Millions to tune in to Eurovision Song Contest

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HELSINKI - This weekend 100 million people will turn on their TVs to watch one of the world's largest music events, the curious state-funded potpourri of ethnic rhythms and bubble-gum pop that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

Contestants from 42 countries have traveled to the Finnish capital to compete in the flagship of the European Broadcasting Union's light entertainment programming on Saturday night.

Helsinki has been transformed for this year's event with giant outdoor screens erected for fans not lucky or rich enough to secure a ticket to the final at the Hartwall Arena.

Eurovision Executive Supervisor Svante Stockselius told Reuters what a burden the contest is for smaller countries and their public broadcasters in terms of effort and investment.

"And then it all starts for some new poor bastard who will have to work hard for one year. We will see who that will be," he said.

Around 100 million Europeans last year watched Finnish monster rockers Lordi, with "Hard Rock Hallelujah", clinch their country's first victory in the annual celebration of kitsch with a show characterized by over-the-top, horror-show theatrics.

Finland's Hanna Pakarinen hopes to repeat Lordi's success with "Leave Me Alone", but bookies are offering odds of between 50 and 80 to one.

The contest is a three-hour, live showcase of pop music talent selected by each nation in preliminary contests. The winner is decided by phone and text message votes from viewers in participating countries.

An elegant black-tie event throughout the 1950s, the contest is now widely associated with trite lightweight lyrics in the west of the continent.

But it has drawn increasing interest from viewers in eastern Europe and thousands of fans and journalists typically travel to the hosting country to camp it up with contestants.

Thursday's semi-finals saw 10 countries from Eastern Europe powering through to Saturday's final, while 18 others including Denmark, Belgium and Portugal failed to win enough votes.

The 10 qualified semi-finalists will be joined by 14 other countries including the four biggest financial contributors to the EBU; Germany, Spain, United Kingdom and France who qualify automatically.

While most contest winners quickly fade back into obscurity, the contest helped launch the careers of Swedish pop icons ABBA and Celine Dion, who won the Contest for Switzerland in 1988.

Georgia and the Czech Republic were first time contenders in Thursday's semi finals, with Georgia's Sopho winning a spot in the final with her ethnic-flavored "Visionary Dream".

"I'm so happy I want to thank the whole of Europe," she told a news conference before launching into an a cappella rendition of her song.

Most bookmakers have Ukraine as favorites to win, offering between four and six to one, followed by Serbia, Belarus and Sweden, while an unofficial BBC jury of 11 Eurovision singers and fans ranked Germany first.

If Germany wins, it will be the first time since 1982 when then 17-year-old Nicole won a landslide victory with Cold War reconciliation call "A little Bit of Peace".

Like most years, 2007 offers controversy with the Finnish broadcaster YLE logging complaints over Israel's cabaret-punk entry "Push the Button", whose lyrics refer to nuclear war.

But with not enough viewers pushing buttons on phones for them, Israel were eliminated in the semi finals.
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