Nul Points

No doubt you’re already well-aware of, and eagerly anticipating, this year’s Eurovision song contest final to be held in Tel Aviv between the 14th and 18th May. But just in case you don’t know, the Eurovision song contest is an annual competition to choose the ‘best’ song entered between the various participating European countries. And Australia!

Quite possibly the world would never have heard of Abba if they hadn’t won Eurovision. Nor Conchita Wurst.

The voting rules have changed over the years, but the structure has remained pretty much the same. Judges from each participating country rank their favourite 10  songs – excluding that of their own country, which they cannot vote for – and points are awarded on the basis of preference. In the current scheme, the first choice gets 12 points, the second choice 10 points, the third choice 8 points, then down to the tenth choice which gets a single point.

A country’s total score is the sum awarded by each of the other countries, and the country with the highest score wins the competition. In most years the scoring system has made it possible for a song to receive zero points – nul points – as a total, and there’s a kind of anti-roll-of-honour dedicated to countries that have accomplished this feat. Special congratulations to Austria and Norway who, despite their deep contemporary musical roots, have each scored nul points on four occasions.

Anyway, here’s the thing. Although the UK gave the world The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Joy Division and Radiohead. And Adele. It hasn’t done very well in recent years in the Eurovision Song Contest.  It’s true that by 1997 the UK had won the competition a respectable 5 times – admittedly with a bit of gratuitous sexism involving the removal of women’s clothing to distract judges from the paucity of the music. But since then, nothing. Indeed, since 2000 the UK has finished in last place on 3 occasions, and has only twice been in the top 10.

Now, there are two possible explanations for this.

  1. Our songs have been terrible. (Well, even more terrible than the others).
  2. There’s a stitch-up in the voting process, with countries penalising England for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the songs.

But how can we objectively distinguish between these two possibilities? The poor results for the UK will be the same in either case, so we can’t use the UK’s data alone to unravel things.

Well, one way is to hypothesise a system by which votes are cast that is independent of song quality, and to see if the data support that hypothesis. One such hypothesis is a kind of ‘bloc’ voting system, where countries tend to award higher votes for countries of a similar geographical or political background to their own.

This article carries out an informal statistical analysis of exactly this type. Though the explanations in the article are sketchy, a summary of the results is given in the following figure. Rather than pre-defining the blocs, the authors use the data on voting patterns themselves to identify 3 blocs of countries whose voting patterns are similar. They are colour-coded in the figure, which shows (in some vague, undefined sense) the tendency for countries on the left to favour countries on the right in voting. Broadly speaking there’s a northern Europe group in blue, which includes the UK, an ex-Yugoslavian bloc in green and a rest-of-Europe bloc in red. But whereas the fair-minded north Europeans tend to spread their results every across all countries, the other two blocs tend to give highest votes to other member countries within the same bloc.

But does this mean the votes are based on non-musical criteria? Well, not necessarily. It’s quite likely that cultural differences – including musical ones – are also smaller within geographically homogeneous blocs than across them. In other words, Romania and Moldavia might vote for each other at a much higher than average rate, but this could just as easily be because they have similar musical roots and tastes as because they are friends scratching each other’s backs.

Another study finding similar conclusions about geo-political bloc voting is contained in this Telegraph article, which makes similar findings, but concludes:

Comforting as it might be to blame bloc voting for the UK’s endless poor record, it’s not the only reason we don’t do well.

In other words, in a more detailed analysis which models performance after allowing for bloc-voting effects, England is still doing badly.

This whole issue has also been studied in much greater detail in the academic literature using complex statistical models, and the conclusions are similar, though the authors report language and cultural similarities as being more important than geographical factors.

The techniques used in these various different studies are actually extremely important in other areas of application. In genetic studies, for example, they are used to identify groups of markers for certain disease types. And even in sports modelling they can be relevant for identifying teams or players that have similar styles of play.

But if Eurovision floats your boat, you can carry out your own analysis of the data based on the complete database of results available here.


Update: Thanks to Susie.Bruck@smartodds.co.uk for pointing me to this. So not only did the UK finish last this year, they also had their points score reduced retrospectively. If ever you needed evidence of an anti-UK conspiracy… 😉

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