Tuesday, 11 October 2011

How would online voting affect the Eurovision Song Contest?

This week, the Azerbaijani delegation has reportedly put forward a new proposal for changes to the Eurovision Song Contest voting system. Their concept would see viewers being able to vote for their favourite entry online, in addition to the current methods of telephone and SMS. While this is just a suggestion at the moment, and a rumoured one at that, I thought I'd take a look at the possible motivations behind it, as well as the consequences for the contest as a whole.

Why would they even want to do this?
The Eurovision Song Contest has notably been skewing younger in recent years, as can be clearly seen from the following gained by acts like Eric Saade and Jedward, the latter of whom were met by crowds of screaming girls on a visit to Estonia. The contest is no longer seen as a fuddy-duddy 'light entertainment show', but rather as a popular family entertainment show, enjoyed by all ages. Comments on the official site by teens and tweens are growing, as are the number of profiles set up on the site's social networking function (at least, I hope they're by young people – if not, I despair for the continent's grammar).

Encouraging votes online would be a further way of engaging with this valuable demographic who, it seems, live their entire lives online. It would also provide a means of voting for those who do not have access to a landline to televote; this could include these young people, but also those who have simply made the choice not to have a fixed line telephone for whatever reason, a growing group. While many countries allow SMS voting at Eurovision, some, such as the UK, don't, due to perceived difficulties in counting votes – a telephone vote from a mobile will commonly cost well over €1, so online voting would reach out to this previously disenfranchised group.

Isn't that open to abuse?
The most common complaint among fans on the ESC Nation Message Board when this development was rumoured was that it would be open to abuse, with all those bloody East Europeans using it to vote for each other. These conclusions assume of course that internet voting would be free, as it currently commonly is during early stages of various national finals, but there's nothing to say that this would automatically be the case.

One thing that's evident is that the EBU would not be keen on losing potential televoting revenue – to the contrary, any change to Eurovision procedures would necessarily have to be to the financial benefit of the participating TV stations, and that means that there would almost certainly be some payment mechanism involved, if online voting did go ahead. There are working examples of this, as the production company Endemol has struck up a relationship with Facebook that will see voting in the company's Big Brother series all over Europe take place on Facebook; indeed, this is already the case in the UK, Turkey and Germany, the latter of which reportedly had 10% of its total eviction votes come from Facebook. Votes are paid for using Facebook credits at a rate set by the broadcaster, and 70% of monies paid revert back to the broadcaster – a comparable amount to premium rate televoting.

Of course, even if voters are paying, there's nothing stopping them voting multiple times, or even embassies and TV stations mass-buying Facebook credits as has allegedly been the case in the past with phone cards. So there would clearly still be security issues, which the Azerbaijanis are reportedly still working on.

Cost recovery and policing the voting wouldn't be the only concern for the EBU. The next issue to address would be how to ensure that every vote was properly counted in the country of the voter. IP addresses can be easily faked, proxies can be used, and smaller states and border towns would have further problems with this. It could be incredibly difficult to allocate every single vote, with certainty, to the correct country of origin, and could definitely be open to abuse - or just plain error.

But how would it work?
Once all of those issues are taken care of, the Reference Group would then have to decide how to implement the changes. Would the internet voting be added on each country's televotes, prior to combining with the jury votes? Or perhaps they'd instead form a third 'category' in the calculation of each country's vote, with an equal weighting to televotes and jury. Or it could even be the case that online voting would form one large, completely separate vote at the end of the contest.

Whatever's decided, if the EBU do decide to take this any further (and it very much is only a rumour at this stage), there's obviously a lot of work to be done, and a lot of factors to be taken into account. The EBU have a history of piloting potential changes to the voting system at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, so keep an eye out for next year's contest in the Netherlands as the first potential opportunity to try all this out.

And what would be the consequences?
Other than thousands of Armenians around the continent repeatedly clicking vote next to that red, blue and 'apricot' coloured flag, what would this change accomplish? It could well engage more younger voters and viewers in the contest, boosting both voting and advertising revenue. And who would it benefit among the acts? I'd suggest it would be those who appeal more to younger people, like the aforementioned Jedward and Saade, but also any act with a big hype on the internet before the contest would likely see this converted into online votes.

I'm not sure personally that I want to see it happening. I think it's far too open to abuse, and I don't have enough confidence in the EBU to ensure that it's a fair system. I don't think they care enough to make sure that it won't just be fans hammering the voting button for their own country for hours and, if that's going to be the case, I'd rather the voting be left as it is.

A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on ESC Nation. I do a lot of writing there (most of which I don't cross-post), so check out the site to read more from me.

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