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The 20-year evolution of the Eurovision Semi-Finals

16 August 2023 at 13:30 CEST
Wild Youth rehearsing We Are One for Ireland at the First Rehearsal of the First Semi-Final at Liverpool Arena Sarah Louise Bennett / EBU
Malmö 2024 marks the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Semi-Finals to the Eurovision Song Contest. We look back over 20 years of Semi-Final splendour!

The Eurovision Song Contest is mercifully more than just the often perceived one night in May. 

It's three! 

Though it used to be two...

And actually, 20 years ago, it was just that one evening of entertainment. 

The arrival of the first ever Semi-Final in 2004 meant that more countries could participate, more songs could be enjoyed, and more artists could find new fans across the world. It meant more of the thing we love most of all! 

Below, we trace the 20-year evolution of the Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Finals through 20 interesting and adjacent facts. And we've interspersed these trivia tidbits with 20 entries that have managed to reach iconic status in their own way, despite never making it out of their Semi-Final - to remind ourselves just why we tune in for those extra two nights in May.

On 29 January 2003, the EBU announced that the Eurovision Song Contest format as we knew it would be changing forever. The big reveal was that from the 2004 Contest onwards, we’d be tuning in to a two-night affair; a shiny new Semi-Final would be held in the days before what would now be known as the Grand Final - the Saturday night shindig we’d been sitting down to for decades.

Under this new system, the Big 4 countries (the 4 largest contributors to the Contest financially - France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom) would qualify directly to the Grand Final, along with the Top 10 highest placers from the previous year’s Contest. All remaining participants would have to compete in this new Semi-Final for the 10 remaining spots in the Grand Final.

The new format allowed all interested countries to participate every year, rather than being forced to sit out the Contest as per the older relegation rules, which had been in place since 1994. From the mid-’90s, a low placement on the scoreboard one year resulted in not being able to take part the following year. The FOMO was unbearable.

This new ‘Open Up’ and ‘All Aboard’ approach meant that 36 countries were able to participate in the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest, beating the previous record of 26 set the year before by quite some distance!

The first ever Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final was held on Wednesday 12 May 2004 at 21:00 CET, with 22 countries performing. It kicked-off the 49th edition of the Contest.

In that Semi-Final, Andorra, Albania, Belarus and Serbia & Montenegro were able to experience the joys of participating in the Contest for the very first time, with Monaco opting to return after what had been a 25-year absence. Just Albania and Serbia & Montenegro ended up qualifying for the Grand Final, however.

The expansion of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2004 meant that we had a few more firsts on our hands. This was the first year that the scores in the Grand Final were only re-read by the hosts in one language. Before 2004, every point had been repeated in both French and English. But with 36 countries giving their votes, things had to get snappier! 2004 was also the first time in which a non-winning entry scored over 200 points. Prior to Istanbul, only the winning songs in 1994 and 1997 had passed this mark. In 2004, the top three songs all scored over 200 points.

To mark 30 years since the band’s iconic Contest win with Waterloo, a new ABBA video was produced for and shown during the first ever Semi-Final in 2004. It featured puppets of the band voiced by the members themselves, and was titled The Last Video - obviously without the foresight of their Voyage era almost two decades later, as well as whatever it is that Swedish broadcaster SVT has (or hasn’t, as the case may well be!) got planned for the group for Malmö 2024, which will be the 50th anniversary of their win.

Since the introduction of the Semi-Finals in 2004, the qualifying round has seen just 4 instances of the dreaded nul points. Switzerland kicked things off in 2004, with the next nul points in a Semi-Final happening in 2009, for Czechia. We had to wait until Liverpool 2023 to witness another nul points outcome in the Semi-Finals, when both Romania and San Marino received their first ever nul points score. 

In 2007, the Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final was held on 10 May in Helsinki. 28 countries performed in the qualifier show, which was a record at the time and one which remains in place to this day - no Grand Final or Semi-Final since has had such a high number of entries compete in one live show. 

With 42 participants taking part in the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest - a new record in the number of countries competing in one year - it meant that a whopping 18 countries faced the disappointment of being eliminated from that one Semi-Final. Changes were sure to be on their way once more...

On 28 September 2007 it was announced that the EBU had approved the plan of hosting two Semi-Finals and a Grand Final each year, commencing in 2008. Under the new rules, only the Big 4 (which became the Big 5 in 2011, in line with Italy’s return to the Contest) and the host nation would automatically qualify to the Grand Final. All other participants had to take part in one of two Semi-Finals, with 10 songs qualifying from each. 

At the 2008 and 2009 Contests, the Top 9 from the televoting in each Semi-Final qualified for the Grand Final. In a twist, for the 10th qualifier from each Semi-Final, the highest placed country on the scoreboard from the back-up juries, that had not already qualified, was chosen for the final.

In both the 2008 and 2009 Contests, due to this new voting twist, the North Macedonian entries were unlucky enough to each have been eliminated. On both occasions, North Macedonia finished 10th in the televoting - but the back-up juries had favoured Sweden’s Hero (2008) and Finland’s Lose Control (2009), which were given the Grand Final slots over North Macedonia. On the flipside, North Macedonia did benefit from another intricacy of the Semi-Final voting rules, back in 2006. Serbia & Montenegro had to withdraw from the Contest at short notice, just two months before it was held. The EBU still allowed them to vote, however, despite them not participating. And it was Serbia & Montenegro’s permitted scores that saw to it that North Macedonia secured a place in the Grand Final in Athens. 

To date, Dana International is the only Contest winner to return to Eurovision and face the disappointment of not making it out of their Semi-Final. 13 years after her historic win in Birmingham with the song Diva, Dana International competed for Israel again at the Düsseldorf Contest with Ding Dong, finishing in 15th place at the Second Semi-Final, out of 19 songs. 

For the Liverpool 2023 Contest, the juries were removed from the voting for the Semi-Finals, with just a public vote deciding which songs would progress to the Grand Final. This was the first time since 2010 that this had happened. 

The 2023 winner, Tattoo by Loreen for Sweden, didn't actually win the Semi-Final it competed in. This is just the 5th time that a Grand Final winner has not won the Semi-Final it competed in, following Ukraine in 2004 and 2016, Russia in 2008, and Azerbaijan in 2011. 

Only one Eurovision Song Contest winner has scored the same amount of points in the Grand Final as it has in its Semi-Final - with Finland's Hard Rock Hallelujah managing a tally of 292 in both shows. It was a record score until 2009, when Norway's Fairytale beat it in the Grand Final - but not in the Semi-Final, however!

Just three countries have never qualified for a Grand Final since the introduction of the Semi-Finals in 2004: Andorra, Monaco and Slovakia. As Andorra debuted in 2004, it now holds the record for being the only participating country never to have appeared at a Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final. 

To date, Ukraine is the only active participant to have a 100% qualification record, progressing from every Semi-Final it has competed in. Serbia & Montenegro qualified for the Grand Final in both Contests it participated in, in 2004 and 2005, but both Serbia and Montenegro have participated as individual countries since 2007, each missing out on the Grand Final on several occasions since their debuts.