The Dutch public broadcasting system: defending notions of pluriformiteit (multiformity)
The Dutch broadcasting system is unique in the world and was initially conceptualized as a reflection of the organization of Dutch society. The one most important and well-protected characteristic of Dutch broadcasting is pluriformiteit, a concept that comes close to the English multiformity. It refers to the diversity of opinions and beliefs to be reflected in the diversity of broadcasting companies issued with a license. The other characteristic is ‘openness’, which refers to the possibilities for organisations, groups and foundations, with a social, cultural, political or religious purpose, to gain access to radio and television channels. Both characteristics were enshrined in the Broadcasting Act of 1969. The Act has been amended several times since then but these two principles of pluriformiteit and ‘openness’ have been consistently maintained in legislation. As the Act states, access to radio and television channels is conditional on the realization of pluriformiteit and is only granted by governmental decision to companies that can demonstrate that they represent social, cultural, political or religious currents in Dutch society (based on the number of subscribers to their organization).
The history of Dutch broadcasting shows how pluriformiteit has always been one of the system’s most important and well-protected characteristics. And in this respect it is very much different from other European public services like in Great Britain, Scandinavia or Germany. The history of public broadcasting in the Netherlands goes back to the 1920s when important religious and social currents in the Netherlands (liberal, Catholic, socialist, Protestant) took the initiative of founding broadcasting companies. Dutch society in those days was marked by the concept of pillarization, a way of realizing pluriformiteit.
Pillarization is derived from a pillar as a metaphor for a segment in Dutch society representing religious, social, cultural or spiritual beliefs and practices, which implies that society is ‘vertically’ divided in several sections (pillars) based on religion or ideology. Each pillar has its own cultural autonomy. The principle of pillarization received its official blessing at the end of the First World War, with the financial equation of state organized and private (Protestant and Roman-Catholic) primary education. Pillarization started in education, but soon spread to other sectors of society. This resulted in a stratification of Dutch society, which was predominantly ‘vertical’. This meant that the pillars where crosscutting class boundaries, based on a shared religion or ideology. These could extend from education (diversity of schools) to trade unions (Catholic, socialist)), to club life (a protestant music club, a club of Catholic pigeon breeders and so on) and eventually to broadcasting.
Having adopted the social concept of pillarization, Dutch broadcasting in the first place was aimed at reproducing cultural identities for different cultural groups. Thus a segmentation of public spheres was created. The following original pillars can be identified: KRO (Roman-Catholics), NCRV (Orthodox Protestants), VARA (Social Democrats), VPRO (Liberal Protestants). The AVRO was propagated as a general broadcaster, but in practice resembled the Liberals, which belonged to the least conservative pillar.
To keep the audience within the framing of pillars became more difficult with the introduction of television. The integration of television into the household increased access to the existing multiple public spheres as each family could go from one pillar to another. The domestic space became a site of reception for all public spheres; this allowed for potential exposure and augmentation of identities. All kinds of information could now be appropriated and consumed within the domestic space and this could lead to disengagement from one pillar and to create new forms of identification with other pillars in society or with the larger national community..
To put it differently, traditional (pillarized) culture was challenged by the nationalising, even globalising dimensions of television as a visual medium, capable of crossing borders. The attempt of Dutch television to maintain and confirm distinctions of cultural identity was put under pressure by the potential of television to contribute to what we might describe as a national community of viewers; also it was at odds with television’s primarily domestic character, which involves flexibility of reception.
Programming became one of the main means by which broadcasters attempted to control and regulate segmented viewing in the household. Equally important though were the extra activities organised by broadcasting companies, such as biking tours, special yearly events, journeys, 1 May celebrations (if relevant). The broadcasting companies created a special club life -as in the days of traditional pillarized culture at a local level- primarily aimed at directing and controlling reception which was much more difficult within the private space of the home. Apart from that audiences were also addressed as ‘national’ citizens (in the national news for instance or with the transmission of sport events). As far as the Netherlands is concerned, the function of TV was thus primarily considered as cultural, offering people feelings of belonging framed by the pillars upon which social and cultural life was organized. At the same time television was seen –like everywhere else- as an instrument capable of promoting the notion of national citizenship (creating informed citizens, sharing a common history).
Although all of these early-founded companies still exist, they are no longer exclusively bound up with specific pillars in society. Besides, nowadays people more and more tend to organize themselves into different social and cultural (less religious) groups. Cross-cultural interests reflect the Dutch social cultural landscape as a whole, including its traditions as well as its new tendencies. Religion, demographics or interests currently now divide the broadcasters. For example the broadcaster MAX exclusively produces programmes for elderly people, BNN caters to a youth audience and LLink targets environmental conscious viewers. Currently there are around 30 public broadcasters. Several broadcasting companies also share a channel. As a consequence, more than in the past, the audience will be challenged to identify with a whole channel instead of with each individual broadcasting company itself. Even more than ever before the newly developed channel brands will push back the identity of broadcasting companies in favour of channel identity.
Broadcasting companies have a membership and publish their own weekly radio and television magazines. They are obliged by law to provide a full range of programmes (containing cultural, educational, informative, and entertainment parts in reasonable proportions). Moreover they are still obliged to represent certain religious, cultural, spiritual and social currents in their programmes. Here the legacy of pillarization is still visible, albeit somewhat blurred.
Sonja de Leeuw
Dalida van Dessel
Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
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