The Origins of Eurovision
The Eurovision Song Contest began as a technical experiment in television broadcasting: the live, simultaneous, transnational broadcast that Europe has now been watching for nearly 70 years was in the late 1950s a marvel.
The first Eurovision Song Contest was held on May 24, 1956, and saw seven nations compete: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg and Italy. Austria and Denmark wanted to take part but missed the deadline, and the United Kingdom sent their apologies as they were busy with their own contest that year.
In the first edition, each country submitted two songs, with Switzerland’s Lys Assia triumphing with her second song Refrain; the French language number fared better than her first ditty, Das alte Karussell.
Over the years the format has evolved into the week-long, boundary pushing, technologically innovative, multi show spectacular we enjoy today… but how did the Eurovision Song Contest first come about?
As television services were introduced in most European countries in the mid 20th century, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) created the Eurovision Network in 1954 for the exchange and production of common television programmes, in order to cost-effectively increase the programming material for national broadcasting organisations.
The proposal for the Eurovision Network had come from Marcel Bezençon, the director general of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. But the idea for the Eurovision Song Contest would come from RAI. The Italian national broadcasting organisation began regular television services in January 1954, although the first experimental television broadcasts in Italy had occurred in Turin in 1934.
The most popular and successful programme that the Eurovision Network would produce would be its namesake: the Eurovision Song Contest. After the Eurovision Network broadcast its first programmes in 1954 in Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and (what was then) West Germany, discussions ensued in the EBU as to how its co-productions could be made more entertaining and spectacular.
Following suggestions put forward at the meeting of its Programme Committee in Monte Carlo, Monaco in 1955, the EBU decided at the session of its General Assembly in Rome later in that year to establish the Eurovision Song Contest. The inspiration for the Contest came from RAI, which had been staging Festival di Sanremo (the Sanremo Italian Song Festival) in the seaside resort town of the same name from 1951. Members of the Programme Committee attended the Sanremo Italian Song Festival in 1955, when it was also broadcast through the Eurovision Network.
However, Sanremo was not the only song contest in Italy at the time: in the mid-1950s, the City of Venice and RAI organised the International Song Festival in Venice. The first edition in 1955 included entries submitted by the radio services of EBU members from Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Monaco and the Netherlands. They each submitted six songs that were original and no longer than 3 and a half minutes, with the entries being voted on by national juries and the winner being awarded the Golden Gondola prize.
The Venice International Song Festival was therefore similar in its structure to the Eurovision Song Contest, except that it was only broadcast on radio. Still, the Venice International Song Festival was the world’s first-ever international song contest based on the participation of national broadcasting organisations, and some of its participants would go on to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Yet, for technical reasons, the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956 was not held in Italy but in Switzerland: its geographical centrality in Europe made it a natural node for the terrestrial transmitters required for this experiment in live, simultaneous, transnational broadcasting. The EBU’s headquarters were also in Switzerland. But the first Eurovision Song Contest still reflected an international fashion for Italian popular culture, as it was staged in the Swiss-Italian city of Lugano and was hosted in Italian.
In those first few Contests it seemed obvious to participating artists that they should enter songs sung in their native tongue, but as the event expanded and grew in popularity, songwriters began to assume that the more universal the lyrics, the more likely the song would resonate with juries. Which could explain the popularity of classic Eurovision winners like Boom Bang A Bang and La La La.
The rule on performing in your country’s native language changed over the years, alongside rules regarding the number of performers on stage, the inclusion of dance moves, and more recently the use of backing track vocals (brought in to reduce the number of delegation members needed to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic).
The Eurovision Song Contest is always evolving to provide the most exciting show for its millions of viewers across the planet.