Patrick Jaquin, Deputy Head of
On 6 June Eurovision
will celebrate its 50th anniversary!
On 6 June 1954 Montreux, nestling between vineyards and Lake
Geneva, was the setting for the first Eurovision transmission: an
outside broadcast of the Narcissus Festival and a parade of 25
floats covered with flowers, yodellers, singers and a dozen brass
bands. This was followed by a 90-minute guided tour of the Vatican,
which finished with a homily, in Latin, by Pope Pius XII, on the
promises and the dangers of television, before he blessed the
audience, urbi et orbi, in six languages.
In the next few days there was the Palio in Sienna, a party for
refugee children in the Netherlands, an athletics meeting in
Glasgow, a youth camp on the Rhine with the participation of
Chancellor Adenauer, an agricultural fair in Denmark, a procession
in the Grand’Place in Brussels, the Royal Navy parading past Queen
Elizabeth, and a horse show in London.
Altogether, 18 programmes were broadcast during this first
“European Television Season” of European programme exchanges, at
the heart of which were the nine programmes exchanged for the World
Football Cup. Watching these, people were glued to the “box” in
homes and pubs and in front of shop windows.
Throughout these live broadcasts, engineers who had set up shop
in the Lille town hall tower strove feverishly to prevent or repair
network breakdowns. This control position gave its name to the
operation: the “Lille Experiment”.
For everyone else it was Eurovision, a word invented by an
English journalist, George Campey, who, in an article published in
the London Evening Standard on 5 November 1951, had written
concerning a BBC programme relayed by Dutch
television: “Eurovision is a system of cooperation for
the exchange of television programmes between the countries of
Western Europe, including Britain”.
The impact of the Season was due not only to the programmes,
some of which were not particularly striking, but rather to the
intention to repeat the experiment. After all, the network that had
been set up for the Season was of a more permanent nature than the
circuits patched together for the coronation of Elizabeth II.
However, it was the coronation ceremony that released television
from the straitjacket of different standards. It was then it became
European, with thousands of French, Belgian, Dutch, German and, of
course, British viewers witnessing - for the first time in history
in such great numbers - the crowning of a sovereign.
After the first Season of exchanges in 1954, nothing could stop the
tidal wave of Eurovision. Europe wanted to turn its back on the
war, people were starting to travel again, to cross borders, to
trade. International exchanges were the order of the day, and
television reflected this new atmosphere.
The heads of Eurovision had set two key engines in motion: the
main lines of international exchanges and the pooling of technical
facilities. At the same time an ident was adopted: a starburst
emblem accompanied by the opening ritornello from Marc-Antoine
Charpentier’s Te Deum.
People who had not thought of it before were considering buying
their own set.
To try and establish when the idea of Eurovision first
germinated, we can go back to 8 September 1953. On that day in Lime
Grove, in a meeting room of the London television centre, for the
first time delegates from Europe’s television nations got together
and decided to organize the European Television Season in the
summer of 1954.
It was then planned that each country should supply a programme
to be relayed live in all the other participating countries.
At the meeting of the Administrative Council held in Monte Carlo
in November, Marcel Bezençon (SSR) explained the reasons that had
prompted the study group to request, unanimously, that a
“television committee” be set up. As the delegates were not
convinced of the usefulness of such a committee, the discussion
dragged on and on. In the end, the Council proposed the setting up
of a programme committee, which would be accepted by the General
Assembly providing that the new committee concentrated mainly on
While planning for the Eurovision Summer Season in June
continued, Marcel Bezençon - together with the help of René McCall
of the BBC and Wladimir Porché of RTF - now started to prepare the
Programme Committee for action.
In February 1954, at the first meeting of the Programme
Committee, it was decided that the Committee’s Bureau should be run
by the eight representatives of the organizations in the television
countries (RTB/BRT/Belgium, DR/Denmark, RTF/France, ARD/Germany,
RAI/Italy, NTS/Netherlands, SSR/Switzerland, and BBC/United
Kingdom). Two working parties were established, one for the
broadcasting of films on television (GTV/1) under Sergio Pugliese
(RAI), and the other for live broadcasts (GTV/2), chaired by Jean
d’Arcy. A planning group, chaired by Edouard Haas (SSR), had been
added to GTV/2.
The first stumbling block the Programme Committee came up
against was a concept for planning the programmes. At a television
forum in Sandpoort (Netherlands) comprising television journalists
from eight European countries, only a few topics likely to be of
international interest were found; the British journalists merely
suggested “Another Coronation”.
The clearing of films and technical equipment through customs
posts proved to be a source of problems, not to mention the
performers. For instance, the BBC was planning to contribute its
famous variety show Café Continental, presented by unionized
performers who, because of the expected increase in the audience
figures (close on three and a half million viewers), demanded an
increase of 50% in their fee. A compromise was found: the matter
would be settled by the EBU Administrative Council. On the other
hand, there was no agreement in Denmark with the Tivoli artistes.
The programme Rendezvous in Copenhagen was cancelled and replaced
by a prize cattle show, eliciting this comment from Der Spiegel:
“Thank God cows don’t belong to unions.”
Despite everything, the EBU was determined to make a success of
the exchange season. The most reliable way of ensuring this was the
planned coverage of the World Football Cup in Berne, for which
Marcel Bezençon had negotiated the television rights with the
Chairman of the Swiss Football Association, Mr Thomma. “How much
are you offering?” asked the latter. “Nothing,” said Bezençon. “Are
you joking?” Marcel Bezençon was not joking, but nonetheless he
offered to make up any shortfall in gate money to a maximum of
Leaflets announcing the broadcasts and advertising television in
general had been published in the various participating countries.
In Germany, the price of television sets was falling significantly.
Obviously the television industry also thought the time had come
for a breakthrough.
Following the success of the Summer Season, Marcel Bezençon -
together with the Committee’s Vice-Chairmen: Jean d’Arcy, director
of French Television and René C. McCall, deputy director of BBC
Television - was convinced that it was necessary to take a new
initiative every year to promote television.
At the end of January 1955, the EBU Programme Committee, meeting
in Monte Carlo, approved two projects for further study: a European
song contest and a Eurovision cup for amateur entertainers (Top
Town programme); the latter, less convincing than the former, fell
by the wayside.
Meeting in the Palazzo Corsini in Rome on 19 October 1955, and
chaired by Sir Ian Jacob, director general of the BBC, the EBU
General Assembly agreed to the organizing of a European Grand Prix
- the Eurovision Song Contest - to be held, on a proposal of the
Swiss delegation - in Lugano in the spring of 1956.
Representing Switzerland, Lys Assia won with Refrains: lyrics by
Emile Gardaz and music by Geo Voumard.
With this contest, the EBU set out to really make its presence
felt on the European level. Mission accomplished: the Eurovision
Song Contest is coming up to its 49th edition in May 2004, to be
held in Istanbul with the participation of 36 countries - a record
figure - and is expected to attract 100 million viewers.
The Contest has had spin-offs in the form of the Junior
Eurovision Song Contest, the Eurovision Competition for Young
Musicians, and the Eurovision Competition for Young Dancers,
without forgetting the famous New Year Concert which will celebrate
its 47th edition in 2005.
In 1998 the EBU Award was presented to the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra for its performances of this traditional concert.
In addition to the programmes produced expressly for Eurovision,
we have gone from the unsteady and slightly blurred black-and-white
pictures reserved for a privileged few to News Exchanges that reach
over 350 million viewers. Extensive coverage of live events is
offered via one of the most reliable communication networks of its
kind that provides permanent coverage of Europe, the Americas, the
Middle East, North Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region, together
with ad hoc coverage of the African continent and the Pacific
There are five different categories of News Exchange: news,
sports news, youth news, regional exchanges and live events.
The coordination of sports and entertainment transmissions is
one of Eurovision’s main activities. Eurovision’s success in this
field is demonstrated by the number of broadcasters who turn to
Eurovision for programme feeds for the Olympic Games, UEFA
Champions League football matches, Formula 1 races, and ATP Tennis,
to mention just a few.
From news to sport to special events, Eurovision is the
strongest link in the content distribution chain.
Eurovision is the world's largest provider of international
transmission services of live sports and news events and one of the
most reliable communication networks of its kind.
From a simple start in 1954 allowing television stations in
eight countries to share news reports over the newly-named
“Eurovision” network, the News Exchanges today offer a platform
over which more than 30,000 news items per year are exchanged
between Eurovision participants. More than 100 items air daily on
the News Exchanges, providing an invaluable supplement to
broadcaster’s own news pro-duction capabilities.
Did the inventors of Eurovision see so far ahead? Ever modest,
Marcel Bezençon said: “Eurovision, a simple idea that has
succeeded” – and it has for 50 years!
More than 100,000 transmissions in 2003.
15,000 hours of sport and cultural events transmitted per
30,000 individual news items exchanged.
50 paths on five satellites.
70 satellite gateways worldwide.
More than 700 digital decoders in operation.
Over 300 television stations equipped with direct