Oct. 3,1991 will be an important day for television in Europe.
It is the deadline for the 12 countries of the European Community to ensure that their media laws are in conformity with the directive of “television without frontiers” approved in October 1989 in Luxembourg by the European Council of Ministers. Belgium, along with Denmark, voted against that directive.
But how will the dream of a single market for Euro tv become a reality? The example of TF-1 gives an idea of the problems in opening national frontiers.
The French channel was the first of many to be introduced throughout Belgium via cable in the late ’60s and ’70s. At that time, it was a public station, ORTF. To the French-speaking population in Belgium, TF-l’s anchormen and hosts are as familiar as those of the Belgian stations RTBF and RTL-TVI. Among Belgian French-speakers, TF-1 through the years got a respectable 17% to 20% market share.
Everything changed, however, in September 1986, when TF-1 was privatized. In December 1988, the French-speaking government in Belgium passed a new set of rules for foreign commercial stations carried on cable – in effect, a tariff- demanding investment in Belgian production companies and talent. To cover the cost of compliance, TF-1 began charging French advertisers for the additional audience of approximately 4.5 million French-lingo viewers in Belgium.
Catering to local tastes
At the same time, in an effort to build up a commercial “network” in Europe with local outlets in Switzerland, Belgium and elsewhere, TF-1 considered several scenarios for Belgium: a Belgian newsmagazine and talkshow instead of TF-l’s main news program in the evening, for example. As part of this process, it also sought to replace a number of its French commercials with Belgian ones, and so set up a local sales arm, TF-1 Publicite Belgique, late in 1989.
In April 1990, TF-1 showed some Belgian commercials on a single cable network in Brussels, the private company Radio Public, but was forced to stop these transmissions after a few days. TF-1 then took legal action to force the government to grant permission for the channel’s “Belgian signal” to be carried everywhere on cable.
The claim was rejected, however, by a Brussels court in September 1990. Now, personnel has been drastically reduced at TF-1 Publicite, but the web is expected to continue its fight for a significant piece of the Belgian advertising pie, perhaps coupled with a Dutch commercial station it also wants to set up.
In marked contrast, another French network, La-Cinq, has kept a low profile in Belgium. When it was granted permission to be carried on Belgian cable in April 1990, it confirmed that “La- Cinq has no immediate plans for selling local advertising slots in Belgium.” But other problems quickly appeared that could be a nightmare to solve in the future Europe without frontiers.
At the end of December, La-5 scheduled Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments” for primetime, but was barred access to several Belgian cable networks. A Brussels court ordered the cable companies not to show the movie at the request of the Belgian commercial station RTL-TVI, which claimed to have the exclusive broadcasting rights to the movie for the French-speaking market in Belgium.
La-5 bought the rights to “The Ten Commandments” before it entered the Belgian market, but it had also agreed to clear all the due rights in exchange for securing permission to be carried on Belgian cable.
More movies and maybe other channels will likely encounter this problem in this small but complexly regulated market.