It may seem paradoxical. Shouldn’t the big final matter more? The Eurovision Song Contest is the biggest annual non-sports television event in the world, a showcase of talent across the continent, reaching hundreds of millions of viewers.
But while the broadcast of the big international final regularly draws in a third of the viewing public in Sweden, Melodifestivalen, which picks the song to be sent to Eurovision, can sometimes reach half of the viewing public, a full 50% rating. That a broadcast event in the age of streaming, YouTube and video-on-demand can reach half of the population, year after year, is, frankly, mindboggling.
How did it end up this way? Why is the national selection, in most countries a low-budget production only followed by a small core of enthusiasts, such a big deal in Sweden? Well, to begin with, there’s the event’s long history. Sweden is one of the most successful countries in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest, having won the event six times, and each win has fortuitously been spaced out so that the interest in all things Eurovision gets a boost every decade or so.
Sweden’s uniquely good-girl sense of national pride also probably plays a part in it – we want people to really, really like us, and so selecting the right song becomes serious business. Unlike in, say, the UK, Eurovision is not mocked in Sweden, at least not since the “alternative festivals” of the more radical 1970s, set up specifically to make fun of Melodifestivalen. But that era is long gone, and even the biggest newspapers cover the event reverently.
Nevertheless, up until the beginning of the 2000s, it still used to draw about the same amount of audience numbers as Eurovision itself did. What’s really taken it to the next level is the work of one man: production supervisor Christer Björkman.
Christer Björkman is an ex-performer in the competition (qualifying for Eurovision in 1992), who stepped into the role of running Melodifestivalen in 2002 and has been in charge of it ever since. With him at the helm, the format has expanded wildly; instead of one night and 10 songs, it now has six weeks of semi-finals and 32 songs, with excitement building up over the course of the whole period, and each semi in itself draws millions of viewers.
Production budgets have also vastly increased, with smaller cities around Sweden competing to get semi-finals placed in their sports arenas and pumping in millions of euros in sponsorship. And “Mello”, as it is affectionately known, has become a cultural driver of note. A significant part of the Swedish music industry is geared towards creating and marketing tracks specifically for Melodifestivalen, and there’s even a radio station completely dedicated to just playing Melodifestivalen and Eurovision songs.
And yet, nothing good lasts forever. Christer Björkman is on his way out, with only three years left until retirement. The writing quality of the show has taken a distinct dip since the brilliant Edward af Sillén resigned from his role as head writer and director in 2016. And in 2014 the unthinkable happened: Melodifestivalen, long the most-watched television programme in Sweden, was overtaken by another peculiar Swedish classic: the strange Disney Christmas clip show From All of Us to All of You, which started pulling in the most viewers again.
Will Melodifestivalen be able to reach the top again? With Sweden’s love for all things “Mello”, you shouldn’t bet against it.