As long as there is noise and image …

Jean-Louis* has been working for RTBF for several years. He gives us insights into the internal workings and influence of advertising at RTBF.

Kairos: What are the main developments you have seen at RTBF since you started working there? What do you think?

Jean-Louis: I see two main developments: the growing importance of advertising and the switch to digital, which was thought up in 2004 and became visible in 2009. It is important to know that RTBF is at the cutting edge of technology and that large investments in equipment and know-how have been made in this direction. Today, a lot of content (movies, series, magazines) « travels » between services in the form of computer files and no longer on cassettes. For advertising, there is not much evolution from this point of view since it is a specific content, which has been following this way for a long time. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there was a knock-on effect: it’s not because the ad was in transit in the form of a file that we decided to do the same thing with other content. On the other hand, I can say that digitization and especially the multiplication of various IT tools have a direct effect on the work and can increase the pace and pressure in many departments.

Kairos: Can you explain how advertising influences RTBF? For example, are there clear pro-advertising instructions circulating?

Jean-Louis: RTBF is almost as concerned about advertising as the private channels, even if its advertising funding is reduced in relation to the endowment (ratio of 1 to 4). This is reflected in advertising practices, sometimes with sanctions as it was the case for a product placement of a rice brand, condemned by the CSA.
I observe in my work that advertising rots everything at RTBF, both on TV and radio, and that it happens above all in our heads. There’s no need to imagine a nasty boss, neoliberal executives or backward-looking management. They don’t want the end of RTBF or the public service, but they are modern « progressives », « social liberals ».

Advertising for them is natural as modernity… So it’s in the heads that it happens, the advance of advertising and its ideology is diffuse, indirect. Practically, one could say sometimes at RTBF that it is easier to remove a content (program, series) than an ad, because the ad « we don’t touch it ».

I have an anecdote about this. An older worker, who had started his career when there was still a real ideal of public service broadcasting, did not want to cut a documentary with commercials. Some of the young people in his team answered: « you need advertising to live ». Here it is, just like the house. There is no internal memo that explains that the priority is advertising, it is much more vicious because it is integrated very early.

Kairos: How do you explain this change?

Jean-Louis: it starts in the schools of com’, as well as in the university where they fill the skulls of the students with courses of marketing. The diffuse nature of this « colonization of minds » is important. It is the fact that this colonization is « diffuse » that makes it socially acceptable… and difficult to attack!
Advertising puts you in a general propensity to consume against which you can hardly fight and resist. Do the exercise of replacing all the commercials you see in your day with a single, explicit word: « buy! », posted everywhere, visible on television, audible on radio instead of commercials, and look at the world it could be: wouldn’t that be harassment? Of course we do! But since it is not obvious, it is difficult to object.
The omnipresence of advertising is now integrated. This ideological character goes beyond the employees of RTBF. It is the whole society that is in this state. It will be said that people can always choose to consume or not, without asking the question of whether there should be advertising or not. I compare it to the belief in God in the Middle Ages. Whether you pray 10 times a day or once a week, God permeates the company! Its existence and presence were not even debatable!

One of the key elements to understand this evolution and this ideology is the way RTBF is managed. The Managing Director attended Solvay, a management school. They are managers, they are trained to have no theoretical or political critical reading. For them, advertising is a parameter like any other. It is a variable to be taken into account and to evolve in order to reach numerical objectives. The vision of the common good or service to the public is profoundly altered and they claim that « that’s the way it is ». But there is nothing natural about it.

In my opinion, people who have this kind of training, as Solvay managers, should be advisors but not decision makers

Kairos: Do you think that this managerial tendency is widespread in management? What kind of influence does it have on working relationships?

Jean-Louis: This managerial spirit can be found at RMB [Régie-Média-Belge, see Kairos No. 1], but in a very caricatured form. At RMB, they are pure commercials: their job is to sell TV and radio advertising space for RTBF. As the RMB brings in money for RTBF, they allow themselves to be sometimes insulting towards those who work there. It’s pretty primal (laughs). However, RTBF owns RMB, not the other way around…

At RTBF, the management mode is pyramidal, we have to execute the directives, without discussion. In decision-making circles, they often believe they are above the fray and better than others. And yet, is RTBF getting better? Ideally, if you want a system to work, you have to allow information to flow from the bottom to the top. But at RTBF it doesn’t always work because those in charge of it are often afraid. This is understandable: generally speaking, any information that comes up is taken as a challenge by the management. The problem is that in an organization, when you don’t listen to what’s going on at the grassroots, it doesn’t work. Actually this problem is not new, but considering the current evolution, it is not likely to get better.

« For her, presenting the news is not journalism, it’s just… presenting a show »

As a result, an announcement has recently appeared on elevator notice boards indicating that an outside company has been hired to handle stress-related issues. It’s mind-boggling, it’s the medicine — no doubt very expensive, by the way — rather than the reflexive feedback on the organization of work. Of course, one cannot expect miracles.

Kairos: From your point of view, what should be done as a priority to improve things?

Jean-Louis: Oufti! That’s the question! The priority change in my opinion is to stop putting « Solvay » type managers at the head of RTBF. But since it is the politicians who choose the heads of the RTBF, it is perhaps on their side that the question should be asked.

The « Solvay’s boys » have a vision of public service evaluated in terms of ratings, cost/benefit ratio and legality. In fact, they « quantify » things. For them, ethics is the law and that’s where it ends. But the law can be unjust! And if the law allows porn to be shown as early as 2pm, it will be OK for RTBF? And we’ll take advantage of it to show ads?

We make programs that are designed to attract advertising, without which we cannot finance these programs. The last example is of course « the voice ». The rights are expensive, it’s an « Endémol » type product, co-produced with an outside company. RTBF is not the only one to make this program. One of the challenges of « the voice » is to bring young people back to television, via the social networks Facebook and Twitter which are integrated into the show. And it’s full of ads! it’s not going in the right direction.

Kairos: What kind of public service broadcasting do you think the future holds?

Jean-Louis: In general, the editorial quality of RTBF is becoming disastrous.

It is increasingly empty of content and increasingly full of noise and images. It is increasingly meaningless.
I have two news-related anecdotes to tell in closing.

A former Miss Belgium was interviewed in a Belgian magazine. As a weather presenter, she said she dreamed of « presenting the news one day ». At no time did she seem to make the connection between presenting the news and doing journalism. For her, presenting the news is not journalism, it’s just… presenting a program, here of information. This is an example of the evolution of the media.

The difference between the conception of the newscast and its presentation is increasingly strong, and the presenter has more and more power. Why is this? Because it is the image; it is not the editor (the one who decides the scheduling of a newscast), but it is the figure of the newscast, they are the ones who make the ratings. We therefore find ourselves in situations where the editorial staff and the news editor may have less influence on the choice of topics, for example, than the presenter. It gives an arrangement of subjects without a real red thread. Some people say internally that they are ashamed of RTBF.

The second anecdote was several years ago. Hugues Le Paige said: « When I started, my editor told me: « Hugues, you have 2 days to do your report ». Today, it is almost the opposite. A journalist has one day to do 2 reports!

As long as there is noise and image…

Interview by J.-B. Godinot

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