The Problem of Knowing

To me, one of the most appealing things about the ESC is that it’s a puzzle. [I admit the kitsch factor is what got me in the door, but it’s not what has kept me interested. Just as well, because I believe that what goes for kitsch in the contest is evolving.] Like many different cultural products, you don’t really know what will add up to success until the public has their say. But the beauty of Eurovision is that it is a contest, and it has a clear, immediate outcome. In that respect it is unlike a lot of other types of popular culture, where outcomes are often unknown for weeks or months. The international dynamics take a purer form as well in the ESC, since you get to see how countries vote for each other–voting which may or may not be politically tinged. For me, this blog is part of a process to sort out the contest and document our previously successful and unsuccessful reads on the ESC.

This year, we went further down the rabbit hole than ever before, paying close attention to the selection processes in most of the competing countries. That proved helpful, to a point. If you’re looking at the entrants and trying to understand how Lithuania, for example, could have possibly served up such a dud, all you needed to was look at the quality of songs in its national final.  The selection process also may signal how intrusive the delegation is going to be in the staging and how committed the artist is to promoting their song in other countries.

But now we’re in phase 2 of the buildup to the ESC, the waiting game. The songs are selected, the draw has been made, and we will have very little useful new information until rehearsals.  It’s a time where close observers like me go into information withdrawal and go into our heads trying to make sense of what information we have available to us.  It’s also a time of jockeying for position.

For those interested in “knowing,” it is a dangerous time. Close observers are a vocal minority, and they often hold different opinions from the casual observer. Also, important information about the staging and the artists’ live performance has yet to emerge. Slovakia 2010 stands out as the perfect example as an entry with fan enthusiasm that flopped in the Semis.

Further complicating the problem (or making it more interesting, depending on your point of view), this year is shaping up to be one of the most open contests in recent memory.  There is no “Fairytale” this year, and I don’t think it’s even a two horse race, like “Believe” and “Shady Lady.” The songs in the conversation this year are niche (e.g., France, Germany), very contemporary (e.g., Russia, Azerbaijan, Estonia), time-tested but thin (e.g., Norway, Armenia), or familiar and safe (e.g., UK, Bosnia, Hungary, Denmark, Turkey).  Have I covered them all?  I’ve gone around and around, and I some ideas about who I think is Top 5, but I’m darned if I’ve got the winner figured out yet.

When you have a level playing field, one wonders if the “troublesome variables” like the draw, neighbors, and diaspora will crop back into the picture.  The argument goes like this: countries with lots of friends and citizens abroad will have an advantage, and they’re considered “troublesome” because they detract from the authenticity of a “song contest.” In previous years, I’ve had the opinion that the “troublesome variable” argument was true only if song and performances were held equal.  Neighbors and diaspora may have helped to get a country out of the semi-finals, but it didn’t affect the final result of the contest. Yes, Russia does better than it should, but that doesn’t mean it will get an undeserved win. In previous years, the songs were not equal, and the better songs got the better results, end of story. But this year, because the songs are on more equal footing, I wonder if we will see the “troublesome variables” again, particularly in the second Semi-final and possibly in the final. If performance fails to separate songs, we will have probably one of the best tests in recent memory about the influence of the “troublesome variables.”

I don’t bet on the ESC.  At this time it’s purely an academic exercise for me.  If I had the time, I would love to do some statistical modeling like what Nate Silver has done in the United States for politics, election forecasting via regression analysis using a complicated amalgamation of polling data, previous vote history, success factors, etc.  But, sorry, I’m not going to–not this year at least ;).  Instead, in this time of reflection and spin, I thought I’d offer up some places that have done far better thinking and analysis than I am willing to do at this point. I’ll add to this list as I find them.

  • Truthfully the gamblers are some of the best thinkers on the subject.  If you put money on it, wouldn’t you?  Especially if you did well enough at it to just gamble for a living? Oddschecker.com is of course the go-to site for the state of the horse race.  I also looked at Nicerodds.co.uk because they had more information about the national finals. The bookies are right more often than they’re wrong, and even when they are wrong, it is usually only by a couple of positions.  Last year, however, I did observe that the prospects of Western Europe, especially the UK and Ireland, tended to be overinflated. I think that may be because these aggregators draw primarily from betting sites in the UK and Ireland, which have lots of local clientele betting on the home team.
  • Some of the best Eurovision analysis I’ve found so far is at sofabet.com, which also is targeted toward those betting on Eurovision.  Daniel Gould has done a very nice job of describing the impact of the numerous variables in play (e.g., song quality and construction, draw, neighborly voting, previous track record, juries, etc.), as well as some thoughts in how to weigh the different factors.
  • Academics are starting to take an interest in Eurovision too, and strangely, it’s an observation also made recently by the Wall Street Journal.  Academics congregate at the Eurovision Research Network, an interdisciplinary online community that shares think pieces about the contest and is attempting to promote a research program for the contest.   One recent article I found of interest was from John Egan, who calculated the 2010 results without the Borda scores (which weights up the countries’ first and second choices, 12 points, 10 points, etc), and determined Lena would have won anyway.
  • Finally, there are the fans.  Allkindsofeverything.ie did a thoughtful analysis of the 2011 Semifinal draw based on draw position and previous qualification record.  This neglects key variables such as, you know, song and performance, but it’s interesting reading.  They’ve also done some in-depth analysis of the bookmakers standings and the draw.  ESCInsight tends to be more about Eurovision politics and history, but they got into an interesting sabermetrics discussion in 2011.  The Best Eurovision Blog, like us, tends to focus on his impressions of the songs, but he’s also been known to do some thought pieces.

At the end of the day, it is tough to “know.”  You try to use your head over your heart, but it’s a paradox because you’re using your head to get a read on the immediate, emotional reaction most people will have.  But that’s what makes it a puzzle, and what keeps us coming back for more.