With the 65 years “Eurovision Song Contest” has under its belt, NBC’s U.S. adaptation of the worldwide phenomenon has a lot to live up to on day one. Luckily, “American Song Contest” also has the full-backing of the OG show’s production powerhouse and a team of Eurovision fanatics preparing for its weekly two-hour live shows hosted by Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg, beginning with Monday’s 8 p.m. kickoff.
“It’s a daunting task because of the legacy,” Toby Gorman, president of “American Song Contest” producer Universal Television Alternative Studio, tells Variety. “I’m British, I grew up with my family watching and adoring Eurovision. It’s a celebration of of so much: creativity, peace, coming together — the things we all need right now. And I distinctively remember as a kid watching the heats and the finale and the country would come to a standstill. The U.K. would famously always come in last, but it didn’t matter, we still had a lot of pride.”
Gorman adds: “So I feel pressure as a Brit, because of its legacy and its success abroad. And I’ve been out here now for about 12 or 13 years and everyone has talked about Eurovision coming to America and it’s finally happening, which is hard for me to comprehend.”
NBC’s “American Song Contest” will feature live original musical performances, representing all 50 states, five U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. competing to win the country’s vote for the best hit song. The 56 artists span a wide range of performers — from undiscovered talent, up-and-coming new artists and rising stars to established icons like Michael Bolton (repping Connecticut), Jewel (Alaska), Macy Gray (Ohio), the Crystal Method (Nevada) and Sisqo (Maryland).
“We really understood from [Eurovision’s American Song Contest, Inc. producers] Anders Lenhoff and Christer Björkman and all our friends over at Eurovision that this isn’t really what you typically see in music competition shows, at least here in the states,” says showrunner Audrey Morrissey, who has long been an executive producer on NBC’s “The Voice” and has a lengthy awards show background. “This is really more for a professional artist. Someone who has a deal, who does tour for a living and really working artists of varying degrees of fame. And that was sort of a different concept for us to wrap our brains around and strategize how we were going to find people and really communicate to them that this show is different and get them to come on board or consider doing this. You really need to attract the right people to participate to be anywhere with this format.”
The acts on the Propagate-produced show will be comprised of either a solo artist, duo, group or band that will represent each location and perform a new original song. Unlike Eurovision, which hosts its two semifinals and grand finale over just a few days, “American Song Contest” will run for eight weeks that include qualifying rounds, followed by the semifinals and then the May 9 final battle between the Top 10 artists.
“The submission process was open to everyone from the very beginning,” says Jenny Groom, executive vice president of alternative programming and development at NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. “We also conducted a nationwide search with outreach to industry experts. We activated our affiliate teams and set up robust social outreach targeting specific regions across the country and encouraged users to tag their favorite artists. From there, our casting team narrowed down the submissions and we worked with a group of industry professionals from songwriter, producers, radio programmers, music consultants and A&R to provide their feedback.”
For Eurovision proper, things are done very differently in that each country usually hosts a televised mini-competition of its own, or some other way that gets the public more involved in the selection process for the contestant that will represent their territory in that year’s Eurovision. “In future seasons, we hope to expand upon this process and would like to further mirror the Eurovision selection process,” Groom says.
But when it comes to the spirit of the competition, Gorman says “we are respecting it in giving each state a representative to compete in an original song.”
“That’s unheard of in U.S. singing competitions, that hasn’t been done,” the Universal TV exec says. “Everyone’s usually covering because that’s the norm. But I love that we’re finally taking that risk and using all original music, and I love that that’s how it’s done in Europe. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without fully partnering with Eurovision, because the people who have tried and have talked about it, ‘Why don’t we do a version of Eurovision?’ But it’s not Eurovision. And the fact that we are officially Eurovision coming to America and we can lean into that legacy and celebrate the brand and educate the country on what it is, because a lot of people don’t know, is amazing.”
As Variety exclusively reported, “American Song Contest” will feature a 56-person jury, one representing each state/territory, that is comprised of music industry executives, songwriters, radio programmers from various genres, managers and members of the Grammy Academy. The jury will evaluate each artist’s performance based on “artistic expression, hit potential, originality, and visual impression,” and the show’s public voting component, available through TikTok and NBC.com, will follow a point system in which every state and territory votes with equal power, regardless of population.
But is NBC concerned the presence of big-name stars competing against local talent will sway those “American Song Contest” voters towards the artists they already know and love?
“We took a lot of stock in the fact that this is what they do in Europe,” Morrissey says. “This is part of Eurovision. This is part of Melodifestivalen in Sweden. And it’s no different than the quote-unquote real music business everyone is competing among each other. There are new acts trying to get their name out there, competing with the Michael Boltons and the Jewels when they drop stuff. Everybody has to use all the tools in their tool kit and everything at their disposal to try to get their music out there. So for sure, a Jewel or a Michael Bolton or a Macy Gray or any of these acts definitely have higher name recognition. But, at the end of the day, everybody is on the same even playing field. They all are competing in shows. They all are putting out new music. And in some ways, you could say America loves an underdog, too, and they love discovering new artists. And I think it’s incredible that those acts are joining us because it’s a really powerful thing that they are doing the show.”
And doing it live every week — something that is both thrilling and nerve-racking for the team behind “American Song Contest,” or “the Super Bowl of music,” as Gorman likes to call it.
“When you’re live, all the preparation going into/leading up to the shoot is incredibly crucial and key,” Groom says. “There is no ‘we will just fix that in post.’ You get one shot and you have to make it count… The scale of these performances are at the level you would normally see on a finale of ‘The Voice’ or an awards show. With ‘American Song Contest,’ we are producing 10 plus acts per episode for the full eight weeks. What’s exciting and scary about being live is that anything can happen. That’s what makes it so compelling for the viewer at home. There are bound to be surprises and unexpected moments.”
Lenhoff and Björkman spoke at length about the importance of national “pride” for Eurovision viewers, and how it is seen more as a sporting event with local teams taking each other on in a “crazy” spectacle. To replicate that experience for the U.S. audience, they advised Gorman on how to bring that same loyalty out in a state vs. state format.
“State pride is probably the most important piece of it. The idea is that you engage with the artists, they represent you as a state and you back them. So we are reliant on that massively,” Gorman says. “The idea of that individual is to fire you up. Whether you’re from California, from Texas, whatever it may be. And that you’re watching this show and willing them to win with some state pride in your heart. Now, of course, they might not go all the way, but hopefully by then we’ve hooked you in with some amazing artists and music and you want to see the outcome — just like in Eurovision, when I know England is out, which is often pretty quick. You’re still in because of the scale, the artistry and the party.”
Another large piece of the “American Song Contest” puzzle that Lenhoff and Björkman and the Eurovision vets weighed in on heavily was what the American version would be called, something the pair says they had “hundreds of conversations about,” with ideas like “Amerivision” and “USvision” being batted around.
But ultimately, NBC chose “American Song Contest,” and here’s why: “The official name of the competition is ‘Eurovision Song Contest,'” Groom says. “We liked that ‘American Song Contest’ was a seamless title with a direct connection to the original. Although we know that a portion of our audience is familiar with ‘Eurovision Song Contest,’ we know there are many who are not and we didn’t want to create a barrier to entry.”
Still, Gorman says “it was really hard” to make that call.
“We had a long list and lots of debate and it was called this for some time,” Gorman says. “And then we came back around to the notion of revisiting, is there a better way? Is it the right title? It was a long exercise and we all decided it is the right title. You’re creating a brand out here, even though it’s an extension of Eurovision… If you think about it, it is the cleanest way to bring it over, right? You take out ‘Eurovision,’ and you keep the rest. But yeah, whether it was ‘Amerivision’ or whatnot, none of it would quite make sense. So I think we found the one that makes the most sense and is the closest to the original and feels authentic.”
Like many other shows these days, “American Song Contest” faced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was originally set to begin airing on Feb. 21, but was pushed to this Monday amid the omicron surge. The timing actually lines up now so that “American Song Contest” will be airing its finale just one day before 2022 Eurovision kicks off in Europe on May 10 — meaning there are a few “ASC” producers, like Björkman, that will be booking it over to Turin, Italy as they wouldn’t dare miss the main event. And, in a perfect world, Björkman would love nothing more than for there to be a third competition in which the winners of both Eurovision and “American Song Contest” go head-to-head.
NBC sees “American Song Contest” as a “big annual event” and potential future seasons would happen on a yearly basis, meaning Björkman would have an easier time getting his wish — if he can get the European Broadcasting Union on board, because Universal is here for it.
“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” Gorman says. “I would love for something like that to happen simply because it would mean we’ve succeeded. We’ve created something that lives up to the brand, to the legacy. That’s a lot and certainly a long way off, but I’m sure everyone involved would welcome it if the show is as successful as we want it to be.”