Putin Offers Asian Alternative to Eurovision

RIA-Novosti / APPrime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a gala concert in Beijing on Tuesday evening.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Wednesday proposed a new song contest that would be an alternative to the hugely popular Eurovision but feature contestants from Russia, Central Asia and China.

The contest, to be called Intervision, would serve as a vehicle for “strengthening cultural ties between our peoples,” Putin said at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or the SCO, in Beijing.

Putin said an Asian version of Eurovision is an idea that SCO ministers have been working on for some time and would feature contestants from the group’s member states, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Putin did not say whether the contest might be expanded to include other former Soviet republics and other Asian countries. It was also not clear whether countries with observer status in the SCO — Iran, India, Mongolia and Pakistan — could take part.

Countries in Asia and Central Asia are barred from Eurovision, although exceptions have been made for Israel and Turkey.

Putin’s announcement comes at a time when Russia has enjoyed unprecedented success at Eurovision, which bills itself as the most-watched musical entertainment show in the world.

After placing second in 2006, Russia took first prize last year with singer Dima Bilan’s over-the-top performance that featured Hungarian violinist Edvin Marton and Russian Olympic and three-time world figure skating champion Evgeni Plushenko. The winner of the 2009 contest — which was held in Moscow in May — was Norway’s Alexander Rybak, an ethnic Russian who sang and played the violin.

Channel One state television would act as Intervision’s organizer, Putin said. The channel already organizes a contest called “Pyat Zvyozd — Intervision” that features performers from CIS countries. “[The state] has been discussing this matter with us for the last year,” a Channel One executive told The Moscow Times. “If the ‘Pyat Zvyozd’ contest transforms into Intervision … we will be very glad, especially due to our experience in organizing Eurovision 2009.”

For Russia, hosting Eurovision was an expensive prestige project made all the more costly for taking place in the middle of the financial crisis. The exact price tag remains unknown, but Channel One director Konstantin Ernst said it totaled more than 24 million euros ($32.3 million). A government official told Vedomosti in May that the show cost more than $42 million, a figure in line with Russia’s promises when it won the right to host the contest last year.

Eurovision was launched in 1956 and is seen by 125 million people across the world, despite its campy reputation and occasional complaints from viewers about the talent level of participants.

Putin did not say whether Intervision would have a format similar to Eurovision, where viewers vote by phone for their favorite performer but cannot vote for artists from their own country.

But Eurovision officials said Intervision could face legal problems if it used a similar format.

“The Eurovision Song Contest is a format of the European Broadcasting Union, and as such cannot be executed in a similar way without a license agreement,” said Sietse Bakker, a public relations director for Eurovision.

Intervision, incidentally, was the name of a Prague-based television network formed in 1961 and broadcast in most Soviet bloc nations. Between 1977 and 1980, the network held four song contests in Sopot, Poland, in an attempt to emulate Eurovision, which had already become a hit. But the network was destined for even closer ties with Eurovision. In 1993, Intervision was bought by the European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision.

Central Asian singers cheered the idea of a song contest focusing on their region, saying it would give them greater opportunities for worldwide exposure. “It’s a great idea. It opens up new horizons for all of us,” said Ivan Breusov, a singer with the Kazakh boy band 101, best known for his 2006 Russian-language hit “On Your Way Out, Leave.”

Central Asia is filled with unknown talent longing to be discovered, Breusov said by telephone. “It’s very hard for artists to make it in Kazakhstan. You have to have all sorts of ties. This would give people the opportunity to be heard on a larger platform,” he said.

Country organizers for Eurovision were quick to point out potential problems. “It might be hard to get some countries interested. Lots of money will have to be spent on promotion,” said Marco de Koning, who organizes the contest in the Netherlands. “It would be great if they could work with Eurovision for the first few years and benefit from their experience.”

The sheer size of China’s population — estimated at 1.3 billion people — could present problems as well, making the country an all-powerful voting bloc.

“If a large part of the Chinese decided to vote the same way, yes, that could be a problem,” de Koning said.

Eurovision is often described as being a popularity contest as well as a song contest, with viewers in a country often voting for a neighboring or friendly country. Russia’s recent success has been linked to the large number of ethnic Russians living in Europe, especially Ukraine.

But Intervision could have a future after it worked out the problems, de Koning said. “It would be great if the winners of Intervision and Eurovision competed against one another. It would be a whole new song contest,” he said.