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TV access: the Dutch solution

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Suppose that you were in charge of broadcasting in a small country in which there was a wide range of political and religious opinions, all clamoring to be expressed on television. Suppose further that your country only had two TV channels on which to broadcast. How would you decide who should be heard (and seen) and for how long?

There is a country that has faced such problems: the Netherlands. And what the Dutch have come up with is unique in broadcasting.

Not only have they opened the airwaves on a regular basis to a wide spectrum of programming, they have also designed a system that permits advertising and yet forbids commercial sponsorship.

''It's a complicated system,'' says Jan van Cuilenburg, professor of communication science at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University), Amsterdam, ''but we are, on the whole, satisfied with it.''

Here is how it works.

There are, at present, eight major broadcasting organizations in the Netherlands which share time on Nederland 1 and Nederland 2, the country's two TV channels. These groups fall into three classifications (A, B, or C), according to the number of persons in the general viewing public who have elected to become ''members.''

The system might seem to be something like public broadcasting in the United States, but in fact it is different. Although members do contribute financially to their favorite broadcasting group, they give only a modest, fixed yearly fee, determined by the group within some legal limits. If a group with a small membership is able to increase its membership substantially, it can gain more air time. And this is just what one of the groups, VPRO, recently decided to do.

The initials VPRO stand for Vrijzinnig Protestantse Radio Omroep (Free Protestant Radio Broadcasting), which was established as a liberal Protestant broadcaster. VPRO has since dropped religious affiliation, but for the sake of continuity, it has retained the initials as its name.

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