Eurovision Song Contest Creates Frenzy Overseas

Europe's biggest music event -- whose alumni include Abba, Celine Dion and Katrina and the Waves -- might be a little freaky for the U.S., but ignore it at your own peril.

While for most of us, ESC stands for the upper left button on computer keyboards, pop-music aficionados know it as the abbreviation for the Eurovision Song Contest, the battle of artists from 50 countries that annually captivates a television audience of 125 million and can draw up to 59 percent of viewers ages 14-49 in industrialized countries.

But numbers only go so far to describe the sheer size and impact of the event, which was hosted by Germany this year. The opening number alone, which started with host Stefan Raab and a guitar and ended with a big band, 42 dancing look-alikes of last year's winner, Lena, a whirl of pyrotechnics and the real Lena rocking the house, was easily the most extravagant and exciting production number to hit Germany since the 1936 Olympics, creating a frenzy rarely associated with easily digestible pop music.

Another example for the ESC's importance is the venue itself: The gigantic stadium in tranquil Dusseldorf is actually the home of the city's soccer team, which voluntarily vacated the premises for 19 weeks during the sport's peak season to move to a temporary facility next door. It's like the Dodgers handing over their stadium to the Academy for five months, just to make sure the Oscars have an appropriate venue for one night.

Behind this spectacle is Cologne's Brainpool, a subsidiary of Paris-based, international television powerhouse Banijay, which was chosen by German pubcaster NDR to produce an event worthy of its affluent host-country and palatable to the ESC's most rabid fans. The former can be a financial challenge, as last year's host Norway discovered when pubcaster NRK had to cancel several series and resell the television-rights for the soccer world cup to meet the hefty price tag of €25 million.

A similarly austere measure would, of course, cause a riot in soccer-centric Germany and since the most likely source of revenue, advertising-euros, were not an option (the members of the European Broadcasting Union, which is responsible for the ESC, are all pubcasters), the money had to come from somewhere else. Ticket sales, European license fees, sponsors and a small EU-handout lessened the burden, but about 12 million Euros remained, according to NDR head of entertainment Thomas Schreiber, who points out that tiny Norway was stuck with a bigger bill in the end.

As for the fans, they can certainly be a fickle bunch: The most hardcore of them actually arrive 14 days before the main event, taking part in the semifinals and dress and jury rehearsals (a major source of revenue), wearing strange costumes that showcase their favorites' nationality (or sometimes costumes that are just plain strange).

"It's really a mixture between Christopher Street Day, the Olympics, football and something about music," says Jorg Grabosch, the CEO and co-owner of Brainpool, which has created quite a franchise for the national selection shows with "Our Song for Oslo" last year. But while the show on the ground, which Grabosh likens to the "mother of all parties," mostly caters to the europop-fanatics, the broadcast is a different matter, since it reaches people of all ages, from kids to grannies. Not just that: It is shown in rather liberal countries like Germany as well as conservative enclaves such as Azerbaijan alike.

But this is Europe, after all, so a narrowly avoided Nipplegate during rehearsals only elicits fond chuckles from Grabosch and Schreiber, who only had to change a few scripted bits that involved co-host Anke Engelke getting plastered on European cocktails and getting hit in the face by Raab, which would be funny in Germany or the U.K., but might be misunderstood in member countries that still see spousal abuse as a well-established tradition.

A much hotter iron would appear to be the final result of the competition, with the Byzantine, 55-year-old voting process and rivalries between states like Ireland and the U.K. or Germany and Austria leading to politically charged ballots, sometimes pushing the result towards the incomprehensible.

Especially this year, when basically all front-runners (including the incumbent, Lena, the U.K.'s boy-band slash eye-candy Blue and Ireland's freakish-but-skilled entry Jedward) had to take a backseat to Ell/Nikki from Azerbaijan, one might be tempted to harp about the end results. But, after some moments of reflection, one has to admit that the fantastic freakishness, fun factor, as well as quite a number of good songs were enough to even win hardened cynics over.

And if one absolutely has to be spoilsport, there is no such time as the future -- with ESC fans, professionals and foes alike wondering how the 2012 contest in Baku will stack up against the powerhouse performance presented in Dusseldorf. And while American industry types might still shake their head in amazement, wonder or disgust when they encounter the ESC at viewing parties in Cannes, they'd do well to remember their initial reaction to soccer not too long ago. With Abba, Celine Dion and Katrina and the Waves being among the Eurovision Song Contest's most prominent alumni, this is a format that might very well end up on their local dial anytime soon.