vote for Spain, nineteen countries were unlikely to vote for Spain. Not a single Eastern European country’s televoters were statistically likely to vote for any of the individual Big Five countries and only four Western European countries were.
Clearly, there is a negative bias against the Big Five. I think the reintroduction of the juries helped mitigate that; however, there is still the problem that the Big Five do not go through the initial quality test in the semis. I understand why the Big Five want automatic qualifications and based on the voting records they may not make it to the finals without the guaranteed spot. But in terms of how they do in the finals, I don’t think it helps to skip the semis.
I don’t know whether the strong negative bias is because the Big Five’s songs are low quality or because viewers are upset about their automatic qualification. Viewers may be angry about structural bias because these big, geopolitically powerful countries are using their influence to receive an automatic bid. Or it may be that the Big Five often have weak songs in the finals, which is why they do not receive many votes. It likely is a combination of both, especially given that some Big Five songs have done well.
If the Big Five simply want to secure a spot in the finals, then of course the automatic qualification is good for them. But if they want to do well in the finals, then this policy is not particularly helpful; all it does is introduce resentment. If their song is high quality, it should advance to the finals and be fine; if it’s a bad song it won’t. If the countries are worried about political bias, then that’s going to affect them no matter what – they are either going to do poorly in the semis (without automatic qualification) or in finals (with it). Personally, I would argue the bias is more strongly negative because of the automatic qualification.
The success of this policy, I think, depends on what the Big Five want. If they just want to be in the finals then it’s great, but if they want to do well, they should get rid of it. I don’t think the automatic qualification changes the outcome for good songs – they’re going to do fine anyway – rather it highlights that weaker, undeserving songs automatically make it to the finals and that creates continuous bias against the Big Five.
(I apologize for the initially incorrect data and thank you to the reader who pointed it out for me!)
What do you think about the Big Five and this policy? Are you less likely to vote for them because of their automatic qualification?