After I tweeted yesterday's announcement of the surprise rule change, here's some of the immediate reaction I received from contest fans:

"@KatsJonouchi : ...what."

"@chrispoppe : that cannot be for real...."

"@IanRobHowell : Doesn't seem quite right does it?"

"@dave_a_goodman : Strikes me as something that many countries would find objectionable - its hardly a fair playing field - who wants to be on 2nd"

"@tewyUK: Can't believe it, that's exactly how they rig Melodifestivalen..."

"@joanaplucas: It will result in problems for sure. No one wants to be 1st or 2nd."

"@anoon22: true, and some might feel that they are getting screwed over by the producers."

"@joanaplucas: Yes, it seems that no one likes this new idea"

"@Arianna483: o_o that's boring!"

"@den_vilda: Indeed, WTF?"

"@Holgermat: I can't describe with words what a fucking knobhead Björkman is."

"@Holgermat: And it will be for the FUCKING WORSE."

"@Holgermat: See exactly what I meant - it gets MF-ized."

This reflected the general reaction:

"@TobsonHelsinki: So the producers will decide the running order themselves for Eurovision 2013? I'm not extatic about this one."

"@alejandroesteso: WTF!! NO. '@Eurovision: Running order Malmö 2013 to be determined by producers. Read more at bit.ly/TucaKv'"

"@melodipopvision: Not wide open for conspiracy theories at all! RT @Eurovision: Running order Malmö 2013 to be determined by producers. Read more at bit.ly/TucaKv"

"@sofabet: This is a recipe for discontent and hissy fits from national broadcasters. bit.ly/TucaKv"

"@KatsJonouchi: I can't believe the other countries will let the Swedish producers choose the running order. There'll be a protest surely."

"@gabvivas: #OhGod! Mixed feelings about this RT @Eurovision: Running order Malmö 2013 to be determined by producers. Read more at bit.ly/TucaKv"

"@RicharCea: No me convence '@Eurovision: Running order Malmö 2013 to be determined by producers. Read more at bit.ly/TucaKv'"

"@mikiiglesias: No me gusta... 'Running order Malmö 2013 to be determined by producers' bit.ly/TucaKv'"

Why the outrage? Is it because this decision deprives us of the unique pleasure of watching hilariously bad draw shows livestreamed from conference rooms full of bored TV executives? No, it isn't (although of course that's collateral). Quite simply, it turns Eurovision from a transparent event into a steered one.

Azeri Draw

It's well-known that a song's position in the running order affects the amount of votes it receives. No song performing second in the final has ever won, performing first is widely regarded as fatal to an entry's chances, and every one of the past 8 Eurovision winners performed between 17th and 24th in the running order on the night of the final. This trend towards later entries doing better is easily explained as follows: as lines don't open until all songs have been performed (with the exception of 2010 and 2011, when they were open throughout), people are more likely to vote for the songs that are fresh in their minds and to forget earlier ones. The songs immediately before and after a given entry are also widely seen as playing a part in how well it is remembered by viewers. My own experience reflects this: watching the 2004 contest, I completely forgot the Albanian entry by Anjeza Shahini - even though I really liked it - when it was immediately followed by Ruslana's showstopping song-and-dance number.

It goes without saying that TV talent show producers understand these effects and use them as a matter of course in programmes like The X Factor and Melodifestivalen to favour certain acts and dampen the support of others. For instance, in this year's Melodifestivalen, Danny Saucedo - presumably as the producers' preferred choice - performed last in the last heat then last in the final. (The reality TV betting community refers to this as the "pimp slot" for its ability to boost votes when lines open immediately afterwards.) Meanwhile, the most similar entry to Saucedo's, David Lindgren's Shout It Out, was given the opening slot in the final. Winner Loreen performed last in her heat and had a second-half slot in the final, while in 2011, winner Eric Saade performed both last in his heat and last in the final. The acts performing last in the final also won Melodifestivalen in 2007 and 2009.

A producer-determined running order at Eurovision creates the potential for similar steering of the contest - a situation without precedent. In one fell swoop, it casually discards the transparency that forms the contest's backbone - part of what makes Eurovision enduring, unique, and yes, European. The ESC has never been a wholly level playing field, but thanks to the successful voting reforms introduced in recent years - the introduction of 50% jury voting in all shows, and the randomised splitting of groups of aligned countries between semifinals - it is fairer today than it ever was. That's no mean feat. The decision announced today turns the contest's playing field, more level than it's ever been, into one that can be angled in every possible direction. It is fundamentally different to any of the countless previous rule changes in the contest's almost 60-year history.

It's being speculated by some contest fans that this decision is in response to the (completely deserved) flak and (self-inflicted) brand damage Eurovision sustained after being hosted in Azerbaijan this year, a country ruled by an authoritarian regime and with a poor human rights record. Some suggest that the EBU wants to avoid a repeat of 2012 by arranging the running order to minimise the chances of undemocratic countries like Belarus and, yes, Azerbaijan winning.

Whatever you think of that theory, another likely reason for the change is that the contest organisers simply want to have more control over running order to ensure maximum entertainment and thus maximum ratings and revenue. When an unfortunate draw results in an opening onslaught of dire entries (as in 2006) or ballads and downtempo songs (as in 2009, 2012 and arguably 2010), this can potentially endanger viewing figures - the risk is that people switch off or over en masse. Watching the 2006 contest at a party attended by a number of contest virgins, I recall myself and my co-hosts repeatedly saying "It's not normally like this! It's going to get better!" to the aghast, baffled newcomers by way of reassurance. While I can understand a desire to avoid a slow start to the contest or a run of poor songs, this isn't the way to go about it. The best recipe for a uniformly high-quality final is for broadcasters to pursue higher quality in their domestic selections.

I don't imagine delegation heads will welcome this news. Getting a bad draw is one thing, but if a delegation has put months of work into an entry, the last thing they want is for it to be deliberately buried in the running order. It's a recipe for strife and threatens to make the contest even more of public money than it already is. More than anything else, a producer-determined running order should be unnecessary as the advent of 50% jury voting already heavily compensates for running order effects. Good songs with a bad draw will still be rewarded by juries, as evidenced by Albania's success this year despite being drawn third and surrounded by other ballads.

In short, this change is short-sighted, completely unnecessary, and is likely to alienate both contest fans and the wider viewing public and cause further brand damage to the contest. In the UK, The X Factor is currently suffering in the ratings because people are tired of it and, after 9 years, they increasingly see through its manipulations. Meanwhile, Eurovision is not just fairer than ever but also more successful than ever. This decision puts this success at risk. Copying other TV talent shows by switching to a running order decided behind closed doors is not the way for Eurovision to go.

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