FoF is a project of the Flemish public broadcaster VRT and produced by Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, publishers in Leuven that recently announced the creation of a new TV production department. That department is headed by Kris Hoflack, who was previously head of VRT’s news service.
“We started almost a year ago with a lot of investigation,” explains project coordinator Els Van de Sijpe. “We brought together all the expertise and research we had, but it wasn’t enough. So we talked to the international community itself, brainstormed with them, and out of that came particular ideas we could use.”
This was done with some of VRT’s existing international contacts but also included contacts they came across online, such as bloggers. “A lot of people are very active on the internet,” says Van de Sijpe. “They have blogs with beautiful photos and texts on visiting Flanders or explaining Flanders.”
They also had some contacts with de Rand, the organisation charged with introducing people who live in the municipalities surrounding Brussels to Flemish culture. “When we started, we didn’t know much about the international community,” admits Van de Sijpe. “We had to learn a lot in a short time, and we did it by talking to them and listening to their needs and their expectations.”
Fans of Flanders airs on Wednesday evenings on the digital channel OP12 and is repeated on Canvas on Fridays. The programme consists of short segments on Flemish culture, including habits, food and language. Several expats were featured on the debut episode, from Irish people talking about what they miss from back home to an Afghan woman on the CD&V elections list in Hasselt.
The website, meanwhile, is largely video-based, with short films on a variety of topics. These include Elections for Dummies, a look at the sometimes mystifying political process; Once Upon a Time, a look at various periods of Flemish history; food feature Eat This!; and Wablieft?, a feature on the Dutch language and its Flemish variants.
“Right now, there are about 10 videos to give some context,” Van de Sijpe says. “There are also daily news videos. We’ll have a publication rhythm of about two new videos a day. Within a year, there should be about 400 videos on the platform.”
The news is provided by VRT’s English-language service, which has been online at flandersnews.be for eight years. “It’s a pooling of expertise,” says Van de Sijpe. “There is one central desk where online and television expertise comes together and where the VRT news is integrated within the platform. So there’s daily contact and constant dialogue.”
The platform will also feature an international guest blogger each day on a different subject. For the time being, Van de Sijpe says, the aim is to think local. “Our first goal is to reach foreigners here in Belgium, especially the expats in and around Brussels, but also international students and newcomers – people for whom language in the beginning is a problem. That’s a very large group of foreigners, and, of course, when they go back to their home country they can be the best ambassadors for us.”
Contact with users is of top importance, and FoF has employed a relative newcomer – Stephanie Summers has been here since last December – to handle social media. “She’s British and lives in Brussels, and she knows the way into the international community,” says Van de Sijpe. “We call her our conversation manager. That was very important from the beginning of the project: Our first medium, our base, is the internet. The television programme is an extension of what we do on the internet because we believe that the best way to reach people is online.”