Yes, it's Eurovision Song Contest time! Starts early again this year with a semi-final on Thursday.
The European Broadcasting Union covers just about all the states and statelets in Europe, including such well-known European nations as Israel, Syria, Tunisia and Algeria although not all EBU members enter the Song Contest. Lebanon entered the contest for the first time this year, but has withdrawn at the last minute as "legislation made it nearly impossible to broadcast the Israeli performance" and everyone taking part has to transmit the whole show. Most of the EBU's work consists of exchanges of news footage so that national broadcasters can cover stories in other countries, but the most visible activity to the general public is the annual Song Contest.
Each year a selection of the member countries pick a dodgy song by performers you've rarely heard of, and go head to head in the main event. Many of the songs follow a Eurovision format, lots of "Lalala" and "Boom bang a bang" so as to be understandable (or not) to the widest possible audience. The rules change over the years, once upon a time each country had to perform in one of their official languages but nowadays most of them (not the French obviously) use English. The Belgians even went so far as to make up a language one year.
These days more countries want to enter than can be reasonably accomodated in an evenings viewing, for the past few years the lowest scoring countries have "rested" the following year to make space for the previous losers to try again. Luckily this doesn't apply to the British entry as we pay lots of money to the EBU to secure our place, as do Germany, France and a couple of other places. Good job really as we scored nul (zero for the non-Europeans) points in 2003, a feat traditionally ascribed to the Norwegian entry, after a really dire performance on the night. Last year for the first time some 20 odd countries participated in a semi-final to choose a number of countries that would compete in the main event, but all the countries get to vote in the main event. This format is repeated this year with 25 countries competing in the semi final for 10 places in the final.
In the main event on Saturday evening, over the course of three and a bit hours, we have 24 songs performed by various artistes live in Kiev. During a half-time performance, last year consisting of traditional Anatolian dancing (which to most people was indistinguishable from Riverdance, itself originally a Eurovision half-time performance in an Irish hosted contest) all 39 countries will hold a phone vote for their viewers to choose their favourite songs.
The voting is another of the age-old traditions. In this age of instant communication a presenter in each country gets their moment of fame live in video, and tries their best to milk every second of it, although it was a shame last year that the Icelandic broadcaster hadn't got round to booking the audio line to go with the picture so seemed to be sending it by phone the other way round the globe. Each country gives 12 points to their favourite from the phone vote, 10 to second place, 8 to third, and so on down through 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 point.
The EBU official languages are English and French, so after a burst of greetings in the host country language and a response in the voting countries language we get to the points. As it's all done by phone votes now we no longer get "Can we have the votes from the Elbonian jury", but the speech is almost the same each time. The presenter in the voting country always starts ""Here are the votes from Elbonia, United Kingdom one point", host country presenter echos in French "Royaume Uni un point". NB: This of course did not apply in 2003 when the final score was Royaume Uni nul point as mentioned earlier. And except of course for the French vote because they always give their votes in French and the host presenter has to translate to English.
The voting is very political, and often ignores the actual merits of the song. The ex-Yugoslavian states always vote for each other, as do the former Soviet Baltic states. Greece and Cyprus usually give each other 12 points and try not to give anything to Turkey, the UK usually places Ireland quite high, and Ireland generally responds with a point or two (not 2003).
The BBC always sends Mr Terry Wogan, a broadcaster of note in the UK, along to provide a commentary for the main event. He didn't do the semi-final last year though and was sadly missed. Once sufficiently far down the alcohol supply and into the voting his pithy quips can induce much giggling, "Slovenia voting for Croatia? Now there's a surprise", "Cyprus give thier twelve points to Greece? I didn't see that coming". When he finally decides to retire it will have much the same effect as Murray Walker's retirement had on the coverage of Formula One racing in the UK.
And in the end, you're outside a nice quantity of alcohol, you're possibly a bit richer, (I may be tone-hard-of-hearing musically but I've picked the winning entry something like 5 times out of the past 6 years so I put a tenner on Ukraine last year) and you've not only posted a dozen comments in someone's diary but also posted a story yourself.