VT4’s Monopoly-Buster Spurs Suits

The Dutch-speaking section of Belgium became one of the hottest battlefields in the European Union Feb. 1 when U.K.-based VT4 broke the 18-year monopoly of market leader VTM by launching the second Dutch-language station in Flanders.

Backed by Capital Cities/ABC and pan-Scandinavian media group SBS, the channel’s startup has triggered a tangle of lawsuits at regional, national and European levels. The most serious action was filed in late January by the European Commission, which charged before the European Court of Justice that the state of Belgium was violating the EC’s Television Without Frontiers directive.

The allegations are directly related to the VT4 case. Under Belgian law, the Flemish and French communities determine media and broadcasting policy. The EC charges that contravenes the TV directive’s cross-border trade guarantees by giving the regions too much power to decide if TV broadcasters from other member states can hook up to the Belgian cable.

The launch of VT4 has been hotly contested by the Flemish community’s minister of culture, Hugo Weckx. Last month, he refused to allow VT4 to hook up to the Flemish cable, but a Belgian high court suspended the decision after VT4 said it could suffer irreparable monetary damages if it didn’t launch on the cable as advertised Feb. 1.

VT4 says it holds a U.K. license and is not subject to Flemish law. Weckx charges the station targets Flemish audiences and advertisers and moved to the U.K. only to get around the Flemish law, which grants VTM an 18-year monopoly on commercial advertising.

The Belgian Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing Feb. 14 to hear arguments in the case.

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