The Dutch government has begun the painful process of picking apart one of the most byzantine and expensive public broadcast systems in the world.

Holland’s three-party ruling coalition wants a new power-punch broadcaster to replace what is now a pack of more than 30 special interest groups all jostling for time on three Dutch public channels.

While the exact form of the new system is to be decided by a commission that began deliberations this month, the message from Dutch media minister Aad Nuis and from ruling party politicians is that the old order – made up of political, religious and special interest groups- will likely be history after the year 2000.

“These broadcasters,” says labor party member Margaret Van Zuylken, “once represented the pillars of Dutch society. Now they are anachronistic. Everyone seems to be watching commercial television.”

Well, not everyone, but the flood of commercial channels launched into Holland over the last few years and severe pressure on the new government to deliver its promises to cut costs, is turning the pubcasters into both a costly burden and a political embarrassment.

Some 1.3 billion guilders ($88 million) are funneled into the coffers of the state system every year. In 1989 before the start-up of the private broadcaster RTL 4, public channels regularly enjoyed a 78%-80% audeince share.

By last year, market share had dropped to a worrying 49%, then skidded to an all-time low of 38% last month after Veronica, the pubcasters’ most popular and most commercial broadcaster, bailed out of the state system. Having seen the writing on the wall, renegade Veronica joined up with RTL 4 and its sister channel RTL 5 in a new commercial venture called HMG. Their combined market share currently is 40%.

Media observers say that the pubcasters’ market share could plunge even further, to as low as 30%, if they lose rights to a mainstay of their programming – soccer games. The Dutch soccer association KNVB served notice Oct. 30 that it will sell its rights to the highest bidder, public or private.

Says one industry analyst: “Soccer has always been the trick card, the ratings winner for the state channels when all else failed. If they lose those rights, it will be very bad indeed.” The rights come up for negotiation next spring.

Media minister Nuis maintains he will give the newly formed Ververs Commission carte blanche to come up with its own design for a new and workable state system.

But Nuis has been outspoken about his own preferences: He espouses one strong pubcaster operating on two channels instead of three, with the power of the individual broadcast groups in the system reduced if not altogether squashed.

Officially, the major public broadcasters, most of them legally independent of one other, have put Nuis on notice they plan to fight all efforts to phase them out.

Privately some of the top brass in the pubcaster system admit they could accept a BBC-like system, with two channels independently governed by one management, though of course, the Dutch pubcasters currently air commercials while the BBC does not.

And while some legislators, particularly from the out-of-power Christian Democrat party, are holding out for a go-slow approach, the mood in the Hague, the seat of Dutch government, is one of growing impatience. The three ruling parties all want the trappings of the old public service organization swept away and in its place, a leaner, meaner public broadcaster able to compete with the commercial channels.

The only difference of opinion appears to be how fast the government can lessen the broadcasters’ individual influence. Both left liberal party D66 and the powerful labor party PvdA believe the pubcasters can somehow be reshaped into a streamlined broadcaster. The conservative VVD wants to scotch the old system completely.

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