It took a global pandemic to cancel the Eurovision Song Contest 2020 for the first time in its 65 year history, but this wasn’t the first time the event was threatened. Let’s take a look at some other times when the Eurovision Song Contest almost didn’t happen.
The early years
Let's start in 1956, the year the Eurovision Song Contest was born - almost by chance. Halfway through the 1950s, the newly created European Broadcasting Union (EBU) thought of creating an entertaining programme to promote its TV section. There were 2 proposals: an international festival including a variety of artists called Top Town Programme or a European song competition involving popular, new songs called Grand Prix Eurovision.
The Italian members of RAI at the EBU gravitated towards the option of the song contest based on their already-successful Sanremo Festival. In October 1955, a meeting was held where it was decided by the EBU’s General Assembly to go forward with the choice of the Eurovision Grand Prix of the European Song. The first-ever Eurovision Song Contest took place in Lugano, Switzerland, at the Teatro Kursaal on Thursday 24 May 1956. Only a radio broadcast and some video footage of the winning song survived.
Lys Assia brought the win to Switzerland that year, but they refused to host it again in 1957, causing the Eurovision Song Contest to look for an alternative host broadcaster in order to survive for a second year. The Hessischer Rundfunk (HR), on behalf of Deutsches Fernsehen ARD, quickly stepped in to save the Contest and it was held in Frankfurt am Main on Sunday 3 March 1957.
The next year, the Dutch entry, Net Als Toen, brought the first victory to the Netherlands. Dutch TV was the proud host of Eurovision 1958, making it the first time a winning country from the previous year hosted the following Contest. In 1959, the Netherlands won the competition for the second time. However, their broadcaster was also not very keen on hosting so soon again, so the EBU offered it to the runner-up of the competition in 1959, the United Kingdom. Fortunately, the BBC accepted and hosted the Eurovision Song Contest 1960 in London.
Hosting 2 Contests within a short period of time didn’t seem to bother France TV, as they hosted the event in Cannes after winning in 1958 and again in 1960. However, when they won again in 1962, the French broadcaster declined to host it for the third time in 5 years. The UK broadcaster was called in again and the competition moved to the BBC Television Centre in London in 1963.
The first years of the competition were considered to be successful, so the Contest continued and by the end of the 1960s, the Eurovision Song Contest had established itself as a highly anticipated annual event.
A draw to host
Despite the fact that the Eurovision Song Contest 1969 took place in Spain during Franco’s dictatorship, all 16 participating countries travelled to Madrid to compete. Controversially, that year saw 4 winners and it almost stopped the competition from happening ever again.
Cancellation rumours swirled after the tie in Madrid and some of the participating broadcasters expressed dissatisfaction with the voting system. Eventually, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Portugal decided to withdraw from the competition. They joined Austria and Denmark, who were already absent from Eurovision in 1969.
After the tie, there didn’t seem to be much agreement on which of the 4 winners should host the Contest. Spain and the United Kingdom were determined to be out of the running as they had hosted the previous 2 editions, so the job was up to either France or the Netherlands.
A draw took place under the auspices of the EBU in a meeting where the creator of the Eurovision Song Contest, Marcel Bezençon, drew the ballot that corresponded with NTS, the Dutch broadcaster. NTS then accepted the hosting duties, taking the 15th edition of the Contest to Amsterdam:
Just 12 delegations made the trip to the Dutch capital; the lowest number of participants in more than a decade. Still, the success of the winning song, All Kinds Of Everything, and the promise of a further revision of the voting system, helped to restore the faith in the format. As a result, Austria, Finland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden all returned to Eurovision the following year.
Where in Monaco?
After the Irish victory, 18 countries took part in the Eurovision Song Contest 1971 and the competition was looking strong again. Alas, a problem occurred when the smallest of those 18 countries, Monaco, won the competition. They were, of course, invited to host the 1972 edition, but the Principality eventually declined the offer.
Originally RMC (Radio Monte-Carlo) wanted to host the 1972 event and asked French TV for assistance. French TV accepted, but with the condition that the Contest would be held in France. RMC proposed the alternative of an outdoor event to be held in June 1972 but their idea was turned down. RMC then tried to accelerate the building process of a suitable hall to host Eurovision. However, by July 1971, RMC declared that they were unable to organize the Contest.
It was known that broadcasters TVE (Spain) and ARD (Germany), whose countries finished in second and third place in 1971, would turn down the opportunity to stage the Contest in 1972. By now, the EBU was openly calling for volunteers. Luckily, the United Kingdom’s broadcaster stepped in, once again, to host the event. This time it was held in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
Luxembourg again, BBC again
From one small European country to another, the Eurovision Song Contest 1972 was won by Luxembourg. They went on to host the 1973 edition, the same year Israel joined for the first time. In light of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the security control was unusually tight, with special measures put in place for the Israeli delegation.
Luxembourg struck again and went on to win back-to-back, although, the Luxembourg broadcaster, RTL, did not wish to host the event, this time for financial reasons. The EBU found themselves in a familiar situation and needed to look for a replacement host. The BBC rose to the occasion for the second time in 3 years and staged the Eurovision Song Contest 1974 at The Dome in Brighton. And luckily so, otherwise Eurovision may have never seen ABBA participate.
A cameramen’s strike
Over 2 editions, the Contest was held without any major problems, but there were some protests about the competition becoming too commercial. This overshadowed the 1975 organization in Stockholm, demonstrations included, which resulted in Swedish TV declining to participate in the 1976 contest in The Hague.
In the meantime. the band that took Eurovision to Stockholm, ABBA, were topping music charts all around the world, so Sweden couldn’t stay away from the Contest for too long. The country returned in 1977 in London, an edition which, again, almost didn’t come to fruition.
The Eurovision Song Contest 1977, for the first time in its history, dealt with a strike by the cameramen and technicians from the BBC. The Contest was expected to be held on April 2 but it actually took place on May 7 at the Wembley Conference Centre in London, 5 weeks after the planned date!
Due to the strike, there were no postcards for each entry and, instead, viewers at home were treated to shots of the audience - some looking more excited than others!
The rushed anniversary
Another 2 problem-free years of competitions led to the next troubled one. Israel won the Contest in Paris in 1978 taking it to Jerusalem in 1979, where it was held under strict security measures. That year, Israel won again, but the dream of repeating host duties soon lost it's silver lining as Israel’s broadcaster declined the opportunity to hold the Competition for the second year in a row.
As a result, the Eurovision Song Contest almost did not happen AGAIN in 1980. Spain was offered hosting duties, having placed 2nd the year before, but a bid to hold the Contest in Torremolinos was unsuccessful. Even the BBC refused to host this time. After 7 months of deliberation, and with the possibility of the 25th Eurovision Song Contest being cancelled, it was finally decided that the Contest would be arranged by Dutch TV NOS.
The news that Eurovision 1980 would take place in The Hague was announced on 22 November 1979. The delay caused the Contest to be hastily arranged and Dutch NOS had to re-use the facilities and most of the stage from 1976, the last time they hosted. The date of the show also clashed with Israel's Day of Remembrance and so the reigning Eurovision champions declined to participate for the first, and so far only, time in its history of the competition.
The Irish miracle
After 1980, despite the huge investment hosting the event involves for the designated broadcaster, there were no major incidents. Even as Ireland won 5 times in 10 years (1987 through 1996), the Irish broadcaster, RTÉ, was able to host the Eurovision Song Contest successfully each time, including 3 years in a row in 1993, 1994 and 1995.
When Ireland won its seventh contest in 1996, a question of whether RTÉ should host Eurovision again was raise and rumours surfaced that a collaboration with the BBC in Northern Ireland was in discussion. There was even a bid to host the Contest in the Sydney Opera House with the Australian broadcaster SBS. In the end, RTÉ decided to go alone and hosted a most impressive Eurovision Song Contest to date in 1997. It was the fourth time in 5 years that the same country had hosted the event, a record that RTÉ is extremely proud of.
The show must go on
Hosting challenges aside, there were a handful of other moments when the Contest was threatened with cancellation or postponement over the years. On 26 April 1986, one week before the Contest was due to air on 3 May from Bergen, Norway, the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred. As news spread out the cloud of radioactive fallout heading Northwest, the Press speculated that the Contest might be abandoned, but rehearsals went on in full-swing and the Eurovision Song Contest 1986 survived.
After Yugoslavia won in 1989, revolutions in search of democracy broke out in Eastern and Central Europe. While the tension was escalating in Yugoslavia itself, the lyrics of several songs in the Eurovision Song Contest 1990 celebrated events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the newly forged European unity. The Contest was held in Zagreb in May 1990, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars, which started only 1 year later.
The Eurovision Song Contest 1991 was supposed to be held in the seaside resort of Sanremo, home of the annual festival of Italian music, but host broadcaster RAI made a last-minute decision to move it to Rome due to ongoing instability in both in the Balkan region and Iraq. The decision turned out to be too late; both the EBU and the planned host city wanted to keep it in Sanremo. Then the proposed venues were deemed either too small or too insecure. After some delegations threatened to withdraw, RAI and EBU moved it back to Rome, causing delays and other logistics issues. Coincidentally, to add to the organizational chaos, the voting ended in a tie between Sweden and France and was decided, live, to be given in favour of the former.
In 2002, Estonia hosted the Contest after winning in Copenhagen in 2001. It was the first time the Contest moved to one of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Many media outlets speculated that Estonia would not be able to host a big show like the Eurovision Song Contest due to a lack of finances and hotel capacity. The Estonian government stepped in to guarantee the funding of the event and in the end, Estonian broadcaster ETV produced a nearly flawless show from Tallin.
In 2010, newspapers reported that the Norwegian broadcaster NRK was facing budget worries after the eruptions of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull caused widespread disruption to air travel across Europe. Some delegations, including the UK and Ireland, travelled to Oslo by boat, but the eruptions caused others to have to cancel thousands of ticket reservations for the event itself.
In 2012, Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in a new arena built especially for the occasion, the Baku Crystal Hall. But was not clear if the building would be finished in time for the Contest and, when rehearsals started, the finishing touches to the building were still being done. The main road to the arena was paved only a week before the show. Thankfully everything was finished just in time for the 3 live broadcasts.
Since the turn of the century, Ukraine has hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv twice. In 2005, they did so right after the so-called Orange Revolution civil protests took place. In 2017, the country experienced several delays announcing the host city and there was even a change of broadcasters. On top of that, 3 months before the event was to take place, a number of members of the core team of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest resigned from their positions. Despite the setbacks, Ukraine’s public broadcaster promised to stick to the timeline, insisting that the Eurovision Song Contest would go ahead as planned. They delivered a successful Contest in May.
It has taken a global pandemic to cancel the Eurovision Song Contest 2020. Although broadcaster NOS had saved the competition twice in the past, the risks were too high and global travel and health regulations meant the Contest simply could not go on this time around.
From broadcasters refusing to host the competition to nuclear disasters, the Eurovision Song Contest has withstood a great amount of adversity throughout its history. While the live competition will not be held in 2020, the spirit of Eurovision will live on and be celebrated in 3 special shows: Eurovision Song Celebration broadcast on Tuesday 12 May and Thursday 14 May and Eurovision: Europe Shine A Light airing on Saturday 16 May as well as the alternative broadcasting plans.