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EBU/OIRT

Broadcasting, particularly in Europe, has long been characterized by a particular tension. Both the legal authority of states and the remits of national broadcasters more or less stop at national borders. Electromagnetic waves do not, however, nor do the movements and interests of people, organisations and commercial companies. In Europe, the rapid development and institutionalization of broadcasting after WWI, along with the relatively high density of different nationalities, led almost instantly to a situation of seeming chaos in the airwaves, as well as a series of new legal issues, such as international performing rights, that arose as a result. As with most other things on the continent, during the Cold War, these tasks of co-ordinating such activities were divided between European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in the Western bloc, and the Organisation Internationale de Radiodiffusion et Television (OIRT) in the Eastern bloc, both founded in 1950. In 1993, the organisations merged, and the OIRT was absorbed into the EBU. (For the purposes of clarity here both organisations will be referred to in the past tense).

These two federations were not broadcasting institutions in the usual sense: their remit was not to serve an audience with programming. Instead, they were co-ordinating bodies that served their member organizations. This has meant that their tasks and identities have been subject to constant change as the technological and legal demands of transnational broadcasting have changed over time. Indeed, the emergence of both organisations (and their relationship to each other) was influenced by the technological development and emergence of television in Europe Television in the middle of the 20th Century..

Both organizations grew out of the International Broadcasting Union (IBU), a federation of European broadcasters established in 1925 to help deal, among other things, with regulating European airwaves. After the war, attempts to re-structure the organization failed. In 1950, the BBC took the initiative to invite several Western broadcasters to form a new body, the EBU, which took over the both the IBU's central office in Geneva and its technical centre in Brussels (which is now also in Geneva at EBU headquarters). A short time later the OIR was founded (the T for television was added in 1959) and established a headquarters and technical centre in Prague.

Each organization had a similar structure derived from that of the IBU. Besides a central administration, they both had sections devoted to technical, legal and programme matters. During the early phases of television's reintroduction in Europe after WWII, these committees were to work together to create the transnational television networks, Eurovision for the EBU, and Intervision for the OIRT, established in 1954 and 1960, respectively.

Once Eurovision and later Intervision were established, creating and expanding a working network became a key raison d'être for both organizations. Indeed, the creation of Intervision led the EBU and OIRT to establish relations and regular programme exchanges. Several of the first international exchanges in the East (images of the 1956 Cortina Winter Olympics, and the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics) were Eurovision feeds. The final culmination of such international expansion was the 'Our World' broadcast organised by the EBU, which broadcast live from all around the globe using three satellites on 25 June 1967. At the last minute, the OIRT countries pulled out in protest at the Six Day War, and so were not involved. After that, activities to expand the network became less central, and particularly the EBU concerned itself with establishing uniform technical standards. Particularly in the area of colour television, however, its efforts had limited success.

Co-operation between the two bodies varied. At a technical level, there was a fair amount of mutual interest and exchange. The technical bulletins of both cordially reported on technical developments of the other. On a programme level, the results were more mixed. Each side more or less relied on the other for live pictures of news and sporting events taking place in the other's territories. Such items were part of a routine, daily exchange, or, as in the case of major sporting events, were negotiated specially. Exchanges between the two organisations were always uneven, with far more programmes going from the EBU to the OIRT than the other way. Perhaps the strongest link between them, besides the interlinked technical network, was that the YLE in Finland was a member of both organizations. In times of less cordial relations, the Finnish broadcaster often acted as go-between between the two organizations.

A key difference between the EBU and the OIRT was that the eastern federation was an international organization, made up of essentially government bodies. Furthermore, the OIRT was not limited to Europe, or even 'Region 1': Cuba was an active member, as was the Japanese TV station Asahi (in part to grant it better access to Eurovision programmes). The EBU, by contrast, excludes governments and is comprised of broadcasting organizations. EBU members must represent nations that belong to the International Telegraph Union (ITU), the intergovernmental body of the United Nations that deals with telecommunications. It refers all matters of international politics to the ITU. After the OIRT pulled out of the 'Our World' broadcast in 1967, the EBU's administrative council determined that it could not comment at all. In more recent years, this apolitical stance has been more publicly visible in the Eurovision Song Contest, which in the last two years has turned down song entries that had political content.

With the liberalisation of broadcasting in Europe, and later with the merger with the OIRT, the EBU has established a profile as the representative of public service broadcasting in Europe. While it still includes some commercial broadcasters, such as Britain's Channel 4, a condition of membership is that members ‘are under an obligation to, and actually do, provide varied and balanced programming for all sections of the population, including programmes catering for special/minority interests of various sections of the public, irrespective of the ratio of programme cost to audience’. The programme sharing allowed by Eurovision is one way in which public service broadcasters are able to remain competitive within the current global television market.

Alexander Badenoch
University of Utrecht


Further Reading:

Eugster, Ernest (1983) Television Programming Across National Boundaries: the EBU and OIRT Experience (Dedham, MA: Artech Hourse).

Zeller, Rüdiger (1999) Die EBU : Internationale Rundfunkkooperation im Wandel (Baden-Baden: Nomos).

Degenhardt, Wolfgang and Elisabeth Strautz (1999) Auf der Suche nach dem europäischen Programm. die Eurovision 1954-1970. (Baden-Baden: Nomos).

Bourdon, Jérôme (2007) 'Unhappy Engineers of the European Soul. The EBU and the Woes of Pan-European Television', International Communication Gazette 69(3): 263–280.