Double Trouble 

14 June 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

The problems faced by the Netherlands government when reconciling broadcasting with the structure of their society led to a system where each defined group had access to the air.

Thus Catholics, Socialists and Liberals each had a ‘slice’ of the airwaves available for them to air their views and show their distinctness from each other. In Belgium, the government faced a greater problem. Their society was also stratified in the same manner as in neighbouring Holland.

However, the Dutch situation couldn’t easily be made to work in Belgium for a greater reason: language. Whilst the Netherlands ‘pillared’ society had the common ground of Dutch as a first language, Belgium, an artificial state created by the wars that tore Europe apart in the 18th and 19th centuries, couldn’t boast this.

The southern half of the country, Wallonia, has a very Gallic flavour and the people speak French. In the north, Flanders, the people conversely speak a dialect of Dutch and have a more nothern European attitude to life. These are major differences in subtle ways, preventing the two halves finding common ground.

The situation was made worse with the end of the Industrial Revolution. Since the 19th century, the manufacturing wealth was located in Wallonia, whilst Flanders remained poorer and rural. The Walloons had dominated Belgium society in ways greater than the English domination of the Scottish and the Welsh. When the fortunes started slowly to reverse after World War II, the Walloons could only look on in horror as their influence waned and the threat of domination from Flanders approached.

The government of Belgium had long pursued a policy of integrating the two cultures, and Belgian radio had performed this function. When television began in 1953, the government planned for a single national channel providing a dual-language service. But by 1953 the cracks were beginning to appear in this policy and in Belgian society.

The central government began to look at a different way of dealing with the problems of two societies within one country. Slowly the policy that would lead to federalisation of the country and the creation of a bi-lingual commonwealth by the end of the 1980s was put into place.

The first step had to be in broadcasting, an area that touch the lives of almost all inhabitants. The television service was split into two, in Dutch in the north (but available throughout the country) and French in the south (also available throughout). As federalisation continued, the two services gained independence from each other and, eventually, from the federal government.

The two services were, like the Walloons and the people of Flanders, completely different. The Francophone RTBF resembled RTF/TF1 in France, with a similar mix of news and entertainment and southern European production values. In the north, BRT was more like the Dutch NOS or a non-commercial version of RTL from Luxembourg, with more northern European production values.

The separation of the service and their devolution to the regional governments meant that they soon began to drift far apart from each other in policy and programming. With BRT seeing a natural competitor in the Dutch services and RTBF looking toward RTF for competition, one could be forgiven for thinking that the two had forgotten the other’s existence.

The changes in emphasis wrought by the 1980s showed this most strongly when RTBF began to accept advertising in order to compete directly with TF1. BRTN (formerly BRT) retained its non-commercial standing, partially to counteract the rampant commercialism of the Dutch competition.

All this leads to an interesting question in relation to broadcasting. Can broadcasting be a unifier of peoples? The answer, annoyingly, is both yes and no. Pan-European satellite transmissions never really worked, as given the choice between bad programming in English and bad programming badly dubbed into a local language, people always choose the latter.

When faced with popular entertainment in French from TF1 and a lesser quality alternative from RTBF, people chose TF1. However, when the quality question was evened out, RTBF beat TF1 simply by offering local entertainment and news over the pan-Francophone alternative.

Unified broadcasting, as used by INR/NRI in Belgium between 1953 and 1960, failed to unify the audience who felt alienated by each others’ broadcasts. Regionalised broadcasts from RTBF and BRTN were welcomed for this very reason. The official split between the two halves of the country in broadcasting and politically has had the effect of unifying Belgium. Perhaps the broadcasters in Germany and the UK who believe that a unified, non-regional system is the direction people prefer should look on the Belgian experience as being that of European nations in microcosm.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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