Junior Eurovision

Ben vs Belén: The Future Of Junior Eurovision

Belén García from ESCplus is one of the show’s best commentators and was reporting in Poland following the return of her native Spain, which achieved the 3rd place. Readers of ESC Insight will be well aware that when it comes to Junior Eurovision, Ben Robertson is their resident expert. Gliwice marked his sixth Junior Eurovision on the ground as press.

This article is a text conversation between Ben and Belén about the future of Junior Eurovision and will be published on both ESC Insight and ESCplus.

Ben: Belén it is a pleasure to discuss the future of Junior Eurovision with you. My first contest on the ground was Amsterdam in 2012, and upon leaving the arena I wondered if the Junior Eurovision project would continue at all. The transformation, that really began with an excellent and enthusiastic contest in 2014, has turned it into a really fantastic competition that is shown across the continent.

One of the biggest changes for 2019 is the return of Spain, probably the biggest Junior Eurovision market during the competition’s early years. I’m interested to learn more about this. What has encouraged Spain to return this year? And, what do you think could bring some of the other nations back to the growing competition?

Belén: Pleasure is mine! I started watching Junior Eurovision in 2003, which was the very first edition ever. I was a teenager and still remember how popular the contest was in Spain by that time as the national selection was a junior version of Operación Triunfo, the most successful talent show until the date. It was broadcast on Saturday evening. It feels like yesterday, but it’s been 17 editions already!

The contest has changed a lot over the years. In the early editions, famous singers weren’t allowed to enter the competition and the full package was rated over other aspects. Every child with an ok voice but a good song could take part in the contest and had the chance to finish high. I think the contest isn’t that popular as it was back then because of several factors I will explain later.

My country, Spain, is back in the game after 13 editions. I still can’t believe it as a return had been rumoured for years and never happened. The broadcaster has watched the last editions of the show, so I think seeing the return of France and the popularity it has among the Spanish fans led them to a come-back.

Personally, I believe that last year’s trend of a full package winning the competition could make new countries join the contest in the future. Also, less importance of the artists’ voice could be a reason for new broadcasters to take part. The Nordic nations, for example, want Junior Eurovision to be a contest far from a vocal talent show, where ordinary kids enjoy creating their songs the previous months and are given the chance to play a game called Eurovision. Every kid should have the chance to be on the Junior Eurovision stage, not only the ones that have a privileged voice or train for hours.

Ben: Interesting to hear that France’s successful return last year might prove to be the catalyst for many other countries taking part. Eurovision in France is booming in comparison to where it was a decade ago. The French song in Junior Eurovision this year feels like a direct evolution from their 2nd place finish last year and just as catchy.

Denmark and Norway still run ‘junior’ editions of their Melodi Grand Prix and they are popular. I’ve written before about the issue of songwriting in Junior Eurovision, and I recognise the great efforts that these broadcasters make to educate thousands of schoolchildren through their selection process. The requirement that songs are written by children is noble but ultimately removed from Junior Eurovision competition because it is just too difficult to police.

This change has led to Junior Eurovision songs being more impressive, bigger crescendos, bigger productions and yes bigger vocals. I don’t agree though that this is a factor that explains why some countries don’t take part, indeed I’d argue the opposite. The level of song quality has improved from just a few years ago, and more countries are returning. I often use the argument that the proliferation of The Voice, and thereafter The Voice Kids, has led to it being far more normalised to see young people performing on TV, and making the jump to enter Junior Eurovision smaller for many nations.

The Voice is different than Eurovision, but for better or worse that is the trend we are moving into.

Belén: France’s two last entries are a clear example of how Junior Eurovision should be, catchy positive songs with cool stagings and good singers, who not only focus on the voice, but also on the performance as a whole.

It might be difficult to control the composition procedure of a song, of course, but that’s something broadcasters should do on purpose, not the EBU. It’s a bit of nonsense calling Junior Eurovision a Song Contest when the songs are written by adults, just like at Eurovision. It’s as if the Nobel Prize winners were chosen mainly because of their appearance instead of their awesome contributions to the world. It’s not easy to write a song, so I’d allow adult help, like in the past. It’s super sad to see many of the songwriting credits now without any young person’s name. There are examples of songs that were written for an adult some years ago and later given to a kid. Israel even sent a cover to Junior Eurovision last year, which had been commercialized by an adult singer a few months before.

I remember the old format of the Junior Songfestival, when kids performed their original songs. They sounded basic and “simple”, but the selected ones were given a new production by adults and they were great! I remember how much Rachel’s song changed in 2011 after the production. Also, the twins of 2012 wrote the original ‘Double Me’ and managed to win the national selection. This songwriting aspect encourages creativity, which is very important in childhood.

So, according to you, songs have now a better production and so on. I think that depends more on the evolution of sound technology and production equipment and also on the music style that’s trending. Your statements appear to underestimate the work kids did in the past to compose their songs. We can’t be so exigent with kids… They’re kids and have to act like kids. Junior Eurovision shouldn’t be about children pretending to be adults to please adults.

I don’t think that’s what has attracted more countries to take part. In fact, I’ve noticed that some of the participating nations seem to be there to make EBU a favour. They don’t really put so much effort into Junior Eurovision and its promotion. I’d support your view if they did.

Ben: I apologise if I make it sound like children can’t do these things. As an educator for many years showing what children can achieve is probably the most rewarding part of my job.

The stats speak for themselves though, and those JESC entries written in recent years without adult help have been way down in the leaderboard.

The Dutch model from years gone by was good (I also loved ‘Double Me’) but I can see the modern method takes less effort. I have issue sometimes that the final production given to the kids is rather sanitised. ‘Around’ in 2014 made more sense as a ballad and did you know Eliias’ winning performance in Lilla Melodifestivalen 2013 was his own great production! The revamp was slicker but soulless in comparison.

Kids like Eliias exist, but are as rare as albatrosses, and require effort and risk to find and nurture.

I’m worried more about effort in a different way. Junior Eurovision has some acts supported by big labels and big broadcasters who, as Roxie and Viki showed us, can get huge loyal votes thanks to online voting.

I like online voting’s principles. I worry though because it effectively makes Junior Eurovision into a popularity contest.

Belén: Yeah, there are just a few kids composers, that’s why Junior Eurovision should encourage kids to write their own songs, to boost creativity. If Junior Eurovision focused more on songs, the pressure on the participants would be reduced, as the effort made for months would be appreciated more than a three-minute live performance.

I’m also worried about the rise of record labels involved in Junior Eurovision. That gives some participants more chance to score highly on the scoreboard. Also, it’s classist, as unsigned kids have less power and chance.

Online voting is a good alternative to the SMS voting, but the EBU should improve it. Voting for your own country shouldn’t be allowed because some participants and nations don’t have many fans or viewers. That clearly affects their results. You must vote for at least 3 countries, but fans aren’t silly, they choose their country and two of the least favourites.

Talking of judges, I think they shouldn’t be so exigent with the voice, they should focus on the full package instead, voice, staging and song. They tend to kill good songs because of minor mistakes or a lack of high notes. The more high notes you hit or the more perfect you sing, the higher you finish. You just need to take a look at the previous years’ jury winners to see what I mean.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4og985UOrs

Ben: I think lots of the issues you outline here could be attributed to the main Eurovision Song Contest too. Many acts and many countries have advantages over others, labels, politics or otherwise. It’s always hard to balance. I have the same reservations about online voting, but I don’t see an alternative that would actually be effective in solving the issues outlined.

It’s also true for the impact of juries voting for big vocals – that’s hugely overplayed by jurors at both the Eurovision Song Contest and Junior Eurovision. The criteria for being a juror from the EBU state ‘vocal capacity’ as criteria one. I question the order of this, and also the terminology (capacity being such a loaded term for vocal range, which isn’t relevant in a song contest). That said I don’t think changing the criteria would result in much difference.

However, I need to defend that great artists should be able to be the best they can be, if that is nailing that huge operatic squeal note then bring it on! I think this is where wanting Junior Eurovision to feel ‘Junior’ may be a limiting factor. Many of our performers are 13 and 14 this year, and I suspect their musical influences and idols are going to be big, powerful adult performers – I’d expect more Beyonce than Bieber. I don’t think we should be holding them back – if they are able they should go for it.

Performing songs that are kid-friendly is a genre by itself, but that genre isn’t for everybody. Eurovision should be free from genre stigmatisation, and instead, we should be looking that the performer on stage is at one with the song they are performing, nothing else.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvmqnNxnuJM

Belén: I think it wouldn’t be that difficult to change the online voting to avoid people voting for their own country. Also, at Junior Eurovision, juries should be encouraged to vote following a different criteria than the one at adult Eurovision. There are already many vocal talent shows, but not many song contests. That’s what makes Eurovision special and, talking about kids, it’d be better to focus on the song and the performance.

If it depended on me, I’d change the age interval from 9-14 to 7-12. Teenagers tend to like adult content, as you’ve said. They already have Eurovision to enjoy trendy stuff. However, the youngest don’t have a contest to watch and enjoy. We don’t need a copy of Eurovision in November, but a Eurovision for kids. Some people would think that teens aged 13-15 wouldn’t have a chance to compete at any Eurovision if that happened. I think they could use that gap to focus on secondary school and training for the adult contest.

Take for example that difference in the Nordic countries.

Ben: I think we have found our biggest fundamental difference. Age has always been an issue at JESC, about where to set the limits. I expected and wished that the age limit would rise, and Junior Eurovision would become a 12 to 15 year old competition.

The age difference is too high. At my second contest I saw younger acts playing with loom bands in the corner while the older ones dressed up for the disco and took on the inflatables and karaoke and PS3s (Malta 2014, what an amazing Junior EuroClub). It made more sense for me to have an upward age limit to follow up to the main Song Contest. After all, these acts would be more able to handle the pressures and be easier to look after than younger ones.

I was shocked by the move that now makes being 15 impossible at Junior Eurovision. I question the EBU’s rationale for doing so (about making a competition more fair for male artists) and also saddened by how late that was announced. Some acts had to withdraw from national finals because of this rule!

It’s odd that after that move now more of the acts are 13 and 14, and the average age is increasing. Is it because we are looking for a more well-rounded performer? Is that safer for a broadcaster to send?

I would like to think if Denmark and Norway took part again they would be pleasantly surprised. I think the best the EBU could do was create a role that focused on children’s welfare at Junior Eurovision, to show how serious that was. If that would work is a different question.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGU9C6lppwQ

Belén: There are similarities between Junior Eurovision and the Nordic contests, but I think that the differences are huger. For instance, if you look at the quality of voices, the Nordic contestants aren’t that “professional” and don’t sing like a ‘The Voice’ contestants. The winners don’t have to have much vocal capacity and don’t need over the top performances. Also, the stagings are usually entertaining and the kids write their own songs along with professionals. The clothes are also different, that is to say that they don’t dress like divas nor vulgar.

Talking of stagings, I’ve noticed that some countries always bring the singer without dancers, no matter what the song is. It looks like the countries with less budget compete on a different condition. I feel super sad seeing how some performers have to be alone on stage while others have dancers and huge stagings. I think the host country should provide those participants with dancers on stage. That would mean that all kids would compete on an equal footing and the show would be more enjoyable.

The show overvalues the live artistry and that affects the variety of acts as there aren’t many bands, duos or groups. That’d make the contest more interesting and attractive. I see an overall lack of variety. I think the EBU and the Steering Group should think about that so the contest doesn’t become too predictable and monotonous.

Ben: I would accept those differences between Junior Eurovision and the Nordic nations (although will say I’ve not seen or felt anything overly vulgar in terms of clothing), but think at the same time a Danish or Norwegian act would be at home in the Junior Eurovision of today. Differences yes, but worlds apart no.

Kyiv in 2013 did have local Ukrainian dance groups take part in some of the acts. Melodifestivalen also has a team of house dancers for their six week show. These dancers could even take part in stand-in rehearsals. Now we have to remember that many countries would not want that. However if delegations could work together to make it happen they could reduce their costs in hotel fees and get a better stage show as an end production. The EBU could get that ball rolling, but the delegations would need to be the ones making that work out.

Predictable and monotonous are words that could be used for many aspects of TV entertainment today, not just Junior Eurovision. It’s like entertainment has learnt what is effective and everybody creeps closer and closer towards the same generic formula.

Predictable and monotonous are probably what many people think about us now too! Belén, both you are I have years of experience in Junior Eurovision, but vastly different opinions about the steps forward. I’m so happy that we are here to celebrate that Junior Eurovision is going, and is thriving. But that doesn’t mean the EBU and competing countries can rest on their laurels. There’s much more that can happen to make this the most inclusive and dynamic competition on planet Earth.

Belén, have you any final words?

I just hope that the Steering Group and the EBU will see this kind of articles so they get some ideas for future changes. I’ve seen there have been some changed recently, so, hopefully, this will continue to make the contest more junior friendly and welcoming to new countries. Also, contests need some kind of renovation from time to time to catch more people’s interest.

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