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In Dutch over pubcasters

Pol aims to reform Holland's complex system of fiefdoms

AMSTERDAM — It is the Netherlands own “Mission: Impossible,” with Dutch pol Medy Van der Laan, Holland’s media minister, taking on the challenge.

She is the latest to attempt to reform the country’s Byzantine pubcaster system that sees 23 broadcasters share three channels.

Van de Laan wants to slim down the more than 80-year-old system, which had no commercial TV rivals until 18 years ago.

She aims to curb the power of the main eight broadcasters, whose original roots are seated in the early part of the last century when political parties, religious orgs and special interest groups had their own broadcasting entities.

For instance, KRO was originally backed by Catholics, and although much of its programming is liberal and nonreligious, it is still considered a Catholic broadcaster. Ditto for Protestant-backed NCRV. EO is an evangelist-backed broadcaster, while VARA’s origins are in the Labor party.

While the power of the special interest groups over the broadcasters has diminished, as Van der Laan sees it, the lumbering anachronism of the disparate system prevents it from working efficiently.

The determined pol wants to cut pubcasters’ government funding, which hit $634 million this year. Advertising adds another $189 million, and $81 million comes from other sources, such as rights sales.

Advertising revenue is under threat, too.

Under Van der Laan’s plan, pubcasters will leave populist programming to commercial rivals and stick to a public broadcasting diet of mainly cultural content, documentaries, news and information. Such programming attracts fewer auds and less advertising. On top of that, Van der Laan wants to ban commercials aimed at kids during tyke shows.

The pol also wants to pull the directors of the pubcasters from the pubcaster board, hoping a less rigidly aligned board can come up with a more coherent policy.

“There has been no strong direction because each of the broadcasters has very different ideas of how to make television,” says Andor Admiraal, a spokesman for D66, Van der Laan’s party. The new system “will be much more neutral,” he notes.

Not surprisingly, the pubcasters are against the changes. But this time, unlike previous efforts, Van der Laan has the majority backing of parliament.

On Oct. 10, the parliament, led by its centrist coalition government backed most of her proposals, which could take effect in 2008, although it nixed a suggestion to trim the three channels back to two.

Ironically, among the casualties of the changes will be NPS, which specializes in the kind of cultural programming Van der Laan wants pubcasters to espouse. The decision to shutter NPS has mystified local industryites and been criticized across Europe, where NPS is well known for its support of multicultural film and documentaries.

Van der Laan believes NPS’ function can be taken over by other parts of the pubcasting system.

With elections expected in 2007, Van der Laan has little time to push the changes into law.

The Labor party, which been out of the ruling coalition for several years, is one of the strongest supporters of the pubcasting system as it is. But other parties not in the ruling coalition are also not happy with the changes.

Opponents of the new measures are hoping that in 2007, a government change, including the possibility of a Labor party win, may nix Van der Laan’s plan before it becomes law.

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