Whatever your opinion of the Eurovision Song Contest, there is absolutely no doubt that it is a truly unique event in the European calendar, and like it or not, it is unfortunately a fundamental part of the shared European culture. It is a stupid, silly, old-fashioned contest that has little to do with music, but does offer a bizarre introduction to hidden parts of Europe that we never knew existed. Who knew Azerbaijan is in Europe, for example, or that Israel belongs with the European elite, fighting for her chance of Eurovision glory? The flamboyant, over the top musical acts are one point that make it unique, but another aspect of the contest that makes it truly unique is the manner of how a winner is chosen. For 50 years, the winning entry of the Eurovision Song Contest has been chosen through a round-robin system of voting, where each individual country assigns points to other entrants (it is not possible to vote for your own country), and the entry with the highest points tally at the end of this process wins the contest. Before 1998, these points were awarded through specialist judge panels in each country, lending a degree of legitimacy and arguably musical relevance to the proceedings. However, since 1998, the point allocations have been aggregated through phone-in ballot in each country. This process is what makes the Eurovision so unique, as it is one of the only events in the world where the population of a country ranks other countries in the region, and can award or punish based on preferences of music (or other intangible aspects). What makes this fact extremely interesting from a data analysis point of view is that all point allocations are declared publically, and this means that the Eurovision voting process since 1998 gives us a rich, detailed, 16 year database of a single European country’s preferences for another European country.
One of the big criticisms of this voting process over the past 20 years is that the new post-Iron Curtain Republics who joined the Eurovision in the mid 1990’s simply disregard any aspect of music and just vote for their former Soviet friends. This was popularised in the UK as a way to explain their own country’s persistent failure to win the event. The theory sounds extremely ignorant, as anyone with even a casual history of Central and Eastern Europe would probably imagine that their shared history of constant warfare and mutual atrocities against each other over the past few centuries wouldn’t translate well into publically liking each other’s horrible songs just because they can. However, since there does seem to be something going on in Eurovision voting that has little to do with musical integrity, and the fact that we have the data to investigate it, we really can get some decent answers about what is more important in Eurovision voting: the quality of the music, or the nationality of the singers?
I have seen a few studies on this topic, such as the prominent one on the voting blocs of Eastern Europe, yet I am approaching this from a different viewpoint, based on my years of research in the field of discrimination. I offer a simple hypothesis, coupled with early high school levels of analysis: you don’t need to know anything about statistics to follow this. My hypothesis, simply stated, is that all other things being equal, over time, average points awarded to border countries of any individual country should be less than the average votes awarded to the final top 10 ranked countries at the end of the voting process each year. I chose this metric as the first group (bordering countries) is static, and has not changed much in the time period of reference (1998-2014). Montenegro is the only nation to be added to the Eurovision Song Contest in this period, meaning that for all other countries apart from Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, borders have remained intact. So votes for this first group are weighed against votes awarded to what have emerged to have been the best 10 songs in each individual Eurovision Song Contest. If music was indeed more important than giving votes to neighbours, the latter group would emerge victorious over time. If not, we can probably make a case that the Eurovision is a big love-in for our neighbours.
Before getting into it, I need to explain how a country awards points in the Eurovision Song Contest. In the time period under analysis (1998-2014), an average of 25 countries competed in the Eurovision final. After each song has been performed, the voting process begins, and residents of each nation phone a specific number to cast their vote. These votes are aggregated, and the top 10 countries voted for by a country are awarded points. Each country awards the following points, in ascending order of vote rank: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12. Therefore the 10th ranked entry for each country is awarded 1 point, while the poll winner in each country is awarded 12 points. We assume that the best song will emerge from the tally of every countries points allocation.
To The Data
I ran an analysis based on my hypothesis on a selection of European countries, and the Chart below reports the results.
From a first reaction, probably the most relevant observation from these results is the disparity of neighbourly love in all these European countries. While each country gives 6.1-6.9 points to the eventual top 10 in each Eurovision, some countries like their neighbours more than others. Germany and Russia have the most borders in Europe, but the two appreciate their neighbours very differently. Germany will give a bordering country an average of 4.7 points per Eurovision, while Russia will grant a generous 6.8. Austria will award 5, while Switzerland, which borders both Germany and Austria will grant a dataset high of 7.2. I can tell you right now that they rarely vote for France at all, meaning there is a great disparity in neighbourly relations amongst the German speaking nations. Another interesting takeaway are the results for Ireland and the UK, who each have only one border: each other. More light is shed on this relationship in the chart below, which also gives the likelihood of each country voting for a neighbour in any given Eurovision. The likelihood of voting is calculated by averaging the amount of bordering countries present at any Eurovision, and the average number of these bordering countries that are awarded points in that Contest.
So, Ireland is 81% likely to give the UK 6.5 points, while the UK is 90% on to give Ireland 6.7 points. Non-island nations rarely do so well, as they have many border countries to choose from. The least likely country to vote for a neighbour is Germany, whose bordering countries can only expect some points 42% of the time. Russia spreads around its love a lot more than others, which is impressive given that it can count on 7 of its neighbours being present in any given Eurovision.
From the first chart above, I feel my original hypothesis is supported: most countries do allocate more votes to the objectively ‘good’ songs in each Eurovision, however the difference between countries and the love for their neighbours is interesting, and worthy of further investigation. It begs the question, are all borders equal? The chart below investigates this for Germany. The likelihood metric is calculated by averaging the amount of times each country is present at a Eurovision in the time period and the allocation of points by Germany.
No, all borders are not equal. France is not favoured at all by the German public, and can only expect one point from their Eastern neighbours for every four appearances at the Eurovision. Poland on the other hand, can generally count on at least five points from their former invaders. Denmark also scores high, yet the allocation is far from certain. At least Austria can expect a meagre points allocation to a reasonable degree. Before you start counting, the Czech Republic have never appeared in the Eurovision Finals. Now let’s compare this with the identical information for Russia.
There is a lot of love for Azerbaijan in Russia, that’s for sure, and the same can be said for Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine. While low points awarded to Finland are not surprising, Latvia does emerge as Russia’s least favourite Baltic country. Spare a thought for Poland however, who have never received a single point from Russia. Perhaps the size of the border, in the tiny isolate enclave of Kaliningrad is somewhat to blame, however when we compare this for the love show to Poland by Germany in their voting history, all things are arguably in balance.
This is all interesting, but I have realised that I have gone off topic since I confirmed my border theory was relevant, yet not water tight. Borders are obviously important, since average votes to border countries in most of the nations analysed were quite close to the objective quality of the final top 10, yet perhaps regional clusters are important too. The next chart compares selected former Yugoslav republics votes to each other and the objective top 10.
I will say right now that the average of five data points will most likely be higher than the average of 10, yet the results above are still impressive. I didn’t put the likelihoods in, but the lowest one (Serbia) was 87%. Interesting also are the low average scores for the songs that eventually ended up as the 10 highest ranked in each competition. For balance, here is the same chart for the Scandinavian countries
They all favour their own cluster of course, yet there is more of a sense that the Scandinavians (and Finland) are more in line with the European mainstream than the FYR countries, as the average votes to the eventual top 10 are somewhat higher. If you are interested in who are the most in line with the Eurovision, it’s Germany.
On average, Germany will allocate almost 80% of its 58 available points on the countries that will eventually rank in the top 10. So in any Eurovision voting process, pay very close attention to what the Germans have to say.
But What Now For Europe?
There’s a lot of interesting things that came out in from the Eurovision dataset, yet does it really mean anything? We discovered that everyone hates France, yet we knew this already. The fact that the UK are slightly more favourable to Ireland than vice-versa is no shock to me as an Irishman, nor would be Russia’s favouritism for its former Soviet satellites of Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine. Russia’s distaste for Latvia I did find surprising, as well as Switzerland’s status as the most generous German speaking country. I am not going to try and explain why some countries vote for certain countries over others: many of you reading have already concluded that it is due to immigration and cultural ties or people from one country simply running across the border and voting for themselves, and they are all valid points. The question remains whether we can say anything about the general state of neighbourly relations in Europe from the results gleaned from analysis of voting in the Eurovision. I’m going to put myself out there and say yes, as at the moment this database is the best resource in the world in informing us on intra-Europe attitudes to each European country, even if it does make us choose between voting for our dear neighbours or for our favourite ultra-camp, terribly performed song that if you heard on the radio you would switch channels immediately. Maybe, just maybe, we use the Eurovision as a way to show our neighbours how we really feel about them, and it just so happens that these feelings are not always positive. In any case, for the performances and the voting process, it really is quite a show.