The pan-continental television event will be staged in Istanbul 12 to 15 May, said the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) on Tuesday.

Turkey, which has the right to host the competition, as the current Eurovision winner, is planning an extended two-stage format for the song festival. There will be a qualification stage on 12 May, followed by a finale for the 10 best performances.

The 48-year-old contest has developed a dubious reputation for featuring over sentimental and highly manufactured pop songs.

But it remains a mystifyingly popular event for many across the continent – defying the image of Europe as a font of high culture and refined taste.

Turkish delight

Turkey's leading star, Sertab Erener, came first last May in the  Latvia-staged event with her song Every Way that I Can, delighting millions in a country that has been competing  without a single win since 1975.

Last May’s competition was notable for the worst performance by a British entry. Pop duo Jemini failed to collect a single point from judges and finished last in the 26-nation competition held in Latvia.

The two singers, Chris Cromby and Gemma Abbey, blamed technical problems for their poor performance after an off-key rendition of their song Cry Baby.

But many observers suggested the duo paid a cultural price for the British government’s controversial decision to join the United States in invading Iraq the previous month. Opinion polls showed the vast majority of Europeans were opposed to the attack.

The final list of the 20 groups picked to compete in the first
stage of the 2004 Eurovision contest will be revealed after 1 October the deadline for applications, the EBU said.