LONDON — The Eurovision Song Contest started in 1956 as a friendly music competition between public service television broadcasters and has since grown into the world’s largest — and perhaps most eccentric — live music event.
This year, the competition takes place while there is a war in Europe; in February, the event’s organizers announced that Russia would be barred from competing, citing “the unprecedented crisis in Ukraine.”
This week, 35 other countries, including Ukraine, competed in semifinal rounds ahead of Saturday’s final, which attracts more than 180 million viewers around the world. The event, held in Italy this year, rewards live viewership, with clips from performances and reactions spreading quickly across social media.
Below are rundowns on hotly tipped acts, advice about how to watch from the United States and views about how the war in Ukraine is likely to affect the competition.
How does the Eurovision Song Contest work?
Each country selects an act with an original song that must be performed live onstage. The song is picked either by the national broadcaster or through some kind of contest. (For example, Sweden has the “Melodifestivalen” to choose its entry.) There are a number of rules that entrants must follow, including a limit of three minutes on song length and a ban on lyrics or gestures deemed by the organizers to be political.
Despite the name, countries beyond Europe’s traditional geographical borders also compete in Eurovision. Israel debuted in 1973, for example, and Australia has been taking part since 2015. This year, Armenia and Montenegro are returning to the contest after not competing in 2021. Smaller nations are also represented, such as San Marino, a landlocked enclave in Italy with a population of just over 30,000. Last year, San Marino’s entry, performed by the singer Senhit, featured an appearance by the American rapper Flo Rida.
The winner of Eurovision is chosen by a combination of votes by viewers at home and by national juries in each country. The scores from the national juries are tallied first, then the fan votes are announced, act by act, starting with the countries that received the lowest jury points. This part of the show can be tense and even uncomfortable to watch, with cameras last year showing entrants from Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain each receiving the dreaded “zero points” from the public.
After the two semifinals have whittled the entrants down, the qualifiers join entries from the “big five” countries — Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — which have an automatic pass to the final because they contribute the most financially to the running of the contest. Twenty-five countries will compete at the final this year.
Traditionally, the competition is held in the country that won the previous year. Turin, in Italy, hosts this year after the rock band Maneskin triumphed in 2021.
How can Americans watch the competition?
The streaming service Peacock will be airing the final on Saturday from 3 p.m. Eastern time. The service also streamed the competition’s semifinals. The figure skater Johnny Weir will be providing commentary on the broadcast.
The commentary can often add some humor to the many long hours of televised competition. In Britain, the comedy host Graham Norton has become renowned for his reactions and quips.
“We’ve got a real range of music tonight,” Norton said while introducing the 2021 competition from the Dutch city of Rotterdam. “Brilliant staging, great lighting, some wonderful vocalists, and others — well, some as flat as Holland.”
How has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected the competition?
Initially, the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes Eurovision, said that Russia could continue to participate because the competition was a “nonpolitical cultural event.”
The day after the invasion, however, with Ukraine and other countries threatening to withdraw, the broadcasting union backtracked. Russia could not take part, the union said in a statement, because the country’s inclusion “would bring the competition into disrepute.”
Sentimentality, friendly bias and politics can affect the voting. This year, Ukraine is favored to win, with the rap and folk band Kalush Orchestra representing the country. Its song, “Stefania,” is an ode to the mother of one of the band members. The act received special permission from the Ukrainian government to travel for the competition and has performed throughout Europe to raise funds for the war effort.
Ukraine won the contest in 2016 with “1944,” by Jamala. The song was a memorial to Crimean Tatars during World War II, but it was also interpreted as a comment on the Russian invasion of Crimea, which took place two years earlier.
What happens if Ukraine wins this year?
If Ukraine does take the title, the war and humanitarian crisis in the country would most likely present challenges to its hosting the competition in 2023.
In the past, when a country has been unable to host, another has stepped in. The last time that happened was in 1980, when Israel declined to host after winning for a second straight year. The competition was held in the Netherlands instead.
If Australia ever wins the competition, the logistical difficulties of hosting a primarily European contest on a different continent mean that a European country and broadcaster would co-host the following year’s contest alongside Australia, according to the European Broadcasting Union.
Which other acts should I know about?
Sweden has won Eurovision six times (second only to Ireland), with ABBA one of the acts to have claimed victory for the country. The Swedish entrant this year is Cornelia Jakobs, who sings “Hold Me Closer,” a warm and emotional pop track that builds with each subsequent verse.
The Spanish entry, performed by Chanel, has also been predicted to do well at the final, with a catchy song, “SloMo,” accompanied by a high-energy dance routine.
The prospects for Britain, after last year’s zero points overall, are looking up. The country’s entry, “Space Man,” is performed by the TikTok star Sam Ryder and has been gathering some momentum.
There has also been praise for Australia’s entry, “Not the Same,” performed by Sheldon Riley. The song reflects his childhood experiences, including a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome he received at age 6.
Maneskin has gone on to global fame since winning the 2021 competition, performing on “Saturday Night Live” and at the Coachella festival this year.
Are there any surreal acts this year?
Eurovision entrants have a tradition of employing surreal staging, lyrics and costumes to stand out.
This year, the Norwegian entry, by the pop duo Subwoolfer, has gained attention. Their song, “Give That Wolf a Banana,” has the pair wearing wolf masks, with backing dancers in yellow morph suits.
The Moldovan entry, “Trenuletul,” by Zdob si Zdub and the Advahov Brothers, has built a following by pairing traditional instruments like the accordion with the electric guitar. Their song’s upbeat lyrics are matched by the band’s enthusiastic choreography.
What about North American versions of Eurovision?
The NBC show “American Song Contest” reimagines Eurovision for the United States, with 56 entries from 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia. Instead of airing over the course of a week, like Eurovision does, the contest has been airing weekly on the network since March.
The final took place on Monday, when AleXa, representing Oklahoma, won with “Wonderland.” The song received 710 points overall from the jury and public voting, 207 ahead of the second-place entry, from Colorado.
But underwhelming ratings suggest that “American Song Contest” failed to capture the excitement of Eurovision. In an interview with The New York Times, Audrey Morrissey, an executive on the show, suggested that U.S. audiences might need time to get used to the format. “It is a very different sort of mechanism — there isn’t another show where performance happens and there isn’t a critique right after,” she said.
Next year, there will be a Eurovision Canada, where entries from the country’s three territories and 10 provinces will compete in an offshoot of the original. International expansion has been an ambition for Eurovision. Martin Österdahl, an executive supervisor of the competition, told a podcast recently, “We’re changing our focus slightly in our strategy from managing a contest to managing a brand, and that brand will be a global entertainment superbrand.”