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The countdown to the Eurovision Song Contest is now well and truly underway. A specially staged lottery-style draw held at Latvia's Television studios on Nov. 29 revealed the order in which contestants will perform at the competition, which is set to take place on May. 24, 2003, at the Skonto Olympic Hall in Riga.
A throng of journalists witnessed the event, which was hosted by Maria Naumova, the winner of this year's competition, and Renars Kaupers, who took third place two years ago with the group Brainstorm. The couple will also co-present the live show itself, which is expected to draw a television audience of around 166 million people, making it by far the biggest television broadcast in Latvia's history.
In another recent ceremony, the official competition logo was unveiled, as well as the final shortlist of the 15 performers who will compete in the Latvian preliminaries to represent Latvia. The competition to determine the winner will be held in Ventspils on Feb. 1.
There were no other candidates to host the show except for Naumova and Kaupers. Although some doubts have been expressed about their suitability to present such an important event, Arvids Babris, executive producer of the Eurovision program, has faith in the young couple.
"Maria has had plenty of experience in hosting her own shows, and Reinars has a lot of television experience as he's hosted two shows before. They are both competent and attractive people who I'm sure will do a great job."
The 15 artists who will be competing in February to represent Latvia in the finals were selected by a special panel of international music experts from around Europe, including one from Latvia. In all, 57 entries were submitted by the Nov 4. deadline, which were whittled down to 15 by the experts, who graded each song on a point system that ranged from one to 30.
The artists are mostly relatively unknown, although Elina Furmane is being tipped in some quaters as the "next Maria." But with song titles like "I am Yours," "I Need Love," "License for Love," and "Lead Me to Your Heart," there is little mystery about the predominant subject matter that the contestants will be singing about.
The preparations for the event are moving ahead at a frenetic pace. Marius Bratten, a Swedish multicamera who works at SVT, is bringing his experience to LTV for the big event. He directed the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm, 2000, and then again in Tallin, 2002.
"The planning for this is going at full speed. I've only been in Riga for four weeks but I'm running from meeting to meeting at the moment. We're just finalizing the stage design and seating plans for Skonto Hall, so we can get the tickets ready for sale. But so far I'm satisfied that everything is going according to plan."
Bratten's help was enlisted, along with other technical support from Sweden and Estonia, because no Latvian television director has experience of working simultaneously with eight cameras, or simply in managing a live production on this scale.
Sarah Yuen, the live broadcasting division director from the European Broadcasting Union was also present at the draw, to make sure it complied with EBU regulations. The EBU is contributing 4.5 million Swiss francs (3.01 million euros) to the overall Eurovision budget of 7 million lats (11.66 million euros.)
"The draw was definitely a success," she said, "And I think it provided a good foretaste of what the event itself will be like."
The draw was certainly seen by the Eurovision organizers as both a chance to let Naumova and Kaupers gel together in public, and to set the overall tone for the competition.
It's hard to overstate just what the staging of this event means to Latvia. The media exposure that the country will receive from it will be unprecedented. To this end, Latvia intends to use Eurovision as a major marketing ploy to promote its image abroad. In between each song a 45-second video clip will be shown, which is meant to symbolize a "postcard" from Latvia. Their director, Ugis Brikmanis, says their purpose, "...is to present Latvia's beautiful nature and its deeply cultural people."
Of the budget earmarked for Eurovision, some 2.8 million lats will go toward upgrading the outdated technical equipment of Latvian public television, bringng it well into line with the rest of Europe. Uldis Grava, general director of LTV, says that the benefits will be long-term.
"For years we have been underfunded, but this new investment will enable Latvian public television to cover other major events all around the country. "
Grava also revealed that LTV would submit a business plan to the National Radio and Television Council for consideration, which hopes to secure a loan of 1 million lats, also to be used in purchasing new technology.
Latvia and Estonia both fared well in the draw on Nov. 29, with Latvia chosen to perform in the 21st position and Estonia in 23rd, out of 26 performances in total. But in Latvia's case it seems that it will win whatever happens on May 24.