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Opinion: German Public Broadcasting's debacle with the ESC

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Rick Fulker
November 23, 2015

They picked Xavier Naidoo as the candidate for the world's biggest entertainment show - then dumped him. Do public broadcasters know what they are doing? DW music editor Rick Fulker comments on their strange strategies.

Österreich Eurovision Song Contest 2015 Bühne
Image: Reuters/L. Foeger

On Saturday (21.11.2015), two days after announcing that Xavier Naidoo would represent the country at the coming Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in Stockholm on May 14, 2016, the German public broadcasting network ARD announced it would withdraw the candidate.

A storm of protest had erupted in the media, particularly in social networks. "We were astonished at the storm of reactions," said ARD entertainment coordinator Thomas Schreiber of North German Broadcasting.

They shouldn't have been. Last year, Naidoo spoke at a gathering of the "Reich Citizens' Movement," an obscure, right-wing extremist group, and Germany's Association of Lesbians and Gays had protested against Naidoo's nomination due to allegedly homophobic content in his songs.

Then, the decision to withdraw Naidoo was criticized in turn. "The back-and-forth shows how ignorant the responsible parties are - and that they have no backbone," wrote Spiegel Online. The "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper titled its commentary: "Take the ESC away from the ARD!"

A recipe for success?

That won't be possible. The ESC is organized by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and the ARD is its sole member in Germany. It won't let the competition be wrested away, even if it could.

There have seemingly been as many strategies for selecting the country's candidate for the ESC as there are years in which the contest itself has existed, 60 in all. In recent history, the television public has voted for its favorite - with little success; Germany has often landed near the bottom at the big casting show, the ESC Finale itself, with its television audience of 200 million. In 2015, Germany's Ann Sophie even earned zero points - a fate that also befell Austria, the host country. Back at the national finals, Sophie hadn't actually been the favorite. Andreas Kümmert, shortly after winning, had declined.

But zero points? Something has to be done, said many. With obscure artists doing so poorly, this time the network announced that Xavier Naidoo would perform for his country in Stockholm - explaining that the soul singer has a strong artistic identity, has sold in the millions, sings in German and with his dark skin hue, symbolizes Germany's ethnic mix.

Which all sounds a bit calculated and politically correct. If not desperate for success.

But how can one even comprehend this curious competition, much less win it? It's been won by hard rockers with grotesque makeup (the Finnisch band Lordi, 2006) and a bearded transvestite (Conchita Wurst, Austria, 2014). Then there have been the Scandinavians (Alexander Rybak, 2009; Loreen, 2012 and Måns Zelmerlöw, 2015) and an Azerbaijani with a Scandanavian song (Nikki, 2011). Mainstream artists have alternated with newcomers, freak shows with the lowest common denominator, good taste with bad.

Rick Fulker, Copyright: DW
DW music editor Rick Fulker

State-ordained fun

In war-weary Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest was founded in 1956 as the "Grand Prix Eurovision De La Chanson Européenne." In a spirit of friendly competition, it was to bring the peoples together. That may sound like the kind of fun thought up by a governmental authority, but the public accepted it. On one hand, the contest was an outlet for national pride. On the other, people could be indignant or delighted at shrill excesses among the various acts.

Altogether, ESC songs and shows have gone back and forth between reflecting the music scene at large and presenting tailor-made creations from its own parallel universe.

Something must be done! Really?

Germany has won the contest only twice: capturing the Cold War Zeitgeist in 1982 with Nicole's "Ein bisschen Frieden" (A Bit of Peace) and again in 2010 with the song "Satellite" and Lena Meyer Landrut simply enchanting everyone with her natural charm.

Lena was a protoge of entertainment professional Stefan Raab, himself an earlier ESC candidate and a show host on commercial TV. The ARD agreed to an unusual partnership with Raab's broadcaster, Pro 7. After Lena's triumph, she returned to the fray the following year and earned a respectable 10th place.

"Help us, Raab!" many are certain to be crying now. If he's clever, he'll turn it down; it's always best to quit when you're ahead. That's not an option for German Public Broadcasting. Was the mistaken decision in favor of the "exceptional artist" Xavier Naidoo an exception itself? A new procedure for selecting Germany's candidate has to be determined soon. But whatever it is, it will probably be seen as all-too-ostensible strategizing.

The interim result? Everybody now knows who the "Reich Citizens" are. For two years in a row, Germany will delegate a "second choice." And the Eurovision Song Contest will survive, no matter what.

So will Naidoo, at least with a certain disgruntled faction of the German public, which we now know includes probably more than its fair share of right-wingers.

07.04.2014 DW DOKU Xavier Naidoo 06
With or without the ESC, Xavier still has many irons in the fire