There are a number of rules which must be observed by the participating nations. The rules are numerous and unabridged, and a separate draft is produced each year, which explicitly specifies the dates by which certain things must be done; for example the deadline by which all the participating broadcasters must submit the final recorded version of their song to the EBU. Many rules pertain to such matters as sponsorship agreements and rights of broadcasters to re-transmit the show within a certain time. The most notable rules which actually affect the format and presentation of the Contest have changed somewhat over the years, and are highlighted here.
The official rules of the Eurovision Song Contest are long, technical, and ever-changing. Many of the rules cover technical aspects of the television broadcast itself. However, a few of the more important rules affecting the conduct and outcome of the Contest follow.
Number of songs
Each country in the Eurovision Song Contest is entitled to enter just one song. The contest final is limited to 26 songs, apart from in 2015 when 27 countries took part following what was initially meant to be a one-off invite to Australia. Since 2016, Australia have competed in the semi-finals. They consist of the following:
- The “Big 5” countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom) are rewarded with automatic spots in the final.
- The host country.
- 10 qualifiers from Semi-final 1 – held on the Tuesday before the contest.
- 10 qualifiers from Semi-final 2 – held on the Thursday before the contest.
At the first Contest, each country was allowed to submit two songs each with a maximum duration of three minutes. Nowadays, it is still required that each song not exceed three minutes in length, although many artists record the song in a longer version, simply performing a shorter version at the Contest. The number of participating countries has grown throughout the Contest’s history, and since 1993 the rules have been changed several times to both limit the number of finalists and to allow for participation by former Soviet and Yugoslav republics, Warsaw Pact nations and others.
No previously published music
The entering song is also not allowed to be a cover version, and is not allowed to sample another artist’s work. All songs must be completely original in terms of songwriting and instrumentation, and may not have been released publicly before 1 September of the year preceding. If released publicly, it may only be released in the entrant country’s market until after the contest.
Voices and instruments
Artists shall perform live on stage, accompanied by a recorded backing-track which contains no vocals of any kind or any vocal imitations aiming at replacing or assisting the live/original voice of the Contestant(s). The Host Broadcaster shall verify respect for this rule.
No entirely instrumental composition has ever been allowed in Eurovision contests. Norway won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1995 with a song focused on its instrumentals, but was eligible for participation because some lyrics (22 words in total) were added. Latvia performed their act a cappella in 2006, as did Belgium in 2011. Norway’s entry in the 2010 Contest, and Austria’s 2011 in the contest started a cappella but then the instruments started as well. Live music has been banned in Eurovision performances since 1998. This rule remains to this day.
Current rules state that countries are allowed to have up to six performers on stage. Performers must be aged 16 or older, on the day of the semi-final in the year of the Contest. The age restriction rule was introduced in 1990, as two contestants the year before had been 11 and 12 years old. From 1990 until 2003 the performer could still be 15 years old at the time of the contest, if their 16th birthday was later in the same year. In 2004 this was changed to the current rule. The introduction of this rule means that Sandra Kim, who was 13 when she won for Belgium in 1986, will remain the youngest winner unless the age limit is lowered. No restriction on the nationality of the performers exists, which has resulted in countries being represented by artists who are not nationals of that country. One of the most well-known winning artists was CanadianCéline Dion who represented Switzerland in 1988. It should also be noted that the performer only needs to be 16 when the event takes place and not when they are selected, as proven when Lindsay Dracass was selected to represent the United Kingdom in 2001 and again when Triinu Kivilaan was selected to represent Switzerland in 2005, despite both of these performers only being 15 at their respective times of selection. In Dracass’ case, she had to be issued a special visa to enable her to travel to Copenhagen.
From the first Contest in 1956 until 1965, and again from 1973 until 1976 there was no restriction on language. From 1966 until 1972, and again from 1978 until 1998, songs were required to be performed in a national language. The national language rule was actually instituted shortly before the 1977 Contest, but some countries had already selected non-national language entries, and they were allowed to enter without any changes.
As of the 1999 Contest, the restriction was again lifted, and songs may be performed in any language. As a result, many of the songs are performed partially or completely in English. In 2003, Belgium made full use of the so-termed free language rule, and entered a song, “Sanomi”, in an artificial language created especially for the song. This proved successful as the country finished second, only two points behind Turkey. The same tactic was used in 2006 by the Dutch entry Treble which is partially sung in an artificial language and once again by Belgium with their 2008 entry “O Julissi”.
Dialects and regional languages notes per year
On some occasions, dialects of a language or a very rare language have been used in a song entry:
- 1971, 1996, 2003 & 2012 – Austria sang in various dialects of German (Viennese in 1971, Vorarlbergischin 1996, Styrian in 2003 and Mühlviertel dialect in 2012)
- 1972 – Ireland sang in Irish, one of the two official languages of Ireland
- 1980 – The title of Norway’s entry was in the national minority Sami language
- 1982 – Germany sang in German but after winning performed the reprise in five different languages: German, English, French, Italian and Dutch
- 1989 – Switzerland sang in Romansh, the fourth language of Switzerland
- 1990 and 2012 – Finland sang in Swedish, which is the country’s second official language.
- 1991 – Italy sang in Neapolitan, an Italo-Dalmatian language spoken in Naples and surrounding areas.
- 1992, 1993, 1996 and 2011 – France sang in the languages of Antillean Creole (1992), Corsican (1993 and 2011) and Breton (1996).
- 1995 – The introduction of Greece’s entry was in Ancient Greek.
- 1999 – Lithuania sang in Samogitian, a dialect of Lithuanian
- 2004 – Estonia sang in Võro, which is considered by some to be a dialect of Estonian, and others, a separate language
- 2003, 2006 and 2008 – In 2003, Belgium’s Urban Trad sang “Sanomi” in a completely made-up language, while the Dutch participants in 2006, Treble, sang half of their song “Amambanda” in a fictional language. In 2008, Ishtar performed their song, “O Julissi” in a fictional language as well.
- 2006 – Monaco sang partially in Tahitian.
- 2009 – The Czech Republic sang partially in Romani, the language of the Romani people.
- 2009 – Israel sang partially in Hebrew and in Arabic.
- 2011 – Norway introduces lyrics in Swahili.
- 2012 – Most of the lyrics of Russia’s entry were in the Udmurt language (which, alongside Russian, is the official language in Udmurtia).
- 2012 – “Love Unlimited”, although mostly in Bulgarian, contains a line in Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, French, Romani, Italian , Greek, Arabic, English and the Azerbaijani which has never been present in the contest.
- 2016 – Ukraine decided to send Jamala, a Crimean singer, with her song “1944” which featured lyrics in the Crimean Tatar language, which sparked controversy between Russia and Ukraine because of the Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation.
- 2016 – The same year Greece sent Argo with a song in Pontic Greek. Only the refrain of the song was in English.
- 2018 – Israel sang a line in Hebrew.
- 2018 – Serbia sang a few lines in Torlakian dialect.
- 2019 – San Marino sang three words in Turkish.
- 2019 – Norway sang in there song partially in the native minority language, Sámi languages
Language issues and English-language prevalence
Many European countries were founded on ideas of linguistic unity and because of the sometimes unwelcome dominance of the English language in modern pop music, the language of a country’s Eurovision entry can be a contentious issue. Some entries are performed in English to reach broader audiences, though this is sometimes looked upon as unpatriotic. In recent years up to 2007 the number of non-English language entrants has decreased, with mostly Israel, Ex-Yugoslavia (mainly Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and French language countries, Italy, Spain and Portugal performing in their native language. In terms of recent Contest performance, most non-English songs have been far less successful than those in English. Until 2007, the last wholly non-English language winner was Israel’s Dana International, who performed Diva in Hebrew in 1998. The 2004 winner, Wild Dances performed by Ruslana, was partially sung in Ukrainian. After 2007 when Marija Šerifović won, singing in Serbian, the number of non-English contestants increased again in 2008 – almost half of the performers contested in their native language. The next non-English language winner, Amar Pelos Dois, performed in 2017 by Salvador Sobral, was sung entirely in Portuguese.
In some cases, the lyrics are written and recorded in two different versions (usually English and a national language) or a single multi-language version. Examples include:
- Denmark, where the national selection procedure allows freedom of language, but if the winning song from their national competition is in Danish, it must be re-written in English for the competition.
- Sweden, even as there is no outspoken rule the song must be translated into English, it has usually been done so (if allowed in the rules), as in 1965, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, and 2006.
- F.Y.R. Macedonia, who held a vote to decide whether their 2005 song should be in English or Macedonian.
- France, whose entry in 2001 was performed partially in French and partially in English. The 2007 entry was sung in Franglais. The French entry in 2008 caused controversy as it was all in English and people were unhappy about being represented with an English song. In 2012, Anggun performed her song Echo partly in English but mostly in French. The same happened in 2016, when Amir performed the chorus of his song “J’ai cherché” in English and the rest of the song in French. In 2017, Alma performed her song “Requiem” partly in English, but mostly in French as well.
- Albania, only allows songs performed in Albanian at “Festival i Këngës”, their pre-selection round for the Contest. Afterwards, they often translate the lyrics of their entrant to English.
- Italy, in the Festival della canzone di Sanremo (the Italian Eurovision selections festival) the song must be sung in Italian. The artist theoretically can choose at Eurovision to sing an English translated song, but nobody has chosen to sing the song at Eurovision entirely in English yet (at maximum some stanzas were translated in English).
- Serbia, after failing to qualify in 2017 with a song in English. Serbian artists must sing in Serbian at their national selection.
- Iceland makes their artists sing in Icelandic for their national selection but they can translate afterward which is the preferred way as with Ari in 2018, Svala in 2017, Greta Salóme in 2012 and 2016, Maria Olafs in 2015.
Rule changes by year
- 1956 First contest – each of the seven competing countries were obliged to hold a national selection final to choose their entries.
- 1957 After Italy’s song lasted 5:09 minutes, rule changes were introduced to limit maximum song times to three minutes – which still operates.
- 1958 The convention of the winning country being invited to host the following year’s contest is introduced. However, several countries declined the opportunity in subsequent years.
- 1959 Professional publishers or composers were no longer allowed in the national juries.
- 1962 Voting system change. Each country had 10 jury members who awarded their three favourite songs 3, 2, and 1 points in order. Previously each of the ten jury members awarded 1 point to their favourite song.
- 1963 Jury sizes doubled to 20 and points awarded were 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1.
- 1964 Jury sizes revert to 10, and points are now 5, 3 and 1. It becomes possible for a unanimous jury to award all 9 points to one song – but this does not occur. It was also possible to give 6 and 3 points to two songs, this happened only in 1965, when the Belgian jury gave 6 points to the United Kingdom and 3 points to Italy.
- 1966 Countries must now sing in one of its national languages.
- 1967 Scoring system reverts to the one used between 1957 and 1961. Each of the ten jurors awards a single point to their favourite song – so in theory a country could be awarded all 10 points, although the highest tally allocated under this system was 9 by the Belgian jury for Dana’s 1970 winning song.
- 1968 Although not a rule change, the contest is broadcast in colour by 6 of the 17 countries competing. It has been available in colour to broadcasters each year since.
- 1970 Following a four-way tie in the 1969 contest, a tie-break rule was introduced with provision for a sing-off and a show of hands from the juries to elect a winner.
- 1971 Another voting system change. Each country had two jury members, one under 25 and one over 25. They each awarded 1 to 5 points for each song. This created an issue where some juries gave fewer points out than others. The rule permitting groups of up to six performers on stage was introduced. Previously, entrants could only perform solo or as a duet.
- 1973 The rule forcing countries to sing in one of its national languages is relaxed – however this is only in place for four years.
- 1974 The scoring system used between 1957 and 1961 and between 1968 and 1970 is restored for a third time.
- 1975 The scoring system that still operates today is introduced. Each jury would now give 12 points to the best song, 10 to the second best, then 8 to the third, 7 to the fourth, 6 to the fifth and so forth until the tenth best song (in the jury’s opinion) received a single point. Unlike today, the points were not given in order (from 1 up to 12), but in the order the songs were performed.
- 1976 As the cost of staging the contest increases, a new rule was introduced that, in future, each participating broadcaster would have to pay a part of the cost of staging the contest.
- 1977 Countries must again revert to singing in their own national languages.
- 1980 The jury spokesperson now read the points out in numerical order (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12) rather than in song order.
- 1987 As the number of countries reached a record of 22, the EBU imposed a limit on the number of countries competing. Although set at 22, this limit has varied slightly over the years.
- 1989 Following the closeness of the result at the 1988 Contest, the tie break rule was amended. If a tie was to occur the winner would be declared on the most 12 points, if that still failed to separate them, the one with the most 10 points.
- 1990 Following Sandra Kim’s 1986 win for Belgium at the age of just 13 and controversy over two performers in 1989 being just 11 and 12 years old, a restriction on competitor’s age was introduced. The minimum age is now 16 at the time of the event.
- 1993 After the breakup of Yugoslavia, a pre-qualifying round was introduced.
- 1994 Relegation had to be introduced to accommodate the ever-increasing number of countries wishing to compete. Initially the bottom five countries from 1993 would not get an entrant at the 1994 contest. The relegation rules would change slightly over subsequent years.
- 1997 After controversy over a 1996 pre-selection procedure (similar to 1993) which resulted in Germany being omitted from the contest, the selection procedure changed to allow only the countries with the best average scores over the previous four years.
- 1997 Televoting was trialled in five countries and would become the preferred method of voting from 1998.
- 1999 Restrictions are lifted again allowing countries to sing in any language.
- 1999 Countries preferences to use backing tracks virtually leads to the abolition of orchestras. Live music became optional and all broadcasters since 1999 have declined to use an orchestra. In 2004, all live music was banned; even artists on stage were not allowed to play their instruments live, even if they explicitly voiced their wish to do so. This live music prohibition is still in place.
- 2000 The “Big Four” rule is introduced giving France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom automatic entry in the contest regardless of previous performance. In 2011 Italy made a comeback becoming a “Big Five” member.
- 2004 Relegation rules, which varied slightly since 1994 were dropped and a semi-final was introduced. Countries eliminated in the semi-final were still allowed to vote on the final, so the convention of reading the scores in both French and English were dropped. The spokesperson would now read the score in one language with presenters repeating in the other language.
- 2006 Jury spokespersons no longer read out all the points from 1 up to 12. Instead the scores up to 7 points are displayed briefly before the spokesperson reads out their 8, 10 and 12 point allocations.
- 2008 With a record entry of 43, a second semi-final was introduced. Juries were used to allocate a wild-card place in the final from each of the semi-finals. 25 countries now compete in the final.
- 2009 After criticism of the voting system after the 2007 Contest, changes in the voting procedure were made with the re-introduction of a national jury alongside televoting (split 50/50). This format would be extended to the semi-finals in 2010.
- 2010 People can vote from the first song until the end of the voting.
- 2012 The 15-minute televoting window is restored due to criticism of the voting method after the 2011 contest. 26 countries now compete in the final, because Italy made a comeback in 2011 and became a “Big Five” country along with Germany, France, Spain and United Kingdom.
- 2013 The format of the jury/televoting result is changed slightly in that all songs are now ranked instead of being given a score in each method, this is then merged and the ten highest ranked songs receive points in the usual manner. Also, for the first time, the running order in all three shows is determined by producers of the show instead of a random draw, which is supposed to give each song competing a fair chance of success.
- 2015 The EBU considers the possibility of inviting countries outside of the European Broadcasting Areaor the Council of Europe to participate in future editions of the contest. The first of such “guest nations” was Australia in 2015. This also bumps up the number of countries competing in the final to 27.
- 2016 A new voting system is introduced. Entries now receive one set of points from the jury and one set of points from televoting. First, the jury votes are given in the usual way, giving 1 up to 12 points but with only the 12th being read by the spokesperson. Then, the televotes are read by the presenters, starting with the country receiving the least televotes and ending with the country that received the most televotes, so the winner is not known until the end of the show. In addition, the number of countries competing in the final is reduced back to 26 as Australia now competes in the semi-final.
- 2019 The voting system changes slightly, as now the order of the televoting changes. Instead of giving the televoting-results in order of lowest to highest points, the points will be given in the order of the jury-voting, meaning the loser of the jury votes will hear its points first, and the winner of the jury votes will hear its final score last.