Estonia’s National Final Experiment

Eurovision veterans know the routine by now: on 1 September the season begins, followed by a couple of quiet months before Albania kicks off the national final sub-season with Festivali i Kenges, held towards the end of December. The new year rolls around, and song releases become more frequent until early-to-mid March, when the deadline for submissions ensures we’re all set to go for May, preview parties and occasional revamps aside.

This season, Estonia has decided to try something new and somewhat audacious: they’ve expanded their national final Eesti Laul to include quarter-finals held across four consecutive Saturdays in late November and early December to determine who will qualify for the semi-finals in February, which is when Eesti Laul usually begins. This means that 40 songs instead of 24 will be showcased publicly, and that technically, the first Eurovision entry we will hear is Estonia’s, even if we won’t know exactly who the winner is until mid-February.

I’m in two minds about the wisdom of this decision, but I’ll attach the caveat that it depends what Estonia want from this experiment. Their participating broadcaster ERR released a statement which mentions introducing Estonian stories to a wider international audience, which is fine, but in the context of the contest this approach has distinct upsides and downsides.

One the upside, it’s undeniably exciting that we’ll have 40 new songs to listen to so early in the season, and for those of us who are partial to songs sung in native languages, half of these tracks will be in Estonian — a language we haven’t heard at the contest itself since 2013. Given how quiet November and early December are, Eesti Laul’s quarter-finals at least will have the fans’ full attention, and people who might otherwise have given it a miss in favour of bigger shows like Sweden’s Melodifestivalen and Italy’s Sanremo during the peak of national final season in February/March are more likely to be invested in seeing the show through to the end.

The downside is that by the time May comes around, the winning entry will have been public for up to six months depending on which quarter-final it qualifies from. This a long time to keep up enthusiasm for a song, especially given how many other entries will be released closer to the submission deadline. A revamp might help keep things interesting, but the song will feel a little stale in comparison to the other entries. Of course, Eurovision fans don’t make up the majority of the televote when it counts in the final, but they arguably have a greater impact on the semi-finals, and Estonia will still need to qualify from there. Additionally, the fans are the drivers behind online hype, which can definitely give a song a boost in terms of media coverage.

So if this is Estonia making a tilt for the title in 2022, I’m not convinced this will help them that much. However, if the main focus is to boost the profile of Eesti Laul with a medium-term goal of building towards a genuine contender for the win, this could indeed put them on such a path. Either way, I applaud the decision to try something different, and I sincerely hope ERR is satisfied with whatever the outcome ends up being in May.