A few years ago, a book denounced the excesses of the RTBF and reminded the channel and the citizens of its primary function: that of being a public service(1). Today, the race for ratings to attract advertisers has grown, increasingly substituting entertainment for information, the consumer for the viewer. Historical survey of a process that has progressively turned RTBF into a « commercial brand », supported by RMB, which has been able to convince advertisers of the interest we, as spectators-commodities, represent for them. supported in this by the RMB, which has been able to convince advertisers of the interest that we, as spectators and merchandise, represent for them.
» RMB’s goal is to be a leader in the commercial exploitation of media products. Its mission is to create media/marketing solutions for advertisers(2) « .
The management thus defines its function, handling the technical language of consumerism and the meaningless verve of modernity. More prosaically, RMB is a multi-media advertising agency founded by the RTBF and the Cinéma Publicitaire Belge — whose « cinema » activity was sold in 2002 to the Screenvision group -, which is 100% owned by the RTBF. It markets the advertising space of numerous television and radio channels, those of the RTBF and others such as NRJ, newspapers as well as the new advertising spaces on the net and in telephony [voir encadré]. In other words, the weight of the agency is heavy: the second largest advertising agency in the South, it achieved a turnover of 110 million euros in 2010.
Before the emergence of the RMB, in the early 1980s, the audiovisual landscape of the French Community was mainly occupied by public service television and radio stations that were only subsidized by taxpayers. But, as RTBF representatives have been saying for a long time, « competition with the French channels and RTL is increasingly tough, and the public service must look for new sources of revenue. It is the diktat of competition and competitiveness, which is rampant everywhere — like, for example, the European dumping of salaries — which justifies everything — like the neoliberal deregulations of the European Council — and which, in the face of the permanence of private channels that are « free » to do what they want, make the RTBF say that it « cannot do otherwise » than what the private channels do. The year 1985 saw the birth of the RMB, after the Government of the French Community had authorized — in 1983 — the RTBF to broadcast non-commercial advertising (decree signed by Ph. Moureaux (PS), Ph. Monfils (MR) and R. Urbain (PS)).
From non-commercial to commercial advertising, there are… 6 years. In 1989, a decree authorized commercial advertising on the public airwaves. Seeing its French neighbors benefit from a budget sometimes 15 times higher, the small Belgian channel dreams of greatness, therefore « what is surprising, from time to time, that the idea of the admission of commercial advertising on screen surfaces ». What follows is a litany of well-known refrains that organize the progressive takeover of news by advertising, and therefore the spirit of profit and its effects on the quality of the RTBF.
RTBF is struggling to compete with private Belgian television and radio stations, even though its public funding should be helping it to do so. In 1993, the Horizon plan was introduced, which provided for the early retirement of statutory staff. In 2002, the Magellan plan aims to « modernize and develop » the RTBF, terms with a positive connotation that hide the real interests and the seemingly inevitable privatization logic of the channel: « I am not very optimistic about the Magellan Plan. It represents, I believe, a headlong rush and a potential economic catastrophe. The RTBF of tomorrow will no longer be a public service. The administrative character will remain but the programs will be more futile. It will be a kind of ministry of entertainment, even if the news on the newscast and the radio talk shows will remain bastions of support… (3) « , declared Henri Sonet at that time.
Sustained bastions »… not for long. In order to target the public more precisely, with the unavowed aim of pleasing advertisers, the radio stations were reformed: Bruxelles Capitale and Fréquence Wallonie merged to create VivaCité. Radio 21 is split into a classic rock channel (Classic 21) and a « young » music channel (Pure FM); « In this variety of offers, the advantage of the radio is to reach identified target groups at the right time, whose listening motivations are clear (sic) ». The « TV offer » has also been « repositioned » to « improve the specificity and coherence of the channels »: « La Une and La Deux are now adopting more complementary programming », meaning « more adapted to the interests of advertisers who target specific sectors ».
A vast network of partners comes to support the new commercial name of the binomial RTBF/RMB: marketing boxes (BMMA); sponsorship (Prométhéa, CAP 48), of which the Régie will admit the ambiguity and the interest that it represents for the company (« between pure sponsorship and pure patronage are located practices of which some could be at the crossroads of patronage and sponsorship insofar as they suppose important returns in terms of visibility for the company »… from there to admitting that patronage is advertising…) Another natural partner is the Media Information Centre [CIM – voir encadré] providing quantified measurements of « media consumption » and certain habits of TV « targets »; advertising optimization organizations, such as Effie, an organization that rewards advertising with « proven effectiveness » (of which RMB is a sponsor for the TV category which, in the words of its « General Manager », Yves Gérard, is a « medium in perpetual evolution that will offer new interactions in the near future, bringing the advertiser closer to the consumer »); Brand Lobby (BABM); etc. [voir le schéma dans les pages centrales].
This reorganization continues with the launch of the RTBF online, which is developing its offer on the Internet, where the RMB is finding a new advertising channel. An evolution that invites a play on form, the new « modernity » of the RTBF — or the control of advertisers — having to be expressed in the images. In 2006, « RTBF has a new graphic line » which « launches the company on a new path, that of modernity and dynamism », with its new « corporate logo »: « in phase with the new and strong logos of the various new channels (…) to affirm the renewal and dynamism of the company. The typography was specifically created for the logo. It shows a real modernity and fluidity: the letters, in lower case, are linked to each other by a visual effect, as if a wave in movement crossed them. This logo is thus synonymous with flexibility, simplicity, and openness. These are all characteristics that should allow the channels to continue to assert themselves fully, with the RTBF brand constituting, alongside them, a « quality label ».
The « RTBF brand »…? The dog follows its master and the managers adopt the advertising look, with its flood of images and its English-speaking intrusions: « fighting spirit », « commitment »… Successful induction: RTBF is no longer a public service, it is a company and a « brand ».
« Dynamism », « modernity », « development », « opening »… for whom? Behind the slogans and logos apparently motivated by concern for the viewer, there is the reality of a « company » that is gradually becoming a powerful media support for advertisers, to the detriment of viewers/listeners reduced to the status of targets. The public service missions of informing, educating and entertaining are deviated from as soon as the user is considered as a consumer. The more the media serves the advertiser, the more it values the freedom of choice of the viewer-listener, the more it reinforces his alienation, the more it pretends to be free and autonomous, especially from advertisers.
Few journalists will mention this ideological straitjacket that frames their work. Out of fear, isolation, habit, because they think they might lose their job, because they have adapted, because they have been trained in the school of marketing or because they agree with this type of journalism(4). Subversive content, or content that is simply not aligned with advertising, quickly becomes off-limits. Resistant or non-conforming statements are either evacuated, or presented in a deceptively neutral style [voir article page…], or reduced to confidential testimonies, for example by shifting them in the time grids. We have seen good programs disappear because they were too incompatible with advertising: « cartes sur table », « l’hebdo » and even « blabla » are famous examples.
As a simple seller of commercial space, RMB, which is wholly owned by the RTBF, has logically become a supplier of « media-marketing solutions » — the advertising space available on the RTBF’s channels and other services — for its clients, the advertisers. The RTBF, let’s say it, intends to align itself definitively with the primary function of RTL-TVi and TF1 as clearly stated by the ex-boss of TF1: to sell to advertisers who want to sell their junk, the human brain time of its users that it makes available thanks to mind-numbing programs(5).
Should we let a public channel do this?
The dilemma then arises: do we want to make the main cultural tool of the French Community a tool at the service of advertising — and therefore of the perpetuation of a consumerist and artificial society — which only strives to ape the private channels, whereas it was built by and for the public, or do we decide to get it out of this advertising stranglehold, without which it will not be possible to return to the public interest?
- Bernard Hennebert, La RTBF est aussi la nôtre, Les Editions Aden, Bruxelles, 2006.
- Sauf indication contraire, toutes les citations proviennent des sites de la RMB et de la RTBF : www.rmb.be, www.rtbf.be
- Henri Sonet, chroniqueur cinéma et responsable de la revue de presse de Matin Première, cité dans Bernard Hennebert, Ibid., p.35.
- Ce carcan se révèle à certaines occasions : le journal français La Tribune ayant publié un article « déplaisant » sur le nucléaire en novembre 2011, EDF décida de supprimer jusqu’à la fin de l’année 2011 son budget publicitaire à la publication. Manque à gagner estimé pour le journal: 80.000 euros.
- Comme le notait Noam Chomsky, évoquant la presse : les grands médias « ont un produit à vendre et un marché où [ils] veulent le vendre : le produit, ce sont leurs lecteurs, et le marché, ce sont les annonceurs. Donc la structure économique d’un journal est de vendre des lecteurs à d’autres entreprises. » Chomsky, N., Comprendre le pouvoir, Tome 1, Les Editions Aden, Bruxelles, 2005.