The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international song competition, held every year by the Eurovision broadcasting organisation since 1956 (with the exception of 2020), with participants representing primarily European countries. Each participating country submits an original song to be performed on live television and radio, then casts votes for the other countries' songs to determine the winner. The official rules of the contest have been changed and developed many times throughout the contest's history. Many of the rules cover technical aspects of the television broadcast itself. Rules affecting the conduct and outcome of the contest follow.
Countries that have a broadcaster that is a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) are eligible to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest. Eligible participants include primarily Active Members (as opposed to Associate Members). Active members are those which are located in states that fall within the European Broadcasting Area, or are member states of the Council of Europe. Eligibility to participate is not determined by geographic inclusion within the continent of Europe, despite the "Euro" in "Eurovision" – nor does it have any relation to the European Union. Several countries geographically outside the boundaries of Europe have competed: Israel, Cyprus and Armenia in Western Asia, since 1973, 1981 and 2006 respectively; Australia since 2015, and Morocco, in North Africa, in the 1980 competition. In addition, several transcontinental countries with only part of their territory in Europe have competed: Turkey, since 1975; Russia, since 1994; Georgia, since 2007; and Azerbaijan, which made its first appearance in the 2008 edition.
The broadcaster must have paid the EBU a participation fee in advance of the deadline specified in the rules of the contest for the year in which they wish to participate. The contest has a maximum number of 44 participants. Each year, the "Big 5" (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom) are guaranteed places within the final automatically, as well as the host broadcaster, typically the winner of the previous contest. The remaining (up to) 38 countries are then required to compete in one of the two semi-finals held in advance of the final. The number of participating countries has grown throughout the contest's history, and since 1993 the rules have been changed several times to both limit the number of finalists and to allow for participation by former Soviet and Yugoslavian republics, Warsaw Pact nations and others.
Each country in the contest is entitled to enter just one song. At the first contest, each country was allowed to submit two songs each with a maximum duration of three minutes. Nowadays, it is still required that each song not exceed three minutes in length, although many artists record the song in a longer version, simply performing a shorter version at the contest.
The entering song is also not allowed to be a cover version, and is not allowed to sample another artist's work. All songs must be completely original in terms of songwriting and instrumentation, and may not have been released publicly before 1 September of the year preceding.
There has only been one incident of previously published music in a Eurovision event. When Switzerland debuted at the Junior contest in 2004, the singer, Demis Mirarchi won the national selection two years earlier. By the time the contest rolled by, the song had already been published. The EBU nevertheless accepted the submission by the broadcaster and Switzerland made their debut.
From the first Contest in 1956 until 1965, and again from 1973 until 1976 there was no restriction on language. From 1966 until 1972, and again from 1978 until 1998, songs were required to be performed in a national language. The national language rule was actually instituted shortly before the 1977 Contest, but some countries had already selected non-national language entries, and they were allowed to enter without any changes.
As of the 1999 Contest, the restriction was again lifted, and songs may be performed in any language. As a result, many of the songs are performed partially or completely in English. In 2003, Belgium made full use of the so-termed free language rule, and entered a song, "Sanomi", in an artificial language created especially for the song. This proved successful as the country finished second, only two points behind Turkey. The same tactic was used in 2006 by the Dutch entry Treble which is partially sung in an artificial language and once again by Belgium with their 2008 entry "O Julissi".
Language issues and English-language prevalence
Many European countries were founded on ideas of linguistic unity and, because of the sometimes unwelcome dominance of the English language in modern pop music, the language of a country's Eurovision entry can be a contentious issue. Some entries are performed in English to reach broader audiences, though this is sometimes looked upon as unpatriotic and likewise criticised by the British people for their country not doing well in the contest. From 1999 to 2007, the number of non-English language entrants decreased, with mostly Israel, Ex-Yugoslavia (mainly Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and French language countries, Italy, Spain and Portugal performing in their native language. Until 2007, the last wholly non-English language winner was Israel's Dana International, who performed Diva in Hebrew in 1998. The 2004 winner, Wild Dances performed by Ruslana, was partially sung in Ukrainian. After 2007, when Marija Šerifović won performing Molitva in Serbian, the number of non-English contestants increased again in 2008 – almost half of the performers contested in a native language of their country. The next non-English language winner, Amar pelos dois, performed in 2017 by Salvador Sobral, was sung entirely in Portuguese.
In some cases, the lyrics are written and recorded in two different versions (usually English and a national language) or a single multi-language version. Examples include:
- Albania – Albania only allows songs performed in Albanian at Festivali i Këngës, the competition used to select their entry for the contest. They have often translated the lyrics of their entrant into English, as in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2020.
- Denmark – the Danish national selection procedure allows freedom of language, but if the winning song from their national competition is in Danish, it must be re-written in English for the competition.
- France – The French entry in 2008 caused controversy as it was performed mostly in English, and many people were unhappy about being represented with an English song. Since then, 2012, 2016, 2017 and 2019 entries have been performed in both French and English.
- Iceland – Iceland requires their artists to sing in Icelandic in the semi-finals of Söngvakeppnin, the Icelandic selection process, but they may translate the song in the final.
- Italy – in the Sanremo Music Festival, used to select their entry for the contest, the song must be sung in Italian. The artist theoretically can choose to perform the song in English at Eurovision, but as of 2020, no artist has chosen to perform their song at Eurovision entirely in English – at maximum, some stanzas were translated into English.
- Macedonia – Macedonia held a vote to decide whether their 2005 entry should be in English or Macedonian. The song was performed in English.
- Portugal – Though since 2017 different languages are allowed to compete in their national selection, as of 2020, all of their entries have been performed at least partially in Portuguese.
- Serbia – after failing to qualify in 2017 with a song in English, since 2018 artists must sing in Serbian at their national selection.
- Sweden – while it is not required for the winning entry of Melodifestivalen, the Swedish selection process, to be translated into English for Eurovision, it has usually been done so (if allowed in the rules), as in 1965, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, and 2006.
Current rules state that countries are allowed to have up to six performers on stage.
Performers must be aged 16 or older, on the day of the semi-final in the year of the Contest. The age restriction rule was introduced in 1990, as two contestants the year before had been 11 and 12 years old. From 1990 until 2003 the performer could still be 15 years old at the time of the contest, if their 16th birthday was later in the same year. In 2004 this was changed to the current rule. The introduction of this rule means that Sandra Kim, who was 13 when she won for Belgium in 1986, will remain the youngest winner unless the age limit is lowered.
The performer only needs to be 16 when the event takes place and not when they are selected, as proven when Lindsay Dracass was selected to represent the United Kingdom in 2001 and again when Triinu Kivilaan was selected to represent Switzerland in 2005, despite both of these performers only being 15 at their respective times of selection. In Dracass' case, she had to be issued a special visa to enable her to travel to Copenhagen.
No restriction on the nationality of the performers exists, which has resulted in countries being represented by artists who are not nationals of that country. One of the most well-known winning artists was Canadian Céline Dion who represented Switzerland in 1988.
Artists shall perform live on stage, accompanied by a recorded backing-track which contains no vocals of any kind or any vocal imitations aiming at replacing or assisting the live/original voice of the Contestant(s). The Host Broadcaster shall verify respect for this rule.
No entirely instrumental composition has ever been allowed in Eurovision contests. Norway won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1995 with a song focused on its instrumentals, but was eligible for participation because some lyrics (22 words in total) were added. Latvia performed their act a cappella in 2006, as did Belgium in 2011. Norway's entry in the 2010 Contest, and Austria's 2011 in the contest started a cappella but then the instruments started as well. Beginning in 1998, live music was abolished in Eurovision performances.
Rule changes by year
- 1956 First contest – each of the seven competing countries were obliged to hold a national selection final to choose their entries.
- 1957 After Italy's song lasted 5 minutes and 9 seconds, rule changes were introduced to limit maximum song times to three minutes – which still operates. The voting was made public for the first time. Each of the ten jurors awards a single point to their favourite song - so in theory a country could be awarded all 10 points, although the highest tally allocated under this system was 9 by the Danish jury for France's winning song in 1958 and the Belgian jury for Ireland's winning song in 1970.
- 1958 The convention of the winning country being invited to host the following year's contest is introduced. However, several countries declined the opportunity in subsequent years.
- 1959 Professional publishers or composers were no longer allowed in the national juries.
- 1962 The voting system changes. Each country had 10 jury members who awarded their three favourite songs 3, 2, and 1 points in order. Previously each of the ten jury members awarded 1 point to their favourite song.
- 1963 The jury size is doubled to 20 and the points awarded were 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1.
- 1964 The jury size reverts to 10, and points are now 5, 3 and 1. It becomes possible for a unanimous jury to award all 9 points to one song – but this never occurred. It was also possible to give 6 and 3 points to two songs; this happened only in 1965, when the Belgian jury gave 6 points to the United Kingdom and 3 points to Italy.
- 1966 Countries must now sing in one of their national languages.
- 1967 The scoring system reverts to the one used between 1957 and 1961.
- 1970 Following a four-way tie in the 1969 contest, a tie-break rule was introduced with provision for a sing-off and a show of hands from the juries to elect a winner.
- 1971 Another voting system change is introduced. Each country had two jury members, one under 25 and one over 25. They each awarded 1 to 5 points for each song. This created an issue where some juries gave fewer points out than others. The rule permitting groups of up to six performers on stage was introduced. Previously, entrants could only perform solo or as a duet.
- 1973 The rule forcing countries to sing in one of their national languages is relaxed – however this is only in place for four years.
- 1974 The scoring system used between 1957 and 1961 and between 1967 and 1970 is restored for a third time.
- 1975 A scoring system reminiscent of the current system is introduced. Each jury would now give 12 points to the best song, 10 to the second best, then 8 to the third, 7 to the fourth, 6 to the fifth and so forth until the tenth best song received a single point. Unlike today, the points were not announced in order (from 1 up to 12), but in the order the songs were performed.
- 1976 As the cost of staging the contest increases, a new rule was introduced that, in future, each participating broadcaster would have to pay a part of the cost of staging the contest.
- 1977 Countries must again revert to singing in their own national languages.
- 1980 The jury spokesperson now read the points out in numerical order (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12) rather than in song order.
- 1987 As the number of countries reached a record of 22, the EBU imposed a limit on the number of countries competing. Although set at 22, this limit has varied slightly over the years.
- 1989 Following the closeness of the result at the 1988 contest, the tie break rule was amended. If a tie was to occur the winner would be declared by whichever received the most 12 points; if that still failed to separate them, the one with the most 10 points would be declared the winner. If there is still a tie, the same process is used with the 8 points, and so on until there is no longer a tie.
- 1990 Following Sandra Kim's 1986 win for Belgium at the age of just 13 and controversy over two performers in 1989 being just 11 and 12 years old, a restriction on the competitors' ages was introduced. The minimum age is now 16 at the time of the event.
- 1993 After the breakup of Yugoslavia, a pre-qualifying round was introduced.
- 1994 Relegation had to be introduced to accommodate the ever-increasing number of countries wishing to compete. Initially the bottom five countries from 1993 would not be relegated from 1994 contest. The relegation rules would change slightly over subsequent years.
- 1997 After controversy over a 1996 pre-selection procedure (similar to 1993) which resulted in Germany being omitted from the contest, the selection procedure changed to allow only the countries with the best average scores over the previous four years.
- 1997 Televoting was trialled in five countries and would become the preferred method of voting from 1998.
- 1999 Restrictions are lifted again allowing countries to sing in any language.
- 1999 The use of a live orchestra was dropped as a way to conserve money for the show; since then, all songs have used pre-recorded backing tracks.
- 2000 The "Big Four" rule is introduced giving France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom automatic entry in the contest regardless of previous performance. In 2011, Italy returned to the competition, becoming a "Big Five" member.
- 2004 Relegation rules, which had varied slightly since 1994, were dropped and a semi-final was introduced. Countries eliminated in the semi-final were still allowed to vote on the final, so the convention of reading the scores in both French and English was dropped. The spokesperson would now read the score in one language with presenters repeating in the other language.
- 2006 Jury spokespersons no longer read out all the points from 1 up to 12. Instead the scores up to 7 points are displayed briefly before the spokesperson reads out their 8, 10 and 12 point allocations.
- 2008 With a record entry of 43, a second semi-final was introduced. Juries were used to allocate a wild-card place in the final from each of the semi-finals. 25 countries now compete in the final.
- 2009 After criticism of the voting system after the 2007 contest, changes in the voting procedure were made with the re-introduction of a national jury alongside televoting (split 50/50). This format would be extended to the semi-finals in 2010.
- 2010 Televoting is open from the first song until the end of the voting.
- 2012 The 15-minute televoting window is restored due to criticism of the voting method after the 2011 contest. 26 countries now compete in the final, due to Italy's return in 2011.
- 2013 The format of the jury/televoting result is changed slightly in that all songs are now ranked instead of being given a score in each method. This is then merged and the ten highest ranked songs receive points in the usual manner. Also, for the first time, the running order in all three shows is determined by producers of the show instead of a random draw, which is supposed to give each song competing a fair chance of success.
- 2015 The EBU considers the possibility of inviting countries outside of the European Broadcasting Area or the Council of Europe to participate in future editions of the contest. The first of such "guest nations" was Australia in 2015. This also increases the number of countries competing in the final to 27.
- 2016 A new voting system is introduced. Entries now receive one set of points from the jury and one set of points from televoting. First, the jury votes are announced in the usual way, giving 1 up to 12 points but with only the 12 points being read by the spokesperson. Then, the televotes are read by the presenters, starting with the country receiving the fewest televote points and ending with the country that received the most televote points, so the winner is not known until the end of the show. In addition, the number of countries competing in the final is reduced back to 26 as Australia now competes in the semi-final.
- 2019 The voting system changes slightly, as now the order of the televoting changes. Instead of giving the televoting results in order of fewest to most points, the points are given in the order of the final jury voting ranking, meaning the country with the fewest jury points receives its televote points first, and the winner of the jury votes hears its final score last.