The Eurovision Song Contest, Europe’s annual completely gonzo singing competition, changed its rules this year to create a more exciting broadcast. (Coincidentally or not, it was also Eurovision’s first year being broadcast on American TV.) The new rules worked. Instead of the usual Eurovision problem, where the winner is apparent about a half-hour before the end of the broadcast, everything came down to the wire. Russia led the popular vote, but by too small a margin to outweigh Ukraine’s or Australia’s popularity with the national juries, leaving Russia in third and allowing Ukraine to take first place with a song that was a barely veiled indictment of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
But if this year’s contest were run under Eurovision’s old rules, the winner among the 26 participants would have been Australia.
In Eurovision, countries rank one another, and points are awarded accordingly. In each country, both residents and a panel of judges rank participants. Previously, the rankings of the public and the experts were pooled and then points were awarded based on the combined ranking. This year, rankings-based points from judges and from voters were awarded separately.1
I reran this year’s numbers to see what the results would have been under the old system.2 Ukraine would still have beaten Russia, but Australia — with its sparkly-but-bland number — would have beaten them both. Eurovision results lend themselves to analysis of geopolitical intrigue, but Ukraine’s song lyrics (“They kill you all and say / We’re not guilty” — referring to Russian soldiers in 1944) made it pretty easy to guess which nations would leave Russia or Ukraine out of their top 10 based on their current relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Poland, which recently barred a Russian motorcycle group from crossing the country as part of a World War II memorial ride, the jury gave Ukraine’s protest song the maximum number of points, and Russia nothing.3 Twenty-one countries’ juries gave Russia no points, and 17 nations’ panels did the same to Ukraine. Australia was shut out of the top 10 by only three countries’ judges. If these low rankings had been combined with residents’ rankings to award points, Russia and Ukraine would have both wound up with more zeroes.
Instead, the new system prevented Australia from beating all of Europe in its second year participating in the competition. The true victor, as it has been for decades, was complicated European bureaucracy.