Turn the dial or turn off the television are the two choices given Americans who spend an average of 25 hours a week in front of the tube. The corporate license holders who control the public’s airwaves would not want it any other way.
But there is another way for the people in Holland. In addition to the Netherlands Broadcasting Corporation’s (NOS) programming twenty percent of the time for news, major sports events, etc., the air time of about 86 hours a week on the only two channels, Nederland I and Nederland II, is allocated to non-profit broadcasting organizations which achieve minimum membership levels among the television audience. These organizations are self-started by the initiative of the television (and radio) audience. They usually represent different ranges of political, cultural and religious opinion by most of the population.
The broadcasting law provides for three major categories of broadcasting organizations. Category A comprises organizations with at least 450,000 members or contributors (usually subscribers to the group’s magazine); Category B needs to have at least 300,000 members and Category C includes groups with a minimum of 150,0:0 members. The time available for categories A, B and C is divided between them in the ratio of 5:3:1. “A” groups receive nine hours and six minutes TV time a week while “C” groups receive a minimum of 2 1/2 hours weekly. For a country with only 12 million people, reaching these membership levels is no small task. There are eight such A, B or C organizations who now each program several hours a week on televsion and radio, using the studies facilities of NOS.
To encourage more diversity and talent, the law also provides for another category called “aspirant broadcasting organizations” which have at least 60,000 members. These aspirants are given 3 hours of radio time and one hour of televsion time or both each week for up to three years.
Who are these broadcasting groups? The largest one, AYRO tries to have a general appeal but is associated with the (conservative) Liberal Party who se members make up 40 percent of AYRO’s list. Another broadcaster, TROS, emphasizes entertainment and uses many popular American television series. It directs its appeals to working class viewers and listeners. KKRO has most of its members from a largely Catholic center political party; while NCRV s mainstream Protestant. Other groups reflect a music—oriented youthful audience, a fundamentalst — right wing audience, and a progressive, more formally educated audience.
Advertisers are not allowed to sponsor programs. Advertisements, once entirely prohibited, now play at fixed periods just before and after news broadcasts with the proceeds going to support the Dutch broadcasting system.
What can these broadcasters put on the air? Under the law there are very general criteria. A descriptive pamphlet available from the Royal Netherland Embassy (4200 Linnean Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., 20008) gives this description: “the organization must broadcast a varied selection of programmes, in principle comprising all the different types (information, educational and cultural programmes and entertainment) and must aim to satisfy cultural, religious or ideological needs existing amongst the population such that its broadcasts can be considered to be of general benefit to the community.”
According to Robert Haslach, an Embassy counselor, Holland is in the midst of debating changes to its broadcasting law because of the rise of cable television and the transmitting of programmes in Dutch being beamed from Luxembourg. But the basic openness of the broadcasting system and its accessibility to organized citizen initiatives for regular time on the airwaves receive widespread support.
I became aware of this accessible television-radio system during a visit to Holland a few years ago. The local Friends of the Earth (FOE) representative was able to describe his association’s activities on Dutch television and request contributions because one of the broadcasting organizations allotted FOE time on their weekly programs.
Nations, of course, have different makeups. But broader access to the electronic media extends modern technology to our constitutional right to freedom of expression. How long can the right to reach millions of fellow citizens over the airwaves remain restricted to a handful of broadcast companies? Knowing the Dutch way of handling information needs for a sectarian society, through institutionalizing community participation, can help open our imaginations to better media communication.
Television and radio rights should be defined primarily on behalf of the audience, as a 15 year old Supreme Court decision declared. Unilateral broadcasting` where the people can neither systematically program nor talk back, simply limits the flowering of the First Amendment and all the ideas and activities that you never see or hear no matter how often you tune in your set. The right to flick the switch may give you ‘exit’ but it does not give you ‘voice’.