All change in Hilversum

The unique public broadcasting system in the Netherlands, which is difficult to explain to people outside the country and confusing even for people who live here, looks set for major reforms. The Cabinet has voted to support proposals by State Secretary for Culture and the Media Medy van der Laan which would enhance the identity of the various radio and TV networks at the expense of the individual public broadcasting organisations.

The proposed changes are a result of the findings of the Rinnooy Kan commission, which looked into the functioning of the public broadcasters. That commission found that under the current system, individual broadcasters are insufficiently accountable, resulting in the supply and range of programmes falling short of the objectives.

Origins
The system has its origins in the 1930 Broadcasting Time Decree. Private organisations that represented a denominational or political movement were authorised to broadcast. The government allocated the radio frequencies and supervised the content through the Radio Broadcasting Control Committee, but did not involve itself financially. The broadcasting associations had to fund their own programmes, which were regarded as a service to their members. Each broadcaster had to offer a comprehensive range of programmes, not only conveying their own particular message but also providing entertainment, information, education and culture. The system continued after the end of World War II.

The 1967 Act
The 1967 Dutch Broadcasting Act reconfirmed that broadcasting associations must not be out for profit. Nevertheless, advertising blocks were introduced for the first time on radio and TV. The Radio and Television Advertising Foundation (Stichting Ether Reclame, STER) was set up to manage operations. It functioned independently of the broadcasting associations and paid its revenues to the government. After an initial period, the state was able to cover about one-third of the broadcasting costs with STER revenues.

Under the same Act, new associations had the chance to qualify for a broadcasting licence, under the same conditions that applied to the existing associations. The Act still assumed that broadcasting associations represented certain social, cultural or denominational/spiritual movements in society. But the public’s ties with the various broadcasting associations were becoming looser. There was a shift from “solidarity with a broadcasting organisation” to “being a consumer of broadcasting products”. For a growing number of people, this meant little more than a subscription to a programme guide. Subscribers were automatically counted as members of the organisation and this meant that numbers of subscribers largely determined the allocation and division of broadcasting time.

The 1988 Media Act
In 1988, the Broadcasting Act was replaced by the Media Act. The underlying principle of the Media Act is still that public service broadcasting consists of broadcasting associations based on broad social and ideological movements. In dividing up broadcasting time, the law distinguishes between broadcasting associations as “A” (at least 450,000 members), “B” (at least 300,000 members), “C” (at least 150,000 members) and prospective broadcasting associations (at least 60,000 members). The amount of broadcasting time available to the associations is divided between the A, B and C categories according to a ratio of 5:3:1. Prospective broadcasting associations are eligible for a fixed, limited amount of broadcasting time for a two-year period.

There are currently more than 15 separate broadcasting organisations providing programmes for the three national TV channels and five national radio stations. There’s also an additional broadcaster, the Netherlands Programme Service (Nederlandse Programma Stichting, NPS), which has no members but has the statutory task of supplementing the programmes of the other associations. That task involves cultural programming (at least 40 per cent) and programmes for ethnic minorities (at least 15 per cent).

The NPS started broadcasting in 1995, following the government’s decision to transfer a large number of programme activities of the NOS (Netherlands Broadcasting Corporation) to a new, independent broadcasting company. Since 1995, the licences of the various broadcasting associations have been limited to a five-year period. BNN, which targets a young audience, was admitted to the public system in 1998. There are also a number of smaller organisations. It may be extremely democratic, but it’s also unwieldy.

Future plans
At present, each organisation has a great deal of freedom to create and produce its own programmes, and there is, feels the government, insufficient co-operation between the different broadcasters. In the short term, from as soon as 2005, the government wants to remove the chairpersons of the various broadcasters from their current position on the main board, and move them to a new board with less direct influence over the output. But the Cabinet also has the ambition of much further-reaching changes, and for that reason is proposing to renew the licences of the public broadcasters for only three years instead of the usual five, with the aim of having a new structure in place by 1st September 2008.

Predictably, the Cabinet’s proposals have not been well received by the public broadcasters, coming as they do in a period of extreme financial pressure. There’s still some doubt about just how far the changes will go. Will the existing associations disappear altogether? The details of what the government wants to do will become clearer in the months ahead.

For more information: www.radionetherlands.nl

All change in Hilversum
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