Criticism gets levelled every year at the idea of having a ‘Big Four’, and it became vocal this year slightly earlier than normal when it was announced that Italy would be forming a ‘Big5’ upon their return to the song contest. Contributions by each member broadcaster to the EBU are calculated on a number of criteria, such as a broadcaster’s turnover, size, and several other economic conditions in relation to the country itself. The idea is that those who can put more money in, which helps the smaller companies. At the 2006 EBU press conference, it was stated that the BBC paid around 56 times more to the EBU as a membership fee than the national broadcaster of Bulgaria BNT. On that front, when Italy withdrew from the contest, they still continued to be active members of the EBU, and so still paid their higher fees.
The status of the ‘Big 5’ is not only based on their contributions to the European Broadcasting Union, though. They also share a larger part of the costs for the organisation of the Eurovision Song Contest itself. To put this into perspective, here are some figures obtained from the BBC and RTÉ, as both broadcasters are subject to freedom of information legislation in their respective countries. In 2009, RTÉ’s participation fee was €55,000. In the same year, the BBC paid a total of £279,805 to take part in the Moscow contest. In May of 2009, £1 bought approximately €1.14, so it would mean that the BBC paid around €318,977- some 5.8 times more. In Oslo the BBC paid £283,190 (approximately €333,165 using the rate of £1 = €0,85 on Friday 28th May 2010), with RTÉ’s fee costing €63,000. For those who are interested, the BBC’s participation fee in Belgrade was £221,000. The participation fee costs have increased to match the budgets set by the organisers, and also to reflect the mount likely to be recovered in sponsorship, which is now lower due to the financial crisis.
With these figures, it’s easy to see why there was a ‘Big 4’. To make the numbers easier, assume that the Big 4 all paid €330,000 to the 2010 contest, compared to €63,000 for the other broadcasters. If you took away the Big 4 contribution and reduced it to just four sets of €63,000 the EBU would be left with a shortfall of €1,068,000, meaning that you would have to add €27,384 to the fee of all 39 countries to cover the deficit, thus making a total participation fee of over €90,000 per country- a substantial amount in harder times.
Putting that into the 2011 perspective, Germany does not pay a participation fee as they are hosting the event. So based on last year’s figures, there is already a hole of €330,000 to find- although contributions have probably gone up slightly. By adding Austria, Hungary and San Marino the EBU has already recovered €189,000 of this (again, assuming last year’s fees), but that still leaves €141,000 less than last year. That would either mean increasing participation fees by around €3,700 per country to cover the deficit, or finding another ‘Big’ country. Whilst that amount doesn’t sound like a lot, the fact that Andorra and Montenegro aren’t taking part due to the cost of participating (and Slovakia were wavering for several months over), it means that such an increase could have seen a couple of other countries not take part- thus increasing the overall fee per country more with each withdrawal. For this reason, having Italy back as a ‘Big 5’ country made perfect sense- they cover the fee Germany isn’t paying, and with three returning countries the EBU is actually ‘up’ in the amount of fee money it took last year. All this of course is based on the idea that countries pay the same fees, which isn’t the case, as some of the smaller countries actually pay a lot less, meaning the Big 5 contribution is more needed.
Looking further ahead, it makes things slightly easier for 2012. Assuming that a non-‘Big 5’ country wins, you will then have five countries paying a larger fee, so the EBU will be receiving some €300,000 more than it has done in previous years. In theory, they could reduce the participation fees of everyone else with the surplus cash- or try to attract countries back into the contest by waiving their fee, or giving them discounted participation.
The big four, and now the big five, gets a lot of unfair criticism. However one has to remember that they are each paying effectively the fee of five countries put together, and without them paying more Eurovision would probably have never reached such a high number of countries, nor its now highly professional levels staging and production. Surely giving them a place in the final is worth that.