United by Music: What role do mega-events like Eurovision and EuroFestival play in promoting cultural exchange and shared values? Christine Wilson, British Council’s Director of Research and Insight, writes about the impact of cultural mega-events on global cultural relations and soft power.
On Thursday 26 October 2023, Liverpool gears up for ‘Liverpool Calling: and the results are in’ – a special event to reflect on the city’s Eurovision experience and the achievements thereof. As part of the first impact assessment of its kind, we will be coming together with friends and partners to share the findings of research we commissioned to explore the cultural relations impact of Eurovision 2023. The research aims to understand how major cultural events support not just the soft power of host cities and countries, but establish sustained connections between different people and communities.
Whenever I mention to colleagues that we’re engaged with Eurovision research, more often than not, what I get in return is a quizzical look, or a raised eyebrow, at the very least. Perhaps it isn’t always readily apparent where cultural relations and the glitz and pomp of the Eurovision Song Contest converge.
The British Council was born out of a desire to collaborate and build connections between people through culture; it celebrates and uses national and international arts and cultural heritage to connect; and it foregrounds values of diversity and unity. In this regard, it is alike Eurovision, where previous song contests have called on us to ‘Build Bridges’, ‘Celebrate Diversity’ and connect ‘Under One Sky’.
The power of collaboration
For 2023, the rallying cry was ‘United by Music’, and it was Liverpool and the BBC making history by hosting the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of another country – Ukraine. This was the first time the winning country had been unable to host the event due to being under attack. The British Council had already pivoted within its UK/Ukraine Season of Culture, which had been planned since 2019 to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations, and to strengthen and build cultural connections between both countries. To the theme of, ‘Future Reimagined,’ the season took on a wider purpose of shining a light on an independent and vibrant Ukrainian culture, and the need for support for its arts sector. This allowed the Spotlights on Culture programme and the Ukrainian Institute to work together to support EuroFestival, the most extensive cultural programme ever built around a Eurovision contest, and which bore witness to a true commitment to co-create and co-operate.
Nineteen out of twenty-four commissions were collaborative efforts between UK and Ukrainian artists. The Ukrainian Institute facilitated direct connections to Ukraine’s cultural scene. These connections were central to ensuring commissions that highlighted Ukraine’s resilience, diversity, and innovation. EuroFestival’s funding partners also extended Eurovision’s reach into the local community through initiatives like EuroStreet, EuroLearn, and EuroGrant, fostering engagement with Ukrainian culture: cultural relations in action.
Exploring the impact: the research
The British Council Research and Insight team joined the Eurovision evaluation working group to lead the research strand looking at cultural relations, soft power, shared values, and conflict through Eurovision and other mega-events. Co-funded by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, we commissioned the University of Hull, in collaboration with consultants from the University of Brighton, University of Southampton, and Royal Holloway, University of London, to undertake a comprehensive study of the cultural relations impact of Eurovision, and the story of Liverpool hosting on behalf of Ukraine.
The research includes interviews with various stakeholders – including representatives from, Liverpool City Council, the BBC and the Ukrainian Institute, as well as UK and Ukrainian artists and producers – to try to understand the nature of the collaboration between the partners and countries; a tracker survey to assess the impact of watching Eurovision on people across Europe, including their views of the UK and awareness of international events; and a literature review to understand the importance of Eurovision and other large-scale cultural events.
While the research is not yet complete, with the full reports due to be published in early 2024, there are already some initial findings emerging. One is that since its more modest beginnings in the 1950s, Eurovision has evolved into a cultural mega-event, akin to other global sports mega-events (such as the Olympics) or cultural ones (Cities of Culture). As a cultural mega-event, Eurovision provides an opportunity for participants and hosts to project narratives about their cities and countries to a vast international audience. But it is not just about the soft power of projecting an image or telling a story – there is a mutuality in the cultural relations approach of promoting cross-border cultural exchange. Eurovision facilitates and encourages engagement with the music, languages, and cultures of many nations.
Cultural megaevents present unique opportunities for the sharing of values. Eurovision is distinct amongst mega-events as a stage for LGBTQIA+ visibility and inclusion, with a large LGBTQIA+ fan base and where openly out artists have been competing in the competition itself since 1997. Some momentous and widely popular acts have contributed to a boost in LGBTQIA+ acceptance across Europe. In essence, Eurovision and its stakeholders contribute to and reinforce cultural relations through a vibrant celebration of diversity. The European Broadcasting Union’s data shows that Eurovision resonates across all ages, 24% of this year’s viewers are under the age of 35, more than double the proportion that members of the European Broadcasting Union usually achieve.
According to the research, Liverpool’s status as a city of music smoothly aligned with the Eurovision brand, providing a ready-made narrative and situating the event in a natural home. Eurovision 2023 was not merely hosted ‘on behalf of’ Ukraine; rather, it featured extensive Ukrainian participation throughout the show and accompanying cultural programme. We cannot overstress the role played by intercultural dialogue in fostering meaningful partnerships between UK and Ukrainian professionals. UK and Ukrainian stakeholders had to collaborate closely to ensure Ukrainian culture was represented authentically. The broader context required each show to balance the celebration of Eurovision’s inherent fun with a deep sense of solidarity with Ukraine amidst the ongoing conflict.
UK and Ukrainian professionals were able to work together to balance those potentially competing narratives with the impartiality of EBU brand requirements and the ultimate overriding goal of ensuring entertaining tv content.
The research also notes that soft power does not emanate from flags, and that cultural relations can be built while avoiding emphasis on UK state symbols. The relatively limited prominence of UK state symbols and nation-branding was received positively by some Ukrainian participants and was exemplified by the symbolic significance of replacing a UK flag with a Ukrainian one over St George’s Hall in Liverpool during the ‘city handover’ ceremony on 30 January 2023. The value of support from the people of Liverpool, and the mobilisation of grassroots support for displaced Ukrainians, was also highlighted as central to success – fans, communities, artists, media, and creatives working together for a shared outcome.
As the literature review notes: ‘…cultural relations are embedded in the concept of Eurovision as an international coproduction…’ Despite the tragic reasons behind Eurovision 2023 being hosted in the UK, Liverpool’s hosting of the event has unlocked new routes whereby host cities and countries may facilitate cultural exchange, as well as to flex their soft power on the international stage.
The full findings of this research will be published in early 2024.
With special thanks to Catherine Baker Senior Lecturer University of Hull.