Eurovision 2024: Showrunner Per Blankens Previews What to Expect, From ABBA to the Runtime

With the 2024 Eurovision Song Contest less than seven weeks away, production in host country Sweden has kicked into high gear. Taking on the role of showrunner, Per Blankens has produced 10 seasons of Idol in Sweden; seasons 13 and 14 of American Idol; and the annual Melodifestivalen in Sweden, the competition the country uses to select its Eurovision entry.

Billboard spoke to Blankens via Zoom to get an early preview of this year’s pan-European song competition.

You grew up in Sweden, a country that has a long-lasting love for Eurovision. What is your earliest memory of the contest?

I was only two years old when ABBA won (in 1974 with “Waterloo”), but I was 12 when Herrey’s won (in 1984 with “Diggi-Loo, Diggi-Ley”), so I have a definite memory of that year. I have great memories of Eurovision because back in the day the whole family would gather in front of the TV and it would be the special event and amazing show that it still is today. Once in a year, it showed up and you saw all these different countries and different people and different outfits and different songs. So I watched it from a very young age.

I was going to save this question for last, but since you mentioned them – this is the 50th anniversary of ABBA winning Eurovision and everyone is expecting the four members to participate in some way in the 2024 contest. What can you tell me about that possibility?

We’ve had discussions with ABBA and about ABBA, but do we think that they will sing “Waterloo” together on the stage live? Not sure about that, but for sure there’s going to be an ABBA component in the shows from Sweden this year.

I tell people I’ll be surprised if they perform. I won’t be surprised if they’re there.

I feel the same as you. I’ll be surprised if they perform. We’ll see if they’re going to be there. They turn down a lot of stuff and my personal reflection is they do that because they want to have people’s memories be the way they were in their heyday. The group only lasted for eight years and during those eight years, they came out with a tremendous amount of songs. If you look at the song list, it’s 25 or 30 hits. It’s amazing how productive they were and that’s what they want people to remember. So I understand why they are cautious, but we’re hoping to do something together.

When you were asked to produce this year’s Eurovision, what were your thoughts about taking the job?

When Sweden won in 2015, they asked me then, but I was living in the U.S. and I couldn’t figure out a way to make it work, because you really need to be in the production office and be very hands-on. So I had to decline and have regretted that ever since because it’s the world championship in television-making with all the resources and all the fun and all the nationalities and all the viewers. That’s something that if you had the chance, you would want to be engaged in. When Loreen won last year, I was hoping that they would ask me again and they did. After we won in early May 2023, SVT (Sweden’s national broadcaster) sent out a feeler to me and then a month later it was decided. I told my bosses at Idol, “I still have another six months, but after that, I’m going to do Eurovision.” I’ve done Idol for so many years, so there weren’t any hard feelings. They congratulated me and said they understood this was something I wanted to do.

People always ask me, “What does a producer do?” I tell them it’s different on every show. As a producer, what are your responsibilities for Eurovision 2024?

I am the showrunner. My title is show producer. We do have an executive producer. Ebba Adielsson is in charge of the whole thing and that would mean the event and security and sponsors and staff, you name it. And then there is our contest producer, Christer Björkman, and he is in charge of all the delegations and all the artists and the songs and realizing what they want to do on stage and help them create what they want to present. As the TV producer, I put all of this into the framework of a show. So my responsibility would be running orders, posts, graphics, music and the actual broadcast. I approve the stage design and all of the interval acts and the segments and the postcards. Everything that’s not the competition. The production is huge. It’s one of the biggest (in the world). I’m in charge of the actual show and the rules of the competition and the spokespersons that are going to show up and deliver the points. I get to do the fun stuff. Everybody else is very stressed out. Figuring out how much stuff you can put in that arena without it imploding, that’s not my responsibility.

And all of this comes under the aegis of the European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of public broadcasters from all over Europe and beyond. How do you interact with the EBU?

A country wins and then as congratulations, you get to produce the show next year. Some countries are excited. Some countries are terrified because it is a big event. SVT has done it before. It will be the seventh time, which is a record apart from Ireland, and we did it in recent years as well, so there are some colleagues and coworkers who were part of it last time, which is always great. The EBU gives you the paperwork and off you go. Then there are a lot of meetings which I’m not a part of, but the other grown-ups make decisions about budgets and so forth. And then when it reaches me, I come up with the angle for this year. If we want to make any changes to the format (we take them to the) reference group, which is a Eurovision board made up of former executive producers from previous years, and the EBU’s Martin Osterdahl, who happens to be Swedish.

You go in front of that board and you present what you want to do and maybe you get some homework and then you go back to the board in the next meeting and things get approved or rejected. Right now we have a lot of contact with the EBU on a daily basis about everything from how long the graphics should be on screen to how big the songs need to be, things that that EBU keeps track of. It’s a very complicated technical production in terms of a worldwide broadcast. Each country puts an overlay of their own graphics because we have tele-voting, and there’s not the same phone number in each country. Each country has a commentator and most of them are there (at the venue). Some are commentating from home. They also have a spokesperson who’s going to show up and there are uplinks that need to be booked for that. So we interact with EBU in many ways but now that we’re so close to the production all the big stuff is decided and now we’re getting the practicalities in place.

With less than two months to go before the live broadcast of the two semi-finals on May 7 and 9 and the grand final on May 11, where are you right now in the process?

All 37 delegations visited Malmö a couple of weeks ago to meet with Christer and his team and introduce their artists, who were not present. They had the opportunity to introduce their creative thoughts about their performances. Either they want to do it exactly the way it looked back home in their own (national final) or they want to do something else. Our production is providing the lights and the stage and if there’s something to be built or if you need live elephants, we need to provide that. We’re writing scripts. We’re dry rehearsing all the intro acts. We’re also trying to get all the paperwork in place because it’s such a nightmare to clear all the music worldwide. That takes time.

I think we’re in a good place. We haven’t moved to Malmö yet. That’s going to happen on April 16. The whole production office moves down there and we won’t get on the actual stage until very late in rehearsal, at the end of April. It will be the beginning of May before all 37 countries come down and occupy the stage.

You mentioned making changes in the broadcast. Can you tell me what they are?

One change that was brought up early on was to make the broadcast shorter. Last year’s U.K. show ran four hours, 14 minutes. It’s hard because there are so many songs and we need time for the voting and it’s also the time for us to entertain the world so you don’t want take out too much.

We did get through another change: starting the voting when the show begins. That’s something I introduced on American Idol. That means you don’t have to wait until for all 26 songs to be performed before you can start voting. Because of the length of the show, it gets very late into the night in some parts of the world before you can start interacting and chances are that you dozed off or went to bed. But if you can start when the competition starts, then you’re interacting. I think that’s also how the kids want it these days. One way of doing that is to make sure we’ve already seen all the performances before and that means that the five big countries that are already qualified for the final, and the host nation, get to also be on stage in the semi-finals. Instead of putting them as interval acts or as a block at the end, I wanted to intertwine it within the rest of the performances. I’m sure it will go smoothly in the broadcast to explain to the viewers that 15 of these performances need your votes to go to the finale. Three of them don’t need your votes because they’re already qualified. We have the hosts and we also have the commentators, and we also have graphics to explain the difference when you see it. So those are the biggest changes so far in the show.

Will having the big five and the host country perform their full songs in the semi-finals make those shows longer?

A tiny bit longer. It all depends how many countries are participating, so it has varied over the years. Last year we ran about two hours. This time, we’re going to end up at two hours and 10 minutes.

You mentioned shortening the grand final. Do you have a target time for that live broadcast?

The allotted time is four hours. Every year, it’s been longer and longer and longer. The question is, what can we do to keep it under four hours. We’ll see when everything is in place and we’ve timed everything.

There are 26 performances. It all depends on how much stuff the artists want to bring on stage and take it out and bring it in again. Where can you find the seconds you need? Even though the voting starts when the first performance begins, it will still be open after the last performance. We won’t close it, so people can either decide if they want to vote when they see something they like or do they want to watch the whole thing and then decide, like it’s been in the past. So starting the voting early doesn’t mean that the show is going to be shorter. Just having the spokespersons from the different countries takes about an hour to go through all their votes. That can obviously be done more efficiently, but why? It’s part of the show. It’s good entertainment and it’s part of what I remember I thought was funny when I watched the show as a young person. I was watching all these people showing up from different parts of the world. So you don’t want to take out too much, but obviously what you can do to make it more efficient, that would be great.

For decades, Eurovision was a worldwide phenomenon, with live broadcasts to non-participating countries like China and Uruguay. But somehow the U.S. was left out of the equation. Do you think the U.S. is more aware of Eurovision today? And did Will Ferrell’s movie for Netflix help?

Regarding Americans watching Eurovision, it has transitioned in recent years. Ever since Måneskin and Duncan Laurence and Loreen won, that has turned Eurovision into a totally new thing. Artists are still coming to entertain, but it’s transitioned into something that really has an impact on popular culture and you can become a star by winning Eurovision, which was not always the case. But then again think of ABBA celebrating 50 years now since they started with Eurovision and we get to produce it in Sweden on the 50th anniversary. It’s amazing.

My understanding is that Americans have known about Eurovision always but haven’t been that interested. Now because there was a show called American Song Contest, they understand the format and can participate, plus many Europeans are living in the U.S. The Will Ferrell movie for sure helped. That was an amazing movie. And apparently, he is a super nice fellow because he hung around in Portugal when they hosted Eurovision (in 2018). People who met him said he was the sweetest man and very funny, very kind to remember people’s names.

I thought last year’s show, produced by the BBC in Liverpool on behalf of Ukraine, was one of the best shows ever. Has that influenced you in any way?

As a television producer, you always want to top the previous year but it’s going to be hard because the BBC broadcast was so spectacular. Very flawless, beautiful, the hosts were great and the fact they did it together with Ukraine was beautiful. I have watched the three shows (two semi-finals and a grand final) many times and took notes and if we’re lucky, we’ll live up to that standard. I met (last year’s) producer in Malmö and I thanked him for a beautiful show. And they had the coronation of King Charles that same week, so it was a busy time for BBC.

Some countries don’t want to do Eurovision two times in a row because of the expense. When Sweden claims victory for the eighth time, it will set the all-time record for the most wins in the 68 years of the contest. Any thoughts about having Eurovision come back to Sweden in 2025?

If that happens, it’s going to be amazing. I know that (Sweden’s national final) Melodifestivalen was not holding back. It has happened before that countries won twice in a row or even three times in a row. So it could happen and if it does, we’ll be up and running and we’ll make another spectacular edition.

Having heard all the songs and seeing the videos, any thoughts about the overall quality for the 2024 competition?

You should ask Christer because I’m neutral in the competition. I think that it sounds great and it all stands out and there’s a good mix of groups and boys and girls. It’s going to be a spectacular year. I think as a viewer it will be an amazing show. I won’t single out anyone, but there are some artists who are standing out in a good way, and also in a fun way.

Finally, you are in a unique position as someone who has produced Idol in Sweden and the U.S. as well as Eurovision to answer this question: why have so many Idols from all over Europe, especially Sweden, represented their countries at Eurovision? In Sweden, I’m thinking especially of Måns Zelmerlöw, who won with “Heroes” in 2015, Loreen who won with “Euphoria” in 2012 and “Tattoo” in 2023; plus entrants Anna Bergendahl in 2010 and Robin Stjernberg in 2013. And many Idols from Sweden, like Danny Saucedo and Lisa Ajax, have competed in Melodifestivalen.

I think Idols go far in Melodifestivalen is because the audience knows them and are in the habit of voting for them. But they also need to stand out and be super great and a lot of them are, like Måns and Loreen. A TV technical thing can also be that they are already used to learning choreo, cameras, instructions, staging and output very quickly. They know that once you get up on that stage you have one shot. An Idol season prepares them, as they have to do that on a weekly basis and that could be the extra mile needed in a competition with 25 other artists. But obviously they need a great song as well.

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