Eurovision 2020 in review: business as usual?16 December 2020 at 17:00 CET
It was all looking positive for Eurovision 2020. Duncan Laurence had just won Eurovision hearts around the world with his song Arcade for the Netherlands back in May 2019. The event was a huge success and 182 million viewers tuned in to watch it. The Contest delivered its largest audience for Dutch public broadcaster NPO/AVROTROS since 2014; RAI in Italy delivered its second-best audience since re-joining the Contest in 2011 and Germany’s ARD saw the highest average viewing figures of any market for the 9th consecutive year with an audience of 7.6 million.
In the beginning it was all business as usual. The 2019 competition was well and truly over and countries around Europe and beyond were gearing up for another exciting 2020 edition. The start of Albania's national selection called Festival i Këngës was on 19 December and signaled to many of us that the new Eurovision season had arrived. However, little did we know there was something dangerous lurking in the background.
Signs but no symptoms
On 31 December, the government in Wuhan, China confirmed that health authorities were treating a few cases of pneumonia of unknown cause. At this stage, there were only signs of a potentially serious threat but Europe was yet to, at least knowingly at the time, experience its wrath.
In the meantime, several other Eurovision participating broadcasters continued their race to the competition. For example, Norway's 58th national selection, Melodi Grand Prix 2020, and Lithuana's first heat of Pabandom iš naujo! 2020 commenced on 11 January and both would take over a month to decide their country's Eurovision representative.
Cause for concern
Suddenly, the situation was making headlines all over the world. News eventually broke of a potentially fatal virus circulating a few thousand kilometres away from Europe. Not long afterwards, we learnt that the city of Wuhan was cut off from the rest of the world in late January and by 11 February the World Health Organisation (W.H.O) had proposed the name of Covid-19 for the disease the virus caused. The infection was reported as a public health emergency and just one day before the final of Norway's selection on 15 February, Europe reported it's first death from the virus in Paris, France.
At the time, the world was probably in a state of shock and so many events carried on as normal, including some of the Eurovision national selections. Sweden's Melodifestivalen had already begun on 1 February and wouldn't finish until 7 March with its final show in Stockholm's Friends Arena housing around 30,000 people.
Proceed with caution
Executive Producer of Melodifestivalen, Anette Brattström, said "it was only before the last show, the final, on March 7th, that we had to take active decisions in relation to the pandemic. At that time, according to the National Pandemic Group, with representatives of several different authorities, there were no signs of a general spread of infection in the country. All the confirmed cases had a direct connection to persons who had been traveling in a risk area."
The Swedish broadcaster, SVT, continued to follow the recommendations of the Public Health Agency, who did not advise against having an audience at the time. However, they also initiated their own additional measures: "As an extra precaution, we asked everyone who had visited corona virus risk areas in the past two weeks to stay home and not visit the final. This applied to both the general rehearsals on Friday and Saturday and the final on Saturday night," she reported. It was also noted that the Public Health Agency did not see "any increased spread of infection in Stockholm in the days after the final".
Preparing for the unknown
Concurrently, Denmark's Dansk Melodi Grand Prix 2020 was also held on 7 March at the Royal Arena in Copenhagen but without a live audience. Leading editor-in-chief at DR Culture, Gustav Lütshøft, commented: "I guess the story about Covid-19 is the story of preparing for the unknown... We did our very best to gather all the possible information we could and stayed in close contact with authorities while working under a lot of stress as a result of the timing."
While the decision to host the final without a live audience was not made lightly, their standpoint remains the same to this day and they firmly believe that it was "the right choice at the right time." In addition to following the recommendations by authorities in Denmark, they also made sure that only a skeleton crew was present at the venue. Ben & Tan went on to win the Danish national selection and became the first Eurovision artists to perform without an audience.
In the meantime, the situation really started take a turn for the worst. Europe faced its first major outbreak as the number of reported cases in Italy grew and by 11 March the W.H.O. declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. Just two days prior, the annual Heads of Delegation meeting took place with several members calling in from their homes instead as they were already unable to travel. TV producer from NRK, Stig Karlsen captioned his Instagram post below: "I was gathered with colleagues and friends from 41 countries to prepare for Eurovision in Rotterdam. It’s surreal that we are now divided, as nations across the world close their borders." Perhaps this photo captured one of the last multi-national gatherings before social distancing took place.
National governments around the world were beginning to take a different approach as the virus' spread continued to escalate. As a result, further restrictions were being put into place and some countries were going into complete lockdown. After a dinner hosted by the City of Rotterdam, Heads of Delegation from all over Europe received messages from their colleagues and relatives informing them that the situation in their countries was rapidly changing. Eurovision 2020 was now truly under threat and it became abundantly clear that business would no longer operate as usual.
On 18 March, the EBU officially announced the cancellation of the Eurovision Song Contest 2020 "with deep regret." It was the first time the annual event would be cancelled since its first edition in 1956. While the decision was inevitable, Eurovision broadcasters, fans and 2020 participants were left understandably devastated.
Executive Producer of the 2020 event, Sietse Bakker said: "We are all heartbroken ... but feel confident that the whole Eurovision family, across the world, will continue to provide love and support for each other at this difficult time."
And that, they did.
Keep checking back to eurovision.tv for the next installment of Eurovision 2020 in review.