Any tribute site for the Eurovision Song Contest would be incomplete without reference to “The Previews”, a momentous event that gave untold joy to contest fans of a certain vintage and is an integral part of the Eurovision story. For the first fifteen years of the contest they didn’t exist, and in 2013 they exist in a very different way. But for two decades or so they were very special indeed.
The 1971 Eurovision was in many ways a re-launch of the contest. After the four way tie in 1969 (and the organizers lack of forethought in pondering that scenario) the Scandinavian countries boycotted the 1970 contest in Amsterdam leaving just a dozen nations to contest the Grand Prix. Dana’s triumph took the contest to Ireland for the first time and new tie-breaking rules encouraged the boycotters to return. The debut of Malta meant that the 1971 contest would see a record seventeen entries. To re-establish and promote the contest, the European Broadcasting Union asked each competing country to provide a video of their chosen song that would be broadcast on the TV station of each participating broadcaster in advance of the contest. Thus a decade before MTV was launched, Eurovision was leading the field in music video!.
The BBC took up the task with gusto and would present two preview shows in the fortnight before the contest, each at the same time. After a Saturday and a Monday evening broadcast the shows settled into a Sunday afternoon slot. This is the very first video to be aired, as the opening song in the 1971 contest from Austria’s Marianne Mendt:
For contest fans, all this was manna from heaven. For the first time the entries were available to hear and rate before the event. Decades before the internet this was a major breakthrough. Most of us had not yet acquired even VHS so we went to some drastic resorts to record the songs. I had a basic portable cassette recorder and the BBC preview Sunday afternoon entailed bribing the family to go for a ride for an hour while I set up my recorder and microphone next to the TV speaker. Any telephone call or doorbell that dared to ring during the show got short shrift to put it mildly!. For the first two years the BBC shows were presented by no less than Sir Cliff Richard, but would then be presented by a succession of light entertainment alumni including Ken Bruce, Michael Aspel, David Vine, Dave Lee Travis, David Hamilton, Gloria Hunniford and the late Ray Moore and David Vine. The videos were either a clip of the national selection final (if one was held), or a specially filmed video. If the latter, this was often used as an unsubtle tourist promotion (hello Malta and Cyprus, whose 1987 entry is a prime example).
The behemoth of the BBC previews however was of course Sir Terry Wogan. Recently anointed Eurovision fans may be surprised to hear that El Tel presented Eurovision content on the BBC for at least three decades with whimsy and (apparent) affection before that later disaffection set in. As time went on, the broadcast of these shows was not compulsory, and broadcasters could also juggle with how they presented the songs. As VHS usage became widespread Eurovision fans happily recorded the previews for posterity. For the first time, contest fans could record the songs and play them over and over again and form opinions before the contest. Fantastic!
In the early Nineties, the BBC seemed to be making more effort in Eurovision by securing Michael Ball and then Sonia to represent the UK, each given grandiose televised finals with public voting. Both attained a respectable second place, so the BBC response in 1994 remains puzzling as they revamped the Eurovision preview shows to just present a couple of minutes of each song, combined with some nonsense content between Wogan and Peter Snow. Banal as it was, worse was to follow as the BBC abandoned the previews completely in 1995.
It would be eight years before their return. In this period the UK won Eurovision with Katrina & The Waves, finished runner-up with Imaani and a UK entry became a worldwide million seller (“Ooh Ah, Just A Little Bit”), yet none of this persuaded the BBC to re-instate the previews. For the first part of this period internet access was still to come and hardcore fans only access to the previews was through fan clubs such as OGAE (L’Organisation Générale Des Amateurs Eurovision) and their contact lists and fan magazines (“Vision” was the UK version). Much frantic copying and trading of VHS tapes would regularly boost postal service coffers during late spring.
Mass internet access changed everything. First came the forums and message boards where a fan in Portugal could know what song had been selected for Finland just seconds after a Finnish fan. Then of course came file sharing, but primarily at first just audio. For a Eurofan an audio file was enough, although it’s authenticity couldn’t always be verified. Most memorably a rogue version of the 2001 Russian entry “Lady Alpine Blue” was much discussed on the web before it was found to be a fake and the real song was unveiled.
By the new millennium the BBC had a digital channel BBC Choice/BBC3 and in 2002 and 2003 they broadcast abridged preview videos, the shows being presented by breakfast telly doyenne Lorraine Kelly. 2004 of course saw the advent of the semis and forty or so entries rather than twenty-five. BBC3 featured a preview show of sorts the night before the contest final that was mostly chat, interspersed with very brief clips of the songs that would feature in the final.
A year later the BBC abandoned the project but it didn’t matter so much as help was just around the corner, thanks to the evolution of the web. The previews aren’t just about audio and the next breakthrough was video sharing and our old friend Youtube that was launched in 2005. Suddenly each unveiled entry was available to watch on-demand, either officially from the European Broadcasting Union, or unofficially from private uploads. The full preview experience at the click of a mouse.
In 2013 Eurovision Previews still exist, forty-two years after Marianne Mendt. The EBU release official videos of each entry, usually a month or so before the contest. These are still utilized for TV shows in a few countries, however in 2013 the preview process is primarily personal and online. Websites, forums, blogs, Facebook and Twitter are all there for instant feedback and we all grab our mp3s as soon as we can and share opinions. To end, here’s a clip from part of a 2003 preview show on BBC3: