From 1981 to 1991, Bjørn Erichsen was television producer at Danish broadcaster DR. In 1991, he founded the European Film College in Copenhagen. In 1996 he rejoined DR as TV Director and stayed on until 2001. In 2001, he was asked to come to Geneva, to lead the television department of the European Broadcasting Union. After ‘his' DR just successfully hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2001, Erichsen felt it was time to pick up a new challenge. A challenge that has come to an end.
Your mission in Geneva has come to an end. Why are you leaving, and how do you feel about that tough decision?
Bjørn Erichsen: "You know, I believe you have to leave when you're at the top, before you're asked to leave. My family would love to have my wife and me back in Denmark, and I feel it's the right time now. There is this Chinese story about a man who owned a porcelain vase. He cared so much about it and held it so tight, that eventually it broke. There is a valuable lesson in that story."
A lot has happened during the eight years you have been TV Director. When you switch off the light and close the door behind you after your last day in office, what do you feel you are leaving behind? What is your legacy?
Bjørn Erichsen: "To be honest with you, I am concerned about public service broadcasting in Europe, and about the question whether their managements are able to defend the mission of public broadcasting. On average, Europeans spend 3,5 hours a day in front of that television set. There should be some meaningful content out there."
Let's go back to 2001. DR hosted the Eurovision Song Contest under your leadership and made it the biggest ever, at least in terms of audience. What was the foundation of that decision?
Bjørn Erichsen: "In 1998, I asked the producer of the national selection in Denmark if we should really take part in the Eurovision Song Contest again. It became a little old-fashioned. So, I proposed to either quit, or to make the national selection big. He picked the second option, and we acquired the necessary budget to facilitate it. Then, in 2000, we won, and we decided to host it at the Parken Stadium. A roof was built on the venue, so it could host the event."
In 2003, the EBU introduced the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. It was in instant hit, and it's still running. Despite a good start, the contest seems to be in a less comfortable position these days. What is your vision for the future of our 7-year old child?
Bjørn Erichsen: "I took the format with me from Denmark, where we already held a junior edition of the Melodi Grand Prix. When we started with the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2003, it was an instant hit. But you're right that the contest is struggling right now. To succeed, it has to get out of the corner of children's programs. Western Europe simply doesn't support children's programs on Saturday night, prime time, while we do need western European countries to take part. It should become more family entertainment, which is appealing to adults as well. There is an urgent need for change."
Under your mandate, the Eurovision Song Contest went through some heavy weather as well. In 2005, the world was looking at a politically destabilized Ukraine, just months before the Eurovision Song Contest. In 2008, Kosovo's declaration of independence lead to tension in the streets of Belgrade, again months before they would host Europe's favourite TV show. There have been concerns about the safety of homosexual fans of the Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow, and this year's Junior Eurovision Song Contest was threatened by the H1N1 flu outbreak in Ukraine. Looking back, we should conclude that none of these threats have stopped the contests to take place. How did you handle these kind of situations?
Bjørn Erichsen: "We have a good staff taking care of the Eurovision Song Contest, as well as a committed Reference Group that looks after the contest on behalf of the EBU Members. When we go to a new country, the most important thing is to get some sort of sense of how things work at the Host Broadcaster. Fortunately, the Eurovision Song Contest has a built-in parameter that makes it an ambition to do better than the previous organisers."
Does that count for Host Broadcasters ánd governments?
Bjørn Erichsen: "Yes, also for governments! Every government instantly acknowledges the value of the Eurovision Song Contest, and no administration would let it down. We always aim at keeping politics away from the contest, but government support is important behind the scenes, as they are often providing valuable financial assistance, security support and other help."
In the second part of this interview, to be published tomorrow, Bjørn Erichsen talks about the attempts to get Italy back at the Eurovision Song Contest, and what happened behind the scenes in the run up to the 2005 contest in Kyiv. Don't miss it!