In a few short months the so-called national final season will begin, when the majority of the participating countries of the Eurovision Song Contest select their respective entries for the competition. Some countries opt for an internal selection whilst others hold live finals to choose the artist and song that will take to the stage in May. In 2002 the format of the Swedish national selection, Melodifestivalen, was overhauled and has since become the biggest television show of the year in Sweden. The show has also revived Sweden’s fortunes at the Eurovision Song Contest itself. We met the man behind Melodifestivalen, Christer Björkman.
Melodifestivalen is the biggest national selection format for the Eurovision Song Contest and has been held nearly every year since 1959. The 2002 revamp saw the format grow from one live competition to six! Under the current system four semi-finals are broadcast on consecutive nights, followed by a second chance contest, leading to the grand finale. 28 entries usually compete for the title and the chance to represent Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Amongst many Eurovision fans Melodifestivalen is seen as the holy grail of Eurovision national finals, the one that they wish all broadcasters would replicate. However, it wasn’t always plain sailing as Christer explains. “Our story was the same as a lot of the other European countries in the late 1990s and we were struggling. We had come to the point where we only had one sort of genre in the competition and it only lived in that show. Radio didn’t bother to play it, people didn’t bother to buy it, if you were lucky the winner became a hit but that was not always the case. Also the contemporary artists wouldn’t touch the competition with a ten-foot pole”.
Sweden’s broadcaster, SVT, decided to take action and had the choice to downsize what was already a large television production or to develop the format further. SVT opted for the latter which is when Christer became involved. Christer is no stranger to the world of Eurovision having represented Sweden in the 1992 Eurovision Song Contest and participated in Melodifestivalen in 1999. He therefore understood the concept from the perspective of both a performer and producer. “They called me and asked me if I would be interested in developing this new concept, and I said, “yes, I’d love to”, explains Christer. “SVT were clever enough to realise that it takes consistency to make it happen. It takes a couple of years to get the audience into the sense of trusting the concept”, he added.
Christer believes that consistency is the key to the success of the television format. “To really succeed with a new format you really need to give it four or five years and that would be a recommendation to other broadcasters. People like consistency, they want to know what’s coming and then it becomes a tradition and you can build whichever target group you really want. We went for everyone which is a huge target!”
From the outset Christer and SVT envisaged Melodifestivalen as a family show; “We wanted to make it a family thing, that was our intention. When we got to that point, when they [viewers] accepted it as such, it became a tradition, it’s almost like Christmas or any other holiday, it’s part of the calendar now”.
Whilst Melodifestivalen became increasingly popular in Sweden through the years, it took some time for that to translate into success at the Eurovision Song Contest and in 2010 Sweden even failed to qualify for the Grand Final. “The first year of new format people were a little sceptical, it was the same with artists and composers. The second year we had basically the same type of artist as the first year, and then slowly but surely it started changing and we started attracting artists that had done it before but refused to come back and then they started coming back. After having a few really good names in, we also started getting artists from other genres in contemporary music”. The investment worked. Since Melodifestivalen was re-launched it has created hit after hit for the participating artists including Loreen's Euphoria which was a huge international success after it won Eurovision.
In the Eurovision Song Contest Sweden has placed in the top five on eight occasions since 2002, winning two out of four contests between 2012 and 2015. Could it be that Melodifestivalen is becoming bigger than Eurovision itself for Swedes? Christer thinks not. “Eurovision is of course somewhere in the background. Since 2011 we have focussed on the fact that we actually go somewhere else with the winner, since we have juries from 11 countries voting in our final. I would say that we are totally clear with our audience, that this is the first step in a two-step process”.
That said, Melodifestivalen stands as a major platform for Swedish artists regardless of whether they go to Eurovision or not. “Let’s say, hypothetically, should Eurovision disappear. Would we try to keep our show as a platform for introducing new Swedish music? Yes, how we would do that I have no idea but we would definitely try to make it stand on its own. As it is now, Eurovision is the mothership and Melodifestivalen is its biggest satellite” says Christer.
Next week SVT will release the names of the artists that are participating in Melodifestivalen 2017. Which act would you like to see represent Sweden in Kyiv?