At the best of times, the massively popular Eurovision Song Contest, the world’s largest music event, is a logistical challenge to produce, with many moving parts.
But amid a global pandemic, the undertaking is downright bold, with stringent safety measures including distancing, sanitization, COVID-19 PCR tests, and all the jargon that has now become commonplace in the lexicon adding to the enormity of the enterprise.
The team behind the European Broadcasting Union show is equal to the job at hand. Martin Österdahl, a senior TV executive with two decades of experience, including producing the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013 and 2016 and the Nobel Prize ceremony, was appointed executive supervisor for the event in 2020. Due to the rapid spread of the pandemic, it was canceled that year, and the contest’s location, Rotterdam, was rolled over into 2021.
Meanwhile, in summer 2020, Netflix began streaming the film “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” starring Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams and Dan Stevens, which not only sustained interest in the spectacle, but also garnered a whole new international fanbase.
The run-up to the 2021 event had no shortage of drama. In March, the Belarus song entry by Galasy ZMesta put “the non-political nature of the contest in question,” the organizers said, and a new song by the same group was also deemed in breach of the contest rules, resulting in the country not being present this year.
Welcome news came in April, with the Dutch government allowing a physical event with tested, distanced audiences of 3,500. Later in April, hermetically sealed Australia decided to compete from home via taped performances.
In the run-up to the rehearsals, semi-finals and finals, conflict erupted in the Middle East, and the participation of Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest was questioned on social media. (In Tuesday’s semi-final, Israel was among the countries to proceed to the final.)
And at Rotterdam, on the eve of the first semi-final, two members of the Icelandic and Polish delegations tested positive for COVID-19 and were isolated. The rest of their delegations, however, all returned negative PCR tests. Similarly, the Romanian and Maltese delegations, tested as a precautionary measure as they are staying in the same hotel, also returned negative results.
Österdahl spoke with Variety on Tuesday from Rotterdam’s Ahoy Arena just before the first semi-final.
What have been the biggest challenges in putting the Eurovision Song Contest semi-finals and finals together?
As organizers and producers of live television, we know that we always have to work with contingency planning and backup scenarios. That’s part of what we always do, but with a global crisis like the pandemic it’s taken all of that to a new level — it’s been going on for such a long time, it’s so changeable. So, of course that’s been the main difficulty, and in a complex event like ours, it’s very difficult to get all the stakeholders to be aligned. I think that’s been the biggest challenge.
When you say getting all the stakeholders aligned, what do you mean exactly?
It was pretty clear when I started this job that if we were going to come back with a song contest with the pandemic still very much affecting our lives, then we would have to make changes on how we collaborate together. The Eurovision Song Contest is a co-production of 40 different national television broadcasters in Europe. So it’s a lot of stakeholders involved, and on top of that, you have several other stakeholders as well.
But we realized that we would have to do things differently this year. We would have to collaborate differently. We’d have to contribute differently. We would have to take different kinds of risks than we normally do. We would have different and higher costs than we normally do. So all of these things, we had to be aligned on.
Approximately how much more expensive is it to produce the content this year?
It’s really difficult to say. What we did introduce this year, for instance, is a ‘Live on Tape’ backup, which is a home recording of the stage performance that each participating country had to do from home. So, basically, if a country wasn’t going to be able to travel to Rotterdam, or if there was an incident on site in Rotterdam, like an infection for instance, and the artist would have to go into quarantine, then we would have to have a backup performance to use instead of the live onstage performance during the live show.
It’s very difficult to say what the additional costs of all that put together actually is, but it’s 40 different productions that have taken place during January, February and March leading up to the preparations here in Rotterdam. And that’s the only one of the additional items that we’ve had to introduce this year to make this happen.
Of course, what’s happened here in Rotterdam is that all the surface that we have at our disposal in the arena and the press center and the delegation area had to be increased because of social distancing measures. We needed more time because all the construction and the loading took more time. So there’s a lot of additional costs for the house broadcaster.
You mentioned incidents on the ground. Two members of the Icelandic and Polish delegations who tested positive for COVID-19 remain in isolation. If there are more than one or two infections what’s the contingency plan for that? Will the ‘Live on Tape’ backup be used then?
It all depends. We are very many people involved in this production, so it depends on who is infected and who that person has been in close contact with etc. But there’s a whole protocol on how to deal with this. And we do assess each case on an individual basis with the help of the medical expertise of the local health authorities in Rotterdam.
But, if it is an artist or onstage performer, then we have different options of what we can do. The ‘Live on Tape’ backup was our ultimate security to begin with. Now, we’ve had two weeks of rehearsals on stage in this Arena. So that ‘Live on Tape’ backup has been replaced by onstage recorded rehearsals that we have here, so we can also use them. We’re in very good shape when it comes to the TV show, even if we have an unfortunate infection.
The show is returning after two years and the expectations around the world are sky high. As an event producer, does that add an additional layer of stress?
We don’t feel that. I’m talking for myself, but I think also my core team members, we don’t really feel it as a negative stress. On the contrary, it’s a great opportunity for us to be perhaps the first, really international big event that returns. The values of the Eurovision Song Contest are all about humanity and uniting and diversity and exchanging cultural references and getting to know each other better. And I think that that whole message will resonate — hopefully even stronger this year when we have been locked up or locked down and isolated from each other for so long.
There has been a lot of online chatter about the contest, and given what’s going in the Middle East, there are calls for the Israeli entry to be boycotted or for the entire show to be boycotted. As a show producer, how do you deal with such demands?
We’re a non-political event, we make that very clear every year. Even though we are not a political event, the Eurovision sometimes is considered to be the most political show. But it really isn’t. So that’s our approach to it.
What’s been the impact of Netflix’s “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on the show this year?
I’m not sure it’s had a direct impact on the contest this year, if you mean this particular contest in Rotterdam. But I think for the overall interest, it’s had a positive impact. We know that during the summer, after the movie was released on Netflix, we saw a lot of traffic increasing from America on our social channels or digital platforms, which was great, and we think that, to a large extent, comes from the successful Netflix movie.
Eurovision Song Contest spinoff American Song Contest is in the works. What’s your involvement in that?
I work for European Broadcasting Union as the executive supervisor, so I’m overall responsible for the brand and the format and the contest. Our involvement is that we are the owner of the format and the owner of the brand and the contest. We’re very happy to have found great partners in the U.S. who can take this Stateside and introduce it to the American audience. And we’re very happy that it’s NBC who’re going to broadcast it. NBC is also an associate partner of the EBU. So, we’re delighted. It’s super exciting. I can’t wait to see it happening.
The 2021 Eurovision Song Contest will stream on Peacock in the U.S.
The second semi-final will take place on Thursday (May 20) and the grand final on Saturday (May 22).