All fall down 

14 June 2001

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The Netherlands has a long tradition of liberal democracy. This tradition extends to broadcasting.

When radio broadcasting began in Holland, religious and political groups were quick to set up rival organisations to exploit the new medium. With limited air-space, a system was devised where each frequency was handed to a particular group for a time period related to it size. The largest four organisations took the lion’s share, while the remaining groups split 7 hours a week between them.

After World War II and the horrors of occupation, there was a period of consolidation. Eventually five groups were left, and in 1947 these group joined forces to form the NRU – Nederlandsche Radio Unio – to pool resources and develop the new innovation of television in the same manner.

By 1961, the Dutch government, seeing the success of commercial television in the rest of Europe and Britain in particular, decided that the time was right for its development in Holland.

A bill, modeled on the UK’s Television Act of 1954 sought to set up an ITA for the Netherlands and a similar, if not necessarily regional, service to ITV. The Dutch parliament accepted the proposals with one – startling – proviso. The second Dutch network would also be non-commercial.

A year later, the Government tried to change the new second service into a commercial service, by allowing one third of the air time to be given to NTS, the television successor of NRU and a non-commercial body, and two-thirds to outside groups pitching new programmes to NTS which would be advertising funded.

The NTS rejected the proposals outright – an event that led to the formation of Europe’s first regularly broadcasting pirate television station, TV Noordsee.

Again and again the Government tried different variations on the theme of commercial television and even commercial radio, but each idea was rejected by the parliament. Eventually cracks began to form in the ruling coalition and, on 27 February 1965, the Government fell over one issue – commercial or non-commercial broadcasting.

It took several months for a new coalition to form and find its feet. The new Government, mindful of the fate of its predecessor, moved carefully on the subject, but in true Dutch fashion, solved it lest it became a millstone around the new Prime Minister’s neck.

The broadcasting act of 1965 proposed to continue the existing system, but set a deadline for the licensing of new, competitive services.

The deadline was reached an in 1968 the NTS and NRU became NOS – Nederlandse Omroep Stichting or Netherlands Broadcasting Foundation.

The existing groups and new minority organisations were guaranteed regular air-time on the new system, while even the tiniest of minorities were given occasional access to the air. NOS itself provided 25% of television programmes from a neutral angle. The remaining airtime went to AVRO, for liberals, KRO, for Catholics, NCRV for conservative protestants, VARA for socialists, VPRO for liberal protestants, and the new TROS, for liberal non-conformists.

By dividing the limited airtime of 3 networks fairly between them, the organisations contrived to provide a service that was neutral and objective when viewed homogonously over a year, but biased and partisan separated out close up.

The arrangement was to last until the widespread acceptance of broadband cable and satellite in the 1990s – and never bring down the Government again.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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