Yanks eye kitschy Euro Song Contest

ATHENS — Americans may finally see what all the fuss is about. Even as Europe was falling into the gaudy embrace of the Eurovision Song Contest for the 51st consecutive year, a deal was being crafted for an American version.

L.A.-based independent production company Reveille’s deal with the European Broadcasting Union will mark the first time the Geneva-based network of national broadcasters has licensed the format for use beyond European shores.

By buying the format, Reveille and producer-broadcaster NBC will bring the grandfather of all song contest formats into direct competition with its fabulously successful offspring, Fox’s “American Idol.”

Eurovision is best known for launching the careers of Abba, 1974 winner with “Waterloo,” and Celine Dion, who won in 1988 for Switzerland (under EBU rules, singers need not be nationals of the country they sing for). The last winner whose career registered Stateside was Britain’s Katrina & the Waves (led by American Katrina Leskanich), who won in 1997 with the anthem “Love Shine a Light.”

While sometimes derided in Anglophone countries as kitschy and out of touch with contemporary music trends, Eurovision continues to be hugely popular on the Continent, reaching audiences of nearly 100 million worldwide.

The 2005 contest was watched by more than 80% of primetime Saturday-night audiences in Norway and Sweden, and it scored between 20% and 40% of the market share in the U.K., Spain, Germany and France.

Commonly known as the World Cup of song, event treats auds to attention-grabbing acts such as Finnish death-metal group Lordi, whose members are never seen in public without latex masks, horns and capes; and Icelandic singer Silvia Night, the fictional creation of actress Agusta Eva Erlensdottir, whose song involves a telephone conversation with God.

Competish was founded in 1956 by Frenchman Marcel Baison as an attempt to regenerate European culture after World War II, and to provide content for the newly formed EBU.

Originally involving seven competing nations, the May 20 contest this year had 37 national entries. Eligibility depends on a country’s membership in the EBU, which explains the presence of such improbably “European” countries as Israel.

The addition of a semi-final round in 2004 allowed many nations of the former Eastern bloc and the Balkans to join the contest; the newest entrant, Armenia, participated for the first time this year.

The original voting system of national juries was phased out in 1998; the contest now uses a centralized televoting system.

The winning country each year has the responsibility of hosting the following year’s contest; it was Helena Paparizou’s runaway win in the 2005 contest with “My Number One,” an uptempo disco tune, that brought the 2006 contest to Athens. Greek broadcaster ERT spent €12 million ($15.4 million) hosting this year’s competish and is optimistic it will break even or turn a profit.

The presence of Greek-American broadcaster Maria Menounos (“Today,” “Access Hollywood”) as co-presenter of this year’s contest gave it an appropriately American flavor, given the imminent U.S. deal.

The unofficial theme this year was “battle of the Euro-divas,” with the hugely popular Greek songstress Anna Vissi (called the “Madonna of the Middle East” in this part of the world) battling it out with Swedish singer Carola, looking for her second win after having taken home Eurovision honors in 1991.

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