Media Minister Sven Gatz outlines the VRT's future

What future is the Flemish public broadcaster VRT facing? Negotiations are underway between the Flemish Media Minister Sven Gatz (liberal) and the VRT, but the lines have already been set out by the Flemish Parliament, where a deal was reached on what the VRT should or should no longer do in the future. Speaking to the VRT in a long interview, Mr Gatz said that the VRT should concentrate more on video and sound, and provide more breathing space for other players in the Flemish media landscape.

The state-funded VRT is taking a position that is too dominant in the Flemish media landscape, commercial challengers say. The VRT will have to do with less money in the coming years, as new austerity measures were announced. It will also mean the VRT will have to change its policies.

The issue was first debated in a select committee in parliament, after which the Flemish Parliament agreed on a kind of preliminary policy agreement, (right-wing) majority against (leftist) opposition. This text will now be discussed between Sven Gatz and the VRT. The 'new' VRT should be in place by January next year, so no time should be lost.

Digital content: audiovisual accents, less written text

The online news desk, which is now bringing video, audio and written articles, will have to bring more video and less text. This has been a demand made by commercial news websites (that are not receiving state funding and are pointing to unfair competition) for some time.

"The Flemish government wants the VRT's digital content on websites and other platforms to concentrate more on the audiovisual side of things", Sven Gatz confirms. "This is what the VRT is good at. It is, historically, a radio and TV organisation and this strength should be reflected via its digital content." (...) "Let's leave the written texts to those that are good at it, the newspapers." 

Four accents: "News, culture, pluralism and documentaries"

The VRT should play a strengthening role for both society and the media sector as a whole. It should concentrate mostly on news, culture, pluralism and documentaries, Gatz explains. This double role implies that the VRT has to play a supporting role for production companies outside the VRT, and also for commercial chains. This should give private production companies more breathing space, Gatz argues. They should provide more television content, while the VRT should do less.

About the financial side of things, Sven Gatz says that in return, the Flemish government wants to guarantee the VRT a kind of financial stability. Asked about how much the Flemish broadcaster will receive, he said: "The amount we are talking about now, after the first round of cuts, is 275 million euros." He adds that the VRT also has other sources of income (publicity levels will remain the same) which will allow it to keep its role as a big and strong media company."

"The VRT's wings are being cut"

Critics say that the "VRT's wings are being cut" though, as it will have less freedom to improvise. "In the past, the VRT was allowed to try out new things as long as these were not explicitly forbidden. Now, the VRT will only be allowed to do things that are explicitly allowed", critics add.

Negotiations between the Flemish government's media department and the VRT will mainly be held in autumn. Things should become more concrete at that moment, also what concerns staff numbers. The pact that will thus be worked out, will be valid for 5 years.