RTÉ’s Eurovision Forum: What we learned about Ireland’s plans for Lisbon 2018

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If they’re not careful, Ireland are facing into a fifth consecutive Eurovision non-qualification. That would be a massive fall from grace for a country which once won the contest four times in five years. So, in a bid to avoid such a catastrophe, Irish broadcaster RTÉ convened the inaugural Eurovision Forum on Thursday 03 August. And we were there! Here’s what we learned.

What is the Eurovision Forum?

Billed as the first of its kind, RTÉ organised the Eurovision Forum as “a chance for interested people to gain a deeper insight into the present day contest… as well as hearing from key RTÉ decision makers”. The great and the good from the Irish music and entertainment industry, media and Eurovision fandom were all invited to attend.

Irish Head of Delegation Michael Kealy began proceedings by offering up details of his past efforts at Eurovision as well as his vision for the future. Austrian Head of Press Roman Horacek and Eurovision.tv’s Paul Jordan also regaled their song contest experiences.

But it was an interactive evening, and once all three speakers had finished the floor was opened to questions.

Does RTÉ want to win?

Short answer — Yes! Well at least that’s what Michael Kealy told us. Now five years into his role as HOD, Kealy rebuked the longstanding myth perpetuated by the 1990s sitcom Father Ted — that Ireland doesn’t want to win Eurovision again. The Emerald Isle may have endured dismal results in recent times, but apparently it’s not from lack of trying.

Can Ireland afford to host Eurovision?

It’s not just at Eurovision where RTÉ is struggling. The national broadcaster’s finances took a major battering during the economic crash of 2008 and have yet to recover. However, we were assured that the station would be able to cope with the costs of hosting in the event of Ireland winning. Albeit, it would be a less extravagant show compared to editions such as Baku 2012 and Copenhagen 2014.

What are RTÉ’s plans for Eurovision 2018?

With the contest still almost a year away, talk of an Irish victory is more than a bit premature. Let’s backtrack to RTÉ’s plans for 2018. Somewhat disappointingly, the delegation has yet to decide on anything definite. However, Kealy insisted that Eurovision is not an entry-level competition. He would like to secure a seasoned performer and hold an open competition for songs. He also wants to expand the pool of people responsible for song selection. Instead of a panel of the usual suspects — Linda Martin, Louis Walsh, etc — there would be multiple juries consisting of people from a variety of backgrounds.

Another Internal Selection?

After decades of national finals, RTÉ took the power from the people in 2016. Inspired by the successes of Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and Russia, the powers-that-be decided to send Nicky Byrne. Or rather he came to them with a song and they said OK. For 2017, Louis Walsh came up with a shortlist, from which Brendan Murray was chosen. Based on the HOD’s words on a national selection, yet another internal approach appears likely for Lisbon. Speaking of which…

No more Eurosong?

Due to RTÉ’s budgetary woes, a standalone national final is off the cards. Even a one-off show would cost hundreds of thousands of euros. The Irish advertising market is supposedly too small for a Eurovision selection to be attractive to sponsors, so no Ukrainian style Pepsi deals. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be possible for the network to piggyback off existing concerts and festivals as outside broadcast costs are too prohibitive.

Engaging the Music Industry

One of the main themes of the night was RTÉ’s desire to work with the music industry. Executives from the major record labels were present, as well as representatives from various music organisations. Kealy alluded to the contest’s tarnished reputation within the sector, attributing much of the blame to RTÉ itself. Almost a decade on, Dustin the Turkey’s infamous 2008 performance is still frightening high quality writers away. Of the 300 plus song submissions received in 2017, only about 20 were considered “serious” entries.

Interestingly, these comments were met with an audible murmur of disagreement from the music insiders. Many of them were more than happy to get involved, but were never asked. Others pointed out RTÉ’s failure to publicise and allocate sufficient time to the song selection process. Established acts, songwriters and producers are often booked out for months in advance. By the time many are approached in mid-winter, they’re already unavailable for May.

Also, the majority of experts felt that the singer should be chosen first, rather than the song.

Promotion

The issue of promotion came up too. As of 2017, RTÉ is one of the few broadcasters not to have a dedicated Eurovision account on any social media platform. This is something they will “forensically” look at.

When it comes to radio play, the delegation say it’s out of their hands. RTÉ may operate four FM radio stations and several more digital ones, but the broadcaster can’t force any of them to play Ireland’s Eurovision entry.

Furthermore, a member of RTÉ’s press team stressed the difficulty in building publicity for non-household names. The likes of Nicky Byrne and Jedward graced countless magazine covers, but the same publications weren’t interested in Brendan Murray or Molly Sterling.

Austria’s Experience

ORF’s Head of Press gave some insight into Austria’s selection process. They spent months searching for a song for Conchita in 2014, while the broadcaster has employed a scouting team since 2016. The team chose all ten participants in the 2016 national final and Nathan Trent in 2017. They’ve already begun searching for 2018. Like this year, the entire process will take place behind closed doors. The delegation wants an experienced performer who is “ESC-minded”, but not necessarily a star.

What next for Ireland?

RTÉ hopes to make a formal announcement about its Eurovision selection earlier than in recent years — January for Stockholm, December for Kyiv. Stay tuned to wiwibloggs for any updates.

What do you think? Is the Eurovision Forum a sign that Ireland is really taking the contest seriously? Or has RTÉ just run out of ideas? Let us know in the comments below.

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Main Photos: Eurovision.tv