Eurovision For Beginners – History of Eurovision

With 60 years of history under its belt, it would be almost impossible to travel through the entirety of Eurovision history. As such, we will look at the origins of the contest, and some of the main events which have helped the contest progress over time.

The contest began as an ambitious idea of Marcel Bezençon, who worked for the European Broadcasting Union. The contest took inspiration from Italy’s song contest, Sanremo Music Festival (which still runs to this day), however instead of just broadcasting to those of a specific nation, the idea was to test technological capabilities by broadcasting across all participating countries. Not only was it a technological challenge, but it was thought to be a positive way to bring together European nations after the horrors of war.

The name of the contest has not always been what we know it to be today. Originally, the contest was known as ‘Eurovision Grand Prix’, or ‘Le Grand-Prix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne’. Now, in English, the contest is simply known as Eurovision Song Contest, or in French, Concours Eurovision de la Chanson.

The first ever Eurovision Song Contest was held in 1956, in Switzerland, with a total of 7 countries choosing to participate. These countries were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Switzerland. As it was in its early stages, naturally the contest wasn’t as sophisticated in its planning or presenting as it is now. The show lasted for an hour and forty minutes, with each nation performing two songs. Two jury members from each country submitted their votes, and it was found that Lys Assia from Switzerland was the winner with the song Refrain.

This first edition was successful enough to continue the next year, however there were stricter rules and changes in format. One of the most notable changes was performers only being allowed to sing one song, rather than two. Controversy plagued the contest, even from its origins, as the jury members for Luxembourg were unable to cast their votes, so the Swiss jury voted on behalf of them, which meant that there was a clear bias, however, being the first contest, it was all a learning process, which helped to better the contest for future years.

The contest was very much a classy event, with audience members dressed in suits and evening dresses. The songs were also performed by Europe’s top performers, backed by live orchestras. Songs from the earlier editions were also performed in the official languages of the participating countries. Debates over the use of language continued over time, however we will address that in future articles!

If we turn the clock forward to the 1990’s, we can see that the list of participants began to grow dramatically, and this is due to the end of the Cold War, where countries began to gain independence. Since then, the contest has grown dramatically, with now only three central European nations having not participated: Liechtenstein, Vatican City and Kosovo.

The benefit to having such a rich history is that the contest had time to develop and progress, which has resulted in a format that can be understood and enjoyed by audiences across the world.

For more detail on the history of Eurovision, we suggest:

  • The Secret History of Eurovision – A documentary which explores the history of Eurovision and its impact on European politics and society. It features clips from previous editions of Eurovision, and also features interviews with Bob Geldof, Lordi, Niamh Kavanagh, Johnny Logan, and Terry Wogan, amongst others
  • The Eurovision Song Contest: The Official History – A book written by John Kennedy O’Connor which begins at the origins of Eurovision, and takes the contest year by year to talk about the highs and lows of each year, including results and statistics.

You can also learn more about individual contests through our EuroRevision series, and then test your knowledge in our EuroRevision quizzes!