For 15 weeks in a row, the hashtag #EurovisionAgain trended across several countries around the world. Eurovision fan and journalist Rob Holley and a group of friends started to re-watch a Eurovision Song Contest from the past each Saturday, beginning with a couple of thousand co-views, to over 127.000 views at its peak. From multiple files in the Eurovision archive to a show on YouTube: how did Eurovision Again come to life?
The fan initiative started on 21 March, when Rob, a few of his friends and some Eurovision fans stuck in lockdown got together and watched the Eurovision Song Contest of 2013. Rob Holley tweeted along during the entire show from the twitter handle @EurovisionAgain. "My expectation was that maybe 10 or 20 friends would join in with #EurovisionAgain. I'd have been blown away by 100, but in the end, it attracted around 6000 tweets. Since that week the hashtag #EurovisionAgain has been one of the top trending Twitter topics in the United Kingdom with tens of thousands of people joining in weekly and we've managed to raise £20,000 for LGBTQ+ charities!"
After 2 weeks, the EBU got in touch. The Eurovision Song Contest organizers saw the hashtag #EurovisionAgain trend in several countries and saw an opportunity to help the fan community by supplying Eurovision Song Contest shows and broadcasting them live on the official YouTube Channel. Stijn Smulders, the YouTube Channel Manager for the Eurovision Song Contest, said: "We were all very enthusiastic of the idea to join in, and serve Eurovision content at a time when people were at home and looking for entertainment. That is how the ball started rolling and we started to prepare the contests for online broadcast."
From film to YouTube
Preparing for Eurovision Again each week was not as easy as it might look. The Eurovision Song Contest archive has been carefully put together over the past few years. With help from many member broadcasters, the EBU has managed to save every show available, apart from the Contests of 1956 and 1964, which sadly got lost over time.
Eurovision fan Andreas Schacht from Germany assisted the EBU to find and collect the best versions of each of the shows. "The perfect copy of a Eurovision Song Contest is in pristine picture quality without any dropouts, national commentary or local graphics like logos and voting information. These versions are really hard to find, especially for shows from before the mid-’90s. You might find a copy with perfect picture quality, but that might have national commentary or occasionally the video or audio turns off. In that case, you have to combine multiple versions to get the best possible result."
Over the course of these weeks, the Eurovision team was working from home, like most other people around the world. One of the multiple backups of the Eurovision archive was moved to a kitchen table in the Netherlands, where the optimizing process began. The team spent many hours getting the shows to broadcast quality. Stijn explains: "Some of the shows needed very specific attention. For example, there were some technical problems with the audio in the stereo broadcast of the contest of 1988, which created a buzzing sound during multiple performances. With the help of the available audio tracks and some restoration, we were able to take away most of the buzzing sound that can be heard during the songs. In general, the quality of the archive is fantastic, and it was very special to broadcast the Eurovision Song Contest of 1974 on YouTube."
How does a TV show from 46 years ago get to your screens online? First of all, it takes very cautious and thorough archiving work from member broadcasters and archiving companies from all over Europe. Merel van den Meerendonk works at the Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid (Dutch Institute for Image and Sound), which is the biggest media archive existing in the Netherlands.
Merel explains: "All kinds of audio and videotapes and films are stored in our archive in conditions that are optimal for each kind of tape and film. We still have, for example, a collection of nitrate films which we keep in a separate and safe location. Each audio and videotape and celluloid film has its own preservation needs in terms of temperature, humidity, brightness etcetera for which we have separate vaults."
Nowadays, a lot of television and radio archives are digital. In most countries, the entire public broadcast operation works digitally and after the broadcast, the files are immediately digitally archived. But how do you digitalize over 60 years of broadcasting history?
Merel says: "Over 10 years ago we digitized a lot of obsolete videotapes (such as Umatic, Betacam and Type B videotapes) as well as Digital Betacam tapes. After that project had finished, not all tapes had been digitized, but at least a selection of most important programmes was digitally available. Tapes that still need digitizing are done on request."
The Eurovision Song Contest history alone already makes up hundreds of hours of content. Every hour of digitizing takes quite some time. "Depending on the type of tape, our digitization team member plays back the tape and records it simultaneously to create a digital file, which is then, after (colour) correction, ingested into our database," says Merel. Some, more problematic tapes can sometimes take more than a day to digitize.
Merel and her colleagues were not alone in creating the Eurovision archive. From Finland to Switzerland, and the United Kingdom to Russia, broadcasters from all over Europe provided archive material which was not only used for Eurovision Again but also in preview shows from EBU Members and the Eurovision Song Contest itself. Do you remember the history clips from 2019?
Finding the gems
Will the archive ever be complete? Andreas doesn’t think so: "The first Eurovision Song Contest that was produced in HD was in 2007 by Finnish broadcaster YLE, but I remembered that HD was tested for the Eurovision Song Contest 2006 in Athens. We contacted Greek broadcaster ERT and they found two HD tapes labelled as ESC 2006 Final. Unfortunately, they were not able to check what was on the tapes, so they shipped the tapes to the Netherlands, where they were digitized and, indeed, most of the performances of the Eurovision Song Contest 2006 were recorded in HD quality. It was a really rare find and it is content like this which keeps us eager to keep searching."
Will there be Eurovision again?
In total, the EBU broadcast 13 Eurovision shows from early April until the end of June. Most of the hard work on the show nights, however, came from Rob and his friends. "My friends James, Dr Ellie, Mark and Catherine create the intro videos, voting systems scorecards and history videos to accompany the shows. Next to that we always try to track down a celebrity connected to the show we're about to view," says Rob. Over the 13 weeks, Eurovision stars like Alexander Rybak, Sertab Erener, Marija Šerifović and SuRie recorded messages for Eurovision Again.
What were Rob's favourite moments? "Both the 2016 and 2018 editions with involvement from scriptwriter Edward af Sillén and United Kingdom entry SuRie respectively were incredible. They tweeted along with behind-the-scenes gossip. Reading SuRie's experience of the stage invasion as the show was playing in real time was quite moving and it's the kind of thing you just wouldn't be able to do in any other format."
Creating the tweets to post alongside the show is time-consuming. Rob says: "They are super important because it's the interactive element that makes Eurovision Again as popular as it is. Some people will be watching these shows for the first time (or for the first time in years) so we want to make sure there are plenty of memes and gifs for the fandom to have fun with. It's that silly celebration of the Eurovision Song Contest that brings us as much joy as watching some of the entries!"
Eurovision Again managed to unite fans in a time where they couldn't gather in Rotterdam. Stijn said: "These Saturday nights felt like a big digital family gathering. Our team sat down on multiple nights to join in and watch the shows. It didn't feel like work." For Merel, the Eurovision Song Contest has a special place in her heart. "To me, the Eurovision Song Contest means tradition and nostalgia. I love that has become such a media institute all over the world. It's a celebration of media. It is amazing to look back at the very first years of the Eurovision Song Contest and to think that in essence, nothing has changed, even though everything has changed! It still hinges on a live broadcast and people all over Europe and beyond tuning in to watch at the same time."
After 15 weeks, Eurovision Again will have its last weekly online broadcast tonight at 21:00 CEST (20:00 BST). However, it is not the end of the project. The initiative will continue on a monthly basis every third Saturday of the month starting on 18 July. What will Rob Holley do after the last weekly broadcast? "I'll probably nap lots. Having a month between Eurovision Again episodes just means we'll be able to put more love into it, which makes for a better experience for those taking part. #EurovisionAgain isn't over - it's just getting started!"
As only the rights for the Eurovision Song Contests after 2004 are with the EBU, we would like to thank the BBC (United Kingdom), LTV (Latvia), RAI (Italy) and RTÉ (Ireland) for allowing the EBU to broadcast older Eurovision Song Contests during the past weeks.