Italian state broadcaster RAI’s president Marinella Soldi, who is a former CEO of Discovery Networks Southern Europe, has a longstanding rapport with the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s the show on which she remembers first seeing ABBA, one of her favorite pop bands, “with their white flares.”

Soldi more recently was mesmerized by Måneskin and the swagger of the Italian glam-rock band, which by triumphing last year at Eurovision, against all odds, caused RAI to be host broadcaster of the 2022 edition of this massive event. Måneskin will be performing during the grand finale on Saturday.

In a rare interview, Soldi spoke to Variety about the politically heated lead-up to this year’s contest and the European Broadcasting Union’s decision to ban Russia from competing at Eurovision after the country’s invasion of Ukraine. She also noted that, though the war is causing pain and suffering in Europe and throughout the world, Eurovision’s audience still has a “fundamental human right” to joy. Edited excerpts.

Eurovision launched in 1956, in part as a postwar effort to unify Europe. Politics have come crashing in. Russia, and by extension Belarus, won’t be competing. You are on the EBU board. Was that a tough decision?

Eurovision is by definition a completely non-political event. The EBU has always seen it this way. Culture and music are really things that unite. They keep that dialogue open. But in this case, unfortunately, the war colors everything around us. In fact, my very first EBU board meeting in Brussels happened on February 24 [one day after the war broke out]. I sat next to my Russian colleague; in front of me we had a Swedish colleague and Lithuanian colleague. So it was a very tense situation, clearly. Because it was just the beginning of something. I think the degree of openness and inclusivity, which is fundamentally part of what the EBU stands for, was faced with the reality of recommendations from the reference group the next day, which basically asked for Russia not to be included. And, by definition, then they were excluded from governing bodies. It was a whole process that took place, but throughout there was a massive consultation of the membership.

Do you think banning Russia was the right decision?

It’s so hard to know what the right answer is, but I think it must stay non-political. And the decisions that were taken were taken with plenty of ponderation and great timing. And that’s why they are not part of this event.

Simply put: how big of a deal is this year’s Eurovision for RAI?

Massive! For all sorts of reasons. They say that winning the Eurovision contest is a poisoned chalice, because on the one hand you celebrate; on the other you think: ‘that’s us next year, having to organize it!’ It’s massive, but fortunately the Sanremo song fest [RAI’s annual top-rated music event] is a great school. We are an EBU case study as to how this year Sanremo managed to attract its highest ratings in 23 years. But of course doing it in an arena, involving 40 delegations coming in, and in a new location. It’s a big deal from that perspective.

Of course, it’s the first Eurovision being held fully in-person without limitations since the pandemic struck.

Yes, there is this zeitgeist around it. We first experienced this at Sanremo. That is the whole notion of actually being able to hug people, dance with people and just be around people. It’s like lifting the lid off a pressure cooker. There is this great need for this! Possibly because it’s so international, it also has a travel element to it. It’s also people coming from all over. And being able to arrive from all over. Suddenly we are back to hearing that Babel of languages that makes one sigh with relief and say, “Ok, maybe we are going back to normal.”

Before last year’s Måneskin victory, how big was Eurovision in Italy? My impression is that local enthusiasm was quite muted. What types of ratings are you expecting for the show in Italy this year?

I grew up in the U.K. and my first memory of Eurovision is tied to ABBA, one of my favorite pop bands. For me, Eurovision has always been linked to ABBA, and therefore to something absolutely “must-see.” But in Italy, Sanremo has way outshined it. It hasn’t been so central. But everything changed last year with Måneskin. It’s not just the victory of Italy. It’s Måneskin themselves and the incredible success and exposure that they’ve had. From a focus perspective it positions RAI as more inclusive to the younger generation. Without a doubt that is a challenge for all public service broadcasters.

Do you expect the ratings in Italy to be better than they were last year?

Yes, we had had a 25% audience share last year, which was its highest ever…Of course it will peak during the Måneskin performance.

As a TV expert, why is this event so massive, and why have attempts to mimic it in the U.S. failed? 

This thing has been going on since 1956. It was born in the spirit of unifying Europe as a phoenix that rose from the ashes of World War II. Maybe something in that has stuck. It’s the only international format in which you have a competition with different participants each representing a country. It’s almost like the Olympics, but of music. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t work so well in U.S. Because it’s not so diverse to have music from Illinois compete from music in New Jersey. I don’t know. You don’t have the same sense of diversity. I’m not sure people [in the U.S.] take it so seriously. I mean the participation is half the fun. When Eurovision started out it was also a glimpse at different cultures. When I first watched it, I remember ABBA showing up with their white flares. Wow! Good on the organization [the EBU] that it has been able to evolve without losing this excess, which is absolutely crucial. At this particular time, it’s so necessary to find moments that unite. This can be seen as controversial, but do we have a right to joy at this time? I really think we do. Joy is a fundamental human right.