TV access: the Dutch solution

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Suppose that you were in charge of broadcasting in a small country in which there was a wide range of political and religious opinions, all clamoring to be expressed on television. Suppose further that your country only had two TV channels on which to broadcast. How would you decide who should be heard (and seen) and for how long?

There is a country that has faced such problems: the Netherlands. And what the Dutch have come up with is unique in broadcasting.

Not only have they opened the airwaves on a regular basis to a wide spectrum of programming, they have also designed a system that permits advertising and yet forbids commercial sponsorship.

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''It's a complicated system,'' says Jan van Cuilenburg, professor of communication science at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University), Amsterdam, ''but we are, on the whole, satisfied with it.''

Here is how it works.

There are, at present, eight major broadcasting organizations in the Netherlands which share time on Nederland 1 and Nederland 2, the country's two TV channels. These groups fall into three classifications (A, B, or C), according to the number of persons in the general viewing public who have elected to become ''members.''

The system might seem to be something like public broadcasting in the United States, but in fact it is different. Although members do contribute financially to their favorite broadcasting group, they give only a modest, fixed yearly fee, determined by the group within some legal limits. If a group with a small membership is able to increase its membership substantially, it can gain more air time. And this is just what one of the groups, VPRO, recently decided to do.

The initials VPRO stand for Vrijzinnig Protestantse Radio Omroep (Free Protestant Radio Broadcasting), which was established as a liberal Protestant broadcaster. VPRO has since dropped religious affiliation, but for the sake of continuity, it has retained the initials as its name.

VPRO was in the C classification, and wished to advance to B status. (C groups have more than 150,000 members; B groups more than 300,000 members; and A groups more than 450,000 members.)

So VPRO devised a campaign to boost its membership from 190,000 to 350,000, which would allow enough ''overshoot,'' as Ad de Gruijl, a VPRO spokesman, puts it, to be assured of securing the B classification. The strategy (interviews with major Dutch newspapers, advertising in the papers with membership coupons, and mailings to members asking them to get their friends and neighbors to join) was planned in April 1982.

''When we started on May 9th,'' says Mr. de Gruijl, ''we thought, if we got that number in two years, well, it will be great. But we already have it now! We've already got 350,000 members.''

Mr. de Gruijl says VPRO felt threatened by a proposal to expand the TV broadcast day, which now runs from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., by five hours in 1985-86. If that were to happen, VPRO officials reasoned, they might lose their present evening of prime time to some larger broadcaster.

They began their current campaign in the hope that, as a larger organization, they would have a better chance of holding their present time slot - and thus, in Mr. de Gruijl's words, ''we can get the most out of our programs.''

There were indications before the campaign began that VPRO had hidden support.

The size of the response to VPRO's membership drive ''brought that out very clearly, in a way that we never would have imagined,'' Mr. de Gruijl says. VPRO picked up 100,000 members in the first four weeks of the campaign alone, he says. ''They came in by seven, eight thousand a day. It was unbelievable.''

The group will now apply for B status and, if the government finds that VPRO has gained as many members as they say they have, then VPRO will get more air time - an additional three hours a week under the current time-allocation formula. VPRO and almost every organization that has anything to do with the country's radio and television system has offices here in Hilversum, from which nearly all of the country's broadcasting is done.

Full of tree-lined streets and laced with bicycle paths, Hilversum (pop. 92, 964) is quite unlike New York or Hollywood. It has a residential ambiance, accentuated by the fact that it's a half-hour journey by commuter train from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam, the nation's capital.

Broadcasting out of Hilversum is governed by the Broadcasting Act of 1967, which stipulates that each group is to use its time to provide ''a complete program,'' including material ''of a cultural, informative, educational, and entertaining character in a reasonable mutual proportion.'' This is the ideal.

''In practice that criterion is never used,'' says Professor van Cuilenburg, because ''it's too broad. It's too vague.''

But, he says, there is ''a continuing discussion'' on what it means to provide a complete program.

What about individual shows, though? How do they get from the drawing board into production?

No broadcasting group has its own studios. Instead, they turn to NOS (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, the Netherlands Broadcasting Corporation), a government organization that provides studios and equipment, props, technical staff, and so on.

NOS is a ''service organization,'' says Gerard H. van Beek, the head of the NOS press office.

It, too, is a broadcaster, supplying ''a number of programs which can not be made by different organizations,'' says Mr. van Beek. ''Let's say a daily news program can not be made by an organization which is not every day on the air. The Olympic Games three weeks at a stretch can not be covered by one of the organizations; it must be done by cooperation.''

Although the news on NOS is technically being produced by the government, it is NOS policy to be objective in its coverage. Each of the independent broadcast organizations is expected to have programs that treat a few items in detail and add perspective to the news.

An American being introduced to the Dutch broadcasting system will find few points of reference with network television in the US to guide him in sorting out the intricacy of the Dutch system. But programming is only part of broadcasting.

There's also advertising, and here the American will do a double take. For while advertising is permitted on Dutch TV, commercial sponsorship of programs is not.

Commercial sponsorship is avoided by placing advertising only before and after the news programs in something of a program block of its own.

''And we would like to keep it that way,'' says Professor van Cuilenburg, who calls the Dutch attitude towards TV ads ''a little ambivalent.''

''On the one hand, we would like to have no advertising at all,'' he says. ''On the other hand, it's a costly business. Without advertsising, TV and radio license fees would double, he adds.

Americans, accustomed to several commercial interruptions of their programs, would be startled to see how little advertising there is on Dutch TV. It is limited by law to a total of three hours a week on the two channels.

The Dutch stand on commercialism reaches beyond the question of advertising. Broadcasting groups are also prohibited from having any outside commercial interests, and are required by the broadcasting act to be nonprofit institutions. According to Professor van Cuilenburg, three of the broadcast organizations are apparently in violation of this policy, and the Dutch government is investigating the matter.

''We are very keen on the commercial interests,'' the professor says. ''It's forbidden.''

The absence of commercial sponsorship means that the popularity of a particular program is a much less pressing concern than it is in the US, where the ratings of TV shows (the number of viewers and the demographic information concerning them) determine whether a program will continue to be aired.

Dutch broadcasters are not so much concerned with ratings as they are with the size of their membership, which will be dictated by overall trends in programming, rather than by the popularity of a specific program.

In the early 1950s, when television was in its infancy, J. W. Rengelink, secretary of the Television Foundation that preceded NOS, said, ''

The danger of advertisers determining the contents and the editing is much greater in radio and television than in the case of a newspaper.''Those words still sum up the general Dutch view.

''We do not like a commercial system here,'' says Mr. van Beek of NOS. In the '60s a commercial system of broadcasting, which would have been in competition with the existing noncommercial one, was proposed, but the idea never got anywhere.Mr. van Beek says he believes the present system is quite adequate:

''Every group is competing, of course, but not owing to the fact that they have more money than the other group, no. Maybe they have better ideas, or they are somewhat quicker to play the interesting programs from abroad.''

The last point is something of an anomaly. The Dutch just smile and shrug their shoulders when they are reminded that their system imports many of the highest-rated American series, products of a commercialism that they eschew.

''The Love Boat'' (VARA); ''Dallas'' and ''Vega$'' (AVRO); ''Dynasty'' and ''Happy Days'' (VOO); and the 1950s Groucho Marx series ''You Bet Your Life'' (VPRO) are currently being broadcast. They are in English with Dutch subtitles, since the Dutch view the dubbing of film as a cultural atrocity.

''All the popular series in the States are popular here as well, and we are even in a better position than in the States,'' Professor van Cuilenburg says with a smile, ''because we can look at them three times if we want'' - on Belgian and German television, which is available via cable, as well as on Dutch TV.

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