Behind the scenes at the Eurovision Song Contest | Music | DW | 14.05.2016
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Behind the scenes at the Eurovision Song Contest

With 200 million viewers, it's the world's biggest music event and TV show. But what goes into it, and what comes out? At Stockholm's Globe Arena, DW music editor Rick Fulker got a backstage tour.

Entering the backstage area, you first pass a room occupied by Considering that this is the point of origin for billions of viewings, the office seems tiny. Along with the videos to the entries of 42 countries participating in the song competition this year, this internet platform offers a number of interviews and multi-media presentations in the run-up to the event.

Our host, Eurovision senior communications officer Dave Goodman, explains that although the big final is just ahead, "this is all actually the scene of a lasting party. Delegations have been practicing here - and having fun - for nearly two weeks."

Dave's colleague, EBU Media Director Jean Philip De Tender, adds that despite feverish expectations and competition, it's all in a spirit of friendly solidarity: "The purpose of the contest is to bring people together, and the intense level of collaboration necessary to make the multinational project work creates lasting friendships."

The makeup space in the backstage area. Photo: DW/S. Wünsch

The makeup area

As we pass by a row of doors, familiar tunes emanate from the dressing rooms: the Netherlands, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria. In the tailoring services room, a seamstress is making final touches to the dress worn by Ira Losco, Malta's entry. With 6,000 sequins, it took three weeks to complete.

From the depths to the lofty heights

Dave has brought us here at the very moment that the artists are lining up to proceed to the stage. We've arrived just before one of several complete run-throughs to the final on Saturday evening. A close-up view of some of the artists yields some surprises: Australia's Dami Im is quite tall and Poland's Michal Szpak short and very slender. Georgia's rockers Young Georgian Lolitaz carry their guitars, while other artists swishing past in extravagant feather outfits sport layers of makeup and many false eyelashes.

The buffet in the backstage area. DW/S. Wünsch

Tanking up energy for the next round

At a total cost of around 25 million euros ($28.3 million), the Eurovision Song Contest might sound expensive, but as Dave Goodman explains, it's actually good value for the money: Together, the two semifinals and the final yield about seven and a half hours of programming for European Broadcasting Union (EBU) affiliates in 50 countries, with a television audience of about 200 million for the final show. The costs are split up between EBU members. Not even the biggest among them - like Germany's ARD or Great Britain's BBC - could mount a production on this scale.

Then Dave leads us down into a dark area below the stage, stopping before the ramp for the artists. "The entire stage floor is covered by thousands of glass LED lights," he explains. "Little blue illuminated arrows point the way for the artists and choreograph their movements onstage." In between the songs, while television audiences watch a roughly 30-second sequence introducing the next act, stage hands hastily mop the stage floor so that the performers will always have a clear view of the lights embedded there.

View underneath the stage in the Globe Arena. Photo: DW/S. Wünsch

Beneath the splendor and the lights, the substage area is vast and dark

Emerge into the auditorium, and it's a completely different world. The Globe Arena, 85 meters high and 110 meters wide (280 by 360 feet), normally seats 16,000. But with the stage now vastly expanded - 50 meters wide, 32 meters in depth and 15 meters high (164 by 105 by 49 feet) and weighing 30 tons - that leaves room for only 10,000 guests. The best spots are the standing ones just in front of stage center, but with the arena's nearly perfectly round shape, there's hardly a bad seat in the house.

The world's most elaborate TV show

As we watch the rehearsal, more than 20 television cameras run through their paces. Along with human-propelled ones onstage, computer-guided suspended spider cameras glide through the vast interior space to afford sweeping views for television viewers. Each of the live guests is given a necklace with an LED light that will shine different colors at certain points during the songs, making the spectacle even more elaborate and inclusive. And onstage, there's the obligatory wind machine. What would ESC be without all those flowing trusses?

DW's Rick Fulker with Dave Goodman. Photo: DW/S. Wünsch

DW's Rick Fulker with Dave Goodman

Way at the back and at the top are the round commentary boxes, occupied by most of the 42 national broadcasters for their individual live transmissions of the show.

It's joked that the Eurovision Song Contest bankrupts the broadcaster in the home country, but that's not quite so. Swedish Public Broadcasting (SVT) has had enough Eurovision experience to know how to do a cost-effective production. Stockholm was the site of the event in 2000, and in 2013, it was the Swedish city of Malmö.

SVT provides the infrastructure this time, but individual countries may bring along their own props. These are rare, however, as most of the visuals are created by the light panels that give the stage seemingly ever-expanding or contracting dimensions. Although each song is very different in its video effects, individual wishes are coordinated with the local technical team.

Backstage-Lounge. Photo: DW/S. Wünsch

A feverishly relaxed atmosphere prevails in the backstage area

Every shot and every cut in the final TV show is computer-generated. The dramaturgy has been worked out beforehand by humans of course, but nothing is left to chance. At the rehearsal, however, Italian contestant Francesca Michielin has a problem with her monitor and can't start. She says dryly: "It would be cool if that were to function tomorrow." A joke? EBU Media Director Jean Philip De Tender later explains to us that for everything, there's a backup system.

And each year, there seems to be a new technological innovation; this time it's holograms. "Eurovision thus continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible on television," explains Dave Goodman - as it has always done since it started 61 seasons ago, with seven member countries. On the subject of technology, he recalls that one-third of the world's LED screens were reportedly put into service at the 2009 edition in Moscow. Two years later, the contest in Düsseldorf set even higher standards. Goodman thus justifiably calls Eurovision "the most elaborate show we'll see all year."

For all that, the year-round Eurovision staff has only three members, coordinating the timeline with the host country and assuring that ESC rules and conditions are adhered to.

Journalists in the ice hockey rink

Leaving the arena now, we proceed down a long ramp into a dark, wide tunnel leading to the press delegation room. That's where we'll be seated this evening along with 1,500 other journalists from 80 countries. Normally, we enter through elaborate security. Dave Goodman tells us that when the Eurovision staff came to look the room over last January, an ice hockey match was in progress there.

Russia's entry Sergey Lazarev seemingly gliding through the air during the performance. Photo: DW/S. Wünschh

How do they do that? Russia's entry sets a new standard for technical effects

As EBU's Jean Philip De Tender emphasizes, Eurovision is an expressly apolitical event - unless one would define politics as all-inclusive. Hypersensitive to political messages, the organizers have rigorous policies regarding flags, for instance. "If a country uses the event for expressly political statements, it will be expelled from the competition," explains De Tender.

A notable exception, he adds, is the rainbow flag, held high by the LGBT community, which is not considered a political entity but fits the Eurovision ethics of inclusion and diversity. But no one doubts that this explicitly non-political event can have an impact on the international community.

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