'With it' broadcasting beams far -- and brings in healthy taxes

When disco became the craze in America Radio Luxembourg was the first European station to pick up the fad and give its audience an earful of the pulsating rhythm.

Thus, wriggling, hip-swinging Europeans helped to catapult Radio Luxembourg's ratings further, as other stations on the Continent were slower to pick up the new sound.

The flexibility -- or trendiness, if you will -- has become one of the trademarks of the radio station, a subsidiary of Radio-Tele-Luxembourg (RTL). As a result of its ability to spot new trends, it has become one of the most popular radio stations in Europe. In France and West Germany it's the top station.

Its English broadcasts, although limited, have also become successful in the United Kingdom, and its broadcasts are also popular in Scandinavia, Belgium, and Switzerland. In short, the station has become something like "the mouse that roared."

The company's success is not limited to the radio frequencies, however. It also has a commercial television station that broadcasts as far beyond microwave will take it. Its success has made its neighbors in France and Germany quite uneasy, for the station proposes to begin satellite transmissions, beaming down its free, commercial fare from space. Thus, its TV range would extend far into Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, competing with lcoal stations. It would have a potential for 50 million viewers.

West German Chancellor helmut Schmidt has already declared that such commercial television in Germany could be "a danger more acute than atomic energy." Mr. Schmidt reportedly said that such programs might "change the structure of our democratic society." There is a particular concern about the effect of television on German family life.

To make his point, Mr. Schmidt ordered his minister in charge of telecommunications to halt plans linking 11 of the country's largest cities in an experimental cable network. Then he got France's assurance that it would block an attempt by Radio Luxembourg to lease a channel on a French-German satellite, due to start up operations in 1983.

For the moment the Luxembourg company is only saying that it's making a "feasibility" study of the situation. If it is unable to lease space from the French-German satellite, it has the option of buying its own satellite from a UK or US company.

According to Paul Heinerscheid, an assistant to Gustave Graas, the general director of RTL, the "earliest possible" go-ahead for such a satellite system is five or six years off. Among the factors being considered is the type of equipment that would be necessary and the possible responses by German and French television stations.

If, for example, the satellite is not powerful enough and it decreases its range by 100 miles, the potential audience would shrink by nearly 35 million. Furthermore, satellite broadcasts will have to be picked up by individuals using their own antenna dishes. Thus, the cost of the antenna becomes a major consideration.

A marketing problem will crop up when the German networks respond to the challenge. At present German TV cannot carry advertising after 8 p.m. But Mr. Heinerscheid cautions that "we can't expect them to do nothing if we advertise after 8." At the moment there is a greater demand for advertising in the Germany than there is time available for it.

The Luxembourg company objects to German intimations that any programs originating in Luxembourg might be bad for German family life. Rather, the station maintains that it is more conservative that the German stations. For example, Luxembourg does not show programs with violence in them until after 9 p.m. -- a practice not followed by the German stations.

Still, the Luxembourgers are sensitive to the issues, and Prime Minister M. Pierre Werner, in an interview, said, "The West German chancellor has been assured that we will study all aspects of the satellite question and will consider the proper interest of German television as well." Mr. Werner expects to have talks this winter with Mr. Schmidt on this question.

RTL would like to expand for a number of reasons. Foremost among them is the fact that 75 percent of its revenues comes from its radio broadcasting. And, according to Mr. Heinerscheid, the company now "perceives a shift in media consumption away from radio." Radio is also changing somewhat in Europe with the introduction of regional or local stations. These tend to eat into the national company's audience.

The company's health is a matter of some concern to all of Luxembourg, since it has the dubious distinction of being the nation's largest taxpayer, contributing 4 percent of the national budget in 1978. That same year revenues came to $178 million and profits were $22.5 million.

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