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Intervision: Eurovision's Poor, Defunct, Ex-Soviet Rival

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Soviet singer Alla Pugacheva won the Intervision song Contest in 1978.

Soviet singer Alla Pugacheva won the Intervision song Contest in 1978.

The world's longest-running televised song competition culminates in three nights of glitz and spectacle in Stockholm this week.

Variously loved and loathed over its six decades, but invariably watched by tens and even hundreds of millions, the Eurovision Song Contest remains hugely popular.

An event of lavish proportions, Eurovision has been mocked by critics for its kitsch and wacky performances and vilified for a voting system that risks allowing partisanship to trump artistic merit.

But it might surprise many people to learn that the mighty Eurovision global phenomenon once had a communist-bloc counterpart -- or rather a nemesis -- and that efforts to resurrect it have been afoot for years.

In the pre-satellite-TV era, the terrestrial microwave network connecting Western countries and allowing live broadcasting in many countries simultaneously became known as Eurovision.

The eponymous song contest was established around the onset of the Cold War as a song competition to bring Western countries closer together using nascent television technology.

Meanwhile, Soviet-bloc states that had split from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in 1950 formed their own TV network in 1961 and called it Intervision. Its function, for live broadcasts across borders, was similar to that of Eurovision.

Eurovision's musical theme, Marc Antoine Charpentier's Te Deum, became a household brand not only in the West but also in the Soviet bloc, because it was played before live international soccer games broadcast from the West.

As the popularity of Eurovision spread across the Iron Curtain, eastern-bloc countries attempted to put together a pan-East European song contest to resemble Eurovision, in format and in name.

The Intervision Song Contest was established in 1977 in Sopot, Poland, replacing an already popular international music festival held since 1961 in the Baltic Sea resort north of Gdansk.

Intervision chose a musical theme and a logo to identify it to its viewers and at the same time distinguish it from the already popular Eurovision theme.

But, at a time when Eurovision had already become a phenomenon to the West -- changing venues from year to year to the winning countries and incorporating phone-in voting by the public -- Intervision remained stuck in Sopot, and even had to resort to a low-tech, poor-man's voting system.

In communist countries, where trying to get a landline meant also joining the bribery system for phones or being stuck for years on a waiting list, viewers learned to turn on lights when they liked a song and turn them off if they did not. Reports, probably apocryphal, suggested points were subsequently awarded to each contestant according to load experienced on the electrical network.

But Intervision was short-lived as interest sagged across the bloc.

The Intervision Song Contest ended with a whimper, after just four editions, in 1980, the same year Johnny Logan of Ireland was taking Eurovision by storm with the ballad What's Another Year.

The clunky scenography and martial style of Intervision's presenters and callers from other communist capitals had done little to attract spectators, as had the lesser Western acts who performed from the likes of Spain, Greece, or the Netherlands.

Some have attributed Intervision's demise to the rise of Poland's independent labor-union movement, Solidarity, which was judged by other eastern-bloc countries to be counterrevolutionary.

But a more likely reason might simply have been boredom.

For the waning decade of Soviet-style communism, the Intervision network was arguably put to better use broadcasting live soccer games and cabaret shows from East Berlin's Friedrichstadpalast theater.

The Eurovision Song Contest continued to grow by inviting participants from the newly post-Soviet states. This year's 61st annual Eurovision will air live in all of its 42 participating countries, including the second appearance of faraway Australia. Viewers in China, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, and, for the first time, in the United States, will also be able to watch the contest.

Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2009 proposed a revival of the Intervision contest, to include Russia, China, and Central Asia's post-Soviet republics, which are mostly members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Nearly seven years later and following an abortive Russian pledge that it would reappear from Sochi in October 2014, Intervision remains on hiatus, seemingly a casualty of the same lack of vision that created it in the first place.