Have You Ever Heard of Eurovision? It’s Amazing

What’s more glamorous than American Idol and involves countries ranging from Portugal to Morocco, Poland to Spain?

Eurovision.

Never heard of it? The annual song competition involves countries belonging to the European Broadcasting Union and attracts a global audience of over 125 million viewers every year.

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On Saturday, contestants will participate in the Grand Finale hosted in Copenhagen. Juries and viewers in the participating 37 countries will then vote for a winner.

The EBU is made up of broadcasters rather than governments, so each year, the participating broadcasters from each country can submit an act through their own selection process.

The broadcasters love Eurovision because they have a built-in domestic audience and a studio of premium-rate phone lines, that are are pretty lucrative when they conduct their selection process through a national public telephone voting contest.

The competing countries aren’t limited to Europe--any country a part of the EBU can compete, which oddly includes many non-European nations. So, along with your Swedes and Danes, the competition also extends to Armenia, Israel and Azerbaijan. Sadly, there are no American participants.

Contestants represent 26 different countries, and range from groups to solo divas. This year, a transgender performer from Austria causing controversy with her beard.

American Idol was launched for a simple reason: to make money.

Eurovision, however, was set up for the very practical purpose of testing the scope of new broadcast technology in the 1950s. The gaudy performances soon caught on, and Eurovision continues to draw reliable ratings for the participating broadcasters.

Because of its popularity, by the 1990s, too many countries wanted to compete in what was already a jam-packed TV marathon.

To some extent, the process of making it to the Eurovision finals has always been shrouded in secrecy. The EBU began broadcasting the semi-finals in 2008. In the two semi-final rounds, contestants compete and are judged by the other countries in their semi-final group. The total number of votes is kept secret, even after the winners and losers are announced.

This voting process applies to every country with two exceptions. The winner from the previous year gets an automatic right to compete and to host the following year’s event in their home country.

And then there’s the matter of the ‘Big Five.’ And this is where the level playing field gets a bit less level.

The Big Five—France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom—always have a spot on Eurovision because they contribute the most toward the event’s production costs. Seems unfair, but the show wouldn’t go on without them.

Other countries are chosen to proceed based on points acquired from votes. But many have said the contest is fixed and have claimed that votes are essentially bought. Countries like Azerbaijan have been accused of paying show executives top dollar for extra points.

That kind of tactic won’t work this year, if those in charge have their way.

The contest’s governing body—known as the ‘Reference Group’—announced back in February that countries found rigging votes will be banned from the contest for three years.

If you want to tune in tomorrow, but you’re not in Sweden, don’t worry. Eurovision is being aired by the national public broadcasters of all of the participating countries, but you can watch the final rounds live on the Internet via Eurovision.tv at 3 p.m. EST.