VRT puts pressure on independent producers

Summary

A stalemate in contract negotiations between the Flemish public broadcaster VRT and one of its principal suppliers of programmes is a symptom of the crisis in the sector, which is expected to lead to a 13% job loss in independent production houses by this summer.   The VRT has asked Woestijnvis, which produces current hits such as Van vlees en bloed and De slimste mens ter wereld, as well as long-running favourites such as Man bijt hond, to review some of the terms of its existing contract, which runs until 2011. Neither side would discuss details, but the issue is costs: the public broadcaster wants to save €100 million by 2011. Part of that would come from a reduction of 10% in the cost of independent productions.

A scene from Van vlees en bloed
 
A scene from Van vlees en bloed

The Flemish public broadcaster needs to cut €100 million over the next three years

A stalemate in contract negotiations between the Flemish public broadcaster VRT and one of its principal suppliers of programmes is a symptom of the crisis in the sector, which is expected to lead to a 13% job loss in independent production houses by this summer.   The VRT has asked Woestijnvis, which produces current hits such as Van vlees en bloed and De slimste mens ter wereld, as well as long-running favourites such as Man bijt hond, to review some of the terms of its existing contract, which runs until 2011. Neither side would discuss details, but the issue is costs: the public broadcaster wants to save €100 million by 2011. Part of that would come from a reduction of 10% in the cost of independent productions.

However, the terms of Woestijnvis’ contract are already set. The company, which was set up in 1997 by some former sports reporters from what was then the BRT, works on an exclusive basis for the public broadcaster, which carries a premium, but which the VRT would like to open up as soon as possible. Not surprisingly, Woestijnvis is reluctant to renegotiate an existing contract, especially when VRT had made it clear that the only way to go is down.

Woestijnvis has other sources of income – it produced the smash-hit film Loft, which last week sold its one-millionth ticket. But VRT is a major customer – and a prestigious one. The public broadcaster, meanwhile, depends on Woestijnvis for much of its viewing audience: De slimste mens and other Woestijnvis productions are enormously popular with viewers. “We are in the middle of a domestic dispute, but it doesn’t have to end in divorce,” said VRT spokeswoman Diane Waumans.

Sector-wide malaise

The whole independent production sector is currently going through tough times. According to a poll of the organisation of independent television producers VOTP, there were 760 people employed in the sector in Flanders in July 2008. By July of this year, the VOTP expects that number will fall by 100, representing a drop of 13%.

The VRT is not solely to blame; another cause of cuts is the drastic reduction in advertising revenue earned by commercial stations like VTM and VT4. But the result is the same: with less money to spend, the broadcasters force producers to cut costs. According to production companies, this inevitably leads to reductions in quality. Creative drama series, for instance, are replaced by game shows and so-called “reality” television, while domestic productions are replaced by cheaper imports from the US and Australia.

Meanwhile, another Flemish broadcaster, Vitaya, has branched out into print, with the release of the new magazine of the same name, launched last week. Aimed at the women’s market, the monthly publication is a co-production with Sanoma magazines, publisher of Feeling, Libelle and Goedele. The publishers hope for sales of 65,000 copies a month.

VRT puts pressure on independent producers

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