Frédéric Antoine, Karin Raeymaeckers and Hanne Vandenberghe
Belgium is a small country politically structured in three regions: the Dutch-speaking region in the north of the country (Flanders), the French-speaking region in the south of the country (Wallonia) and the Brussels-Capital Region which is bilingual. Moreover there are three different language-orientated communities: the Flemish community with approximately 6.5 million inhabitants, the French community with 4.5 million inhabitants and the small German-speaking community with about 76,000 inhabitants. The cultural and linguistic diversity in Belgium linked with political autonomy for media-related issues leads to the non-existence of a ‘Belgian’ media market, except for the advertising business. Media markets in the different parts of the country have evolved separately according to their respective competitive dynamics and industry life cycles. Only recently, some media companies are collaborating across the cultural and linguistic borders.
The print media market is highly concentrated with only five stakeholders: DPG Media, Mediahuis, Roularta Media Group (Roularta), Rossel & Cie (Rossel) and IPM Group (IPM).
The Flemish daily newspaper market is fully owned by DPG Media and Mediahuis, which are both internationally diversified. Readership figures are under stress but all print media brands can rely on a substantial amount of sold copies to counterweight the high first-copy costs. DPG Media has a diversified newspaper portfolio with the quality brand De Morgen and the bestselling popular brand Het Laatste Nieuws. Mediahuis publishes four newspapers: the quality title De Standaard, a popular brand Het Nieuwsblad and the regional newspapers Gazet van Antwerpen and Het Belang van Limburg (VRM, 2022). Only Het Laatste Nieuws and De Standaard were included in the EurOMo sample.
The francophone newspaper market is smaller and the decline of circulation figures is more outspoken. Rossel is the strongest stakeholder, owning the quality title Le Soir, five local titles (La Meuse, La Gazette, Le Province, Nord Éclair and La Capitale) under the brand Sudinfo, the German-language newspaper GrenzEcho and the free daily Metro (two language editions, each with independent newsroom). The second stakeholder is IPM, owning the quality brand La Libre Belgique and the popular brand La Dernière Heure/Les Sports. Since January 2021, it also owns the regional newspaper group L’Avenir which have six editions (CSA, 2022). Only Le Soir and La Libre Belgique were included in the EurOMo sample.
Additionally, there are the Dutch- and French-speaking financial newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo, both owned by Mediafin, which is a joint venture of Roularta and Rossel (VRM, 2022).
For the magazine market, we focus on the Dutch- and French-speaking information magazines Knack and Le Vif L’Express, both owned by Roularta, who has an especially strong position at this market, although DPG Media and Rossel have also various entertainment-based magazine titles in their portfolios (VRM, 2022).
Radio remains an important and popular medium, experiencing a true revival by the growth of digital channels and podcast formats of journalistic storytelling. In Flanders, there are five public radio stations available via FM and DAB+. Radio 1 was selected in the sample, because of its strong focus on news. No commercial radio station has an equal emphasis on news, although the three stations available via FM and DAB+, Nostalgie (owned by Mediahuis), and Joe and Qmusic (both owned by DPG Media), do have a news bulletin every hour. FM is still considered very important for advertising. However, there are only three spots open for commercial stations as the FM bandwidth has a limited availability. At the beginning of 2022, the Flemish Minister of Media ordered a study to allocate those three spots in a logic of economical parameters and less with focus on content diversity, and the three above-mentioned existing ‘entertainment’ brands came out as winners (VRM, 2022; Verstraete, 2022).
In the francophone radio market, also five public radio station are available via FM and DAB+. La Première was selected in the sample, because of its strong focus on news. The four other most important networks are: Bel RTL (part of the EurOMo sample) and Radio Contact, both owned by RTL Belgium, a joint venture between Rossel and DPG Media, and the music radios Nostalgie (owned by Mediahuis) and NRJ (owned by the French NRJ Group) (CSA, 2022).
In Flanders, the public broadcaster VRT has a strong position, with a market share of 37.5% for Eén, Canvas and Ketnet in 2020. Main commercial competitor DPG Media owns VTM, the first commercial channel launched in 1989, as well as VTM2, VTM3, VTM4, VTM Kids and VTM Gold and accounted for 30.4% market share in 2020. The other commercial competitor is SBS, broadcaster of the GoPlay channels Play4, Play5, Play6 (market share of 12.4% in 2020) and Play7 (launched in 2021). SBS is 100% owned by Telenet, originally a cable TV company founded by the Flemish government (VRM, 2022). As Eén and VTM broadcast at 19:00 a news bulletin, these channels were included in the sample.
The francophone public broadcaster RTBF.be has been challenged since 1966 by the Luxembourg-based Télé Luxembourg, which was recognised in 1987 as the first authorised private television network, under the name RTL-TVi. RTL Belgium, broadcasting RTL-TVi, Club RTL and Plug RTL, was partially owned by the Luxembourg-German company RTL Group/Bertelsmann, and partially owned by Audiopresse (Belgian newspaper publisher). Though, at the end of 2020, RTL Group acquired the shares of Audiopresse and put the whole RTL Belgium company up for sale, allowing DPG Media and Rossel to acquire RTL Belgium in June 2021. Alongside RTL Belgium, AB is a small commercial TV group, with two networks (AB3 and AB Explore), in the hands of the French group Mediawan. Finally, the all-news channel LN24 launched in 2019 is a commercial player, owned since the end of 2021 by IPM (68%), the Belgian public bank Belfius (17%) and the Besix group (9%) (CSA, 2022; MediaSpecs, 2021). La Une and RTL-TVi broadcast daily a news bulletin and were therefore included in the sample.
In French-speaking Belgium, due to the diversity of competition, in contrast to Flanders, the public service broadcaster plays a less important role in the television market. The combined market share of La Une, Tipik and La Trois accounted in 2020 for 26.6%, whereas the three RTL channels RTL-TVi, Club RTL and Plug RTL had a market share of 33.8%. Moreover, French television channels are also attracting French-speaking Belgian viewers. In 2020, France 2, France 3 and France 4 had a market share of 12.9% (CSA, 2022).
Additionally, there are the Dutch- and French-speaking financial news channels Kanaal Z and Canal Z, both owned by Roularta (VRM, 2022).
Next to the Flemish and Walloon public broadcasters (VRT and RTBF.be), respectively owned by the Flemish government and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, the media outlets in our sample are owned by seven commercial companies. First, the Flemish company Mediahuis is owned by three other Flemish-based companies: Mediahuis Partners (50.6%), Concentra (32.%), and VP Capital (16.3%). Mediahuis Partners is owned by several family-related companies such as Mediacore (Leysen and Sofinim families), Cecan (Vlerick Sap family), De Eik (van Waeyenberge family), and Vedesta (Van De Steen family). Concentra is mainly owned by the Dutch foundation De Zeven Eycken (90.1%) and the Belgian non-profit organisation Katholiek impuls- en mediafonds (8.7%), a very small part remaining in their own hands (1.3%). VP Capital is owned by the Dutch family Van Puijenbroek (VRM, 2022). Second, the Flemish company DPG Media Group is mainly owned (99.2%) by the Flemish company Epifin, whose shareholders cannot be identified. However, members of the Van Thillo, Criel and Convent families are on the board of directors. Third, Roularta is owned for 71.2% by Koinon Comm. VA, of which the De Nolf family is the main shareholder, 11.3% in the hands of public shareholders, 10.6% in their own hands as treasury shares and the remaining 7% is divided between Capfi Delen Asset Management and the Luxembourg-based West Investment Holding. Fourth, IPM is 100% owned by the Belgian-based company Maja, which, in turn, is 100% owned by the Luxembourg-based Media Development Company (Compagnie de developpement des medias), of which Le Hodey family is the main shareholder. Fifth, Rossel, 100% in hands of the Hurbain family via subsidiaries. Sixth, RTL Belgium is a joint venture between DPG Media (50%) and Rossel (50%). Seventh, Mediafin, is a joint venture between Roularta (50%) and Rossel (50%) (CSA, 2022; VRM, 2022).
The Flemish Media Authority (Vlaamse Regulator voor Media or VRM) and the Walloon Media Authority (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel or CSA) monitor and report on the impact of media concentration in both the audiovisual media sector, the print sector and the telecom sector. Additionally, the Belgian media companies in our sample mentioned their direct owners on their websites. At first glance, there appears to be full transparency. However, even after in-depth research the number and division of shares of the actual beneficial owners cannot be traced back. Mediahuis is owned by a jumble of subsidiaries mostly in the hands of families, but transparency is lacking on the beneficial owners of these subsidiaries. This is also the case for DPG Media Group, owned by Epifin, of which the actual beneficial owners could not be traced back, although it is common knowledge that the company is in the hands of three families (Van Thillo, Criel, and Convent). Roularta, the only Belgian company with limited number of shares on the public market, is mainly owned by Koinon, which is in the hands of De Nolf family, but the exact number and division of shares are not traceable. The same goes for IPM, where it is unclear who and how exactly Le Hodey family owns Media Development Company. It is also unclear how the companies Groupe IPM and IPM Group, each with their own VAT-number, relate to each other. Even though Rossel is 100% in hands of the Hurbain family, it remains unclear how the different subsidiaries in hands of this family relate to each other and who the beneficial owners are. In the case of RTL Belgium, we were not able to map out the relationship between the Belgian and Luxembourgian branches, and one of the subsidiaries, RTL Belux, was not registered in the Crossroads Bank for Enterprises (CSA, 2022; VRM, 2022).
All stakeholders in the Belgian media landscape are on the internet. We included in the sample hln.be, VRTNWS, Knack.be, RTL Info (related with respectively Het Laatste Nieuws, Eén/Radio1, Knack and RTL-TVi/BEL RTL but with separate editorial boards) and the francophone news website 7sur7.be owned by DPG Media. Examples of other Belgian news-oriented pure players are the bilingual (Dutch-French) website Newsmonkey and the Dutch-language websites DeWereldMorgen and Apache (VRM, 2022).
In 2021, the top 20 of most popular websites in Belgium are the international aggregators Google.com, YouTube.com and Facebook.com. The following Belgian brands are also in the top 20: hln.be (4th place), nieuwsblad.be (9th place), rtbf.be (14th place), VRT.be (15th place), sudinfo.be (16th place) and sporza.be, the VRT sports website (17th place). By posting on Facebook and Twitter, Flemish news brands are in general successful in attracting more traffic to their own websites, which has consequently a positive effect on advertising revenues (VRM, 2022).
The launch and popularity of on-demand online services can be seen as an example of the increased degree of vertical and cross media ownership. In 2021, the online video platforms VRT NU (Flemish public broadcaster VRT), VTM GO (Flemish commercial broadcaster DPG Media) and Auvio (francophone public broadcaster RTBF.be) had respectively more than three, two, and four million users. In this context, we also see cooperation between media companies and distributors for overarching streaming platforms to compete with international players. In Flanders, DPG Media and Mediahuis joined forces with Telenet to launch Streamz, a video streaming platform. The discussion on how the content of the public broadcaster can be accessed is a part of complex and ongoing deliberation. In French-speaking Belgium, the RTBF.be platform Auvio includes content of the AB-networks and LN4. It intended to be the only platform for the whole French-speaking audiovisual sector, but failed to get RTL Belgium enter the game (CSA, 2022; VRM, 2022).
According to the 2021 Reuters Digital News Report (Reuters Institute, 2021), there are only five digital information intermediaries used by more than 5% of the Belgian population to get news, which are all in the category of social media. Facebook stands out as the most important (39%), followed by 18% for YouTube, 12% for Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and 9% for Instagram. However, there is no information available for the linear versus non-linear news use for the Belgian population. National television news is in Flanders still very important: in 2020 56% of the Flemish population watched TV news on a daily basis, whereas this is only the case for 42% for social media (Digimeter, 2021).
The Belgian telecom market is highly concentrated with four dominant players: Proximus (50% owned by the State), Telenet (50% owned by the US cable giant Liberty Global, also content provider of SBS-channels), VOO (owned by Enodia, an association of local public authorities, also content provider of pay-TV channels BeTV) and Orange Belgium (owned by the French telecom group Orange). In 2021, Orange announced to take over 75% of the shares of VOO. In July 2022, the European Commission opened an in-depth investigation to assess the proposed acquisition, being concerned that the proposed transaction may reduce competition in the French-speaking telecom market (CSA, 2022; MediaSpecs, 2022; VRM, 2022).
Also worth noting is the fact that with the auction of the Belgian 5G frequencies, the new player Digi, a joint venture between the Belgian Citymesh and Romanian Digi Communications, has entered the Belgian mobile telecom market (Grommen, 2022). However, due to the fact that Digi is partly a foreign company, there is a small chance that it will carry the much-needed investment in the Belgian distribution network.
The strategy of distributors such as Telenet and VOO expanding into content creating urged for policy measures. However, there are no Belgian legal provisions on vertical or cross media ownership, so one could argue that this can lead to an entanglement between actors who are looking for opportunities of economies of scope and scale which might result in disruption.
Although, there are no legal provisions, the Belgian Competition Authority (BMA) investigates in-depth acquisitions and mergers. In May 2019, Telenet acquired the content creator De Vijver Media under conditions such as the guarantee of access and technical quality of signal for all broadcasters, the prohibition to change the Electronic Program Guide without the approval of all broadcasters and the limitation to interfere with the respective broadcasters for their content. A monitoring trustee was appointed to follow up these conditions. Despite these measures, broadcasters are still evaluating the position of Telenet as gatekeeper as problematic. Telenet, however, is still expanding the content creating assets and acquired in 2021 49% shares of the Flemish production company Caviar (VRM, 2022).
In Belgium, the implementation of the directive AVMSD consists of four legal texts: the Media Decree of 2009 (Flemish region), the Audiovisual media services (AMS) Decree of 2021 (Walloon region), the Decree on media services and cinema screenings of 2021 (German community) and the Act on audiovisual media services in the bilingual region of Brussels-Capital of 2017 (Brussels-Capital region). Accordingly, there are four regulatory media authorities responsible for the monitoring of media legislation and, in particular, the evaluation of concentration levels in the media market sector: the Flemish Media Authority (VRM), the Walloon Media Authority (CSA), the German Media Authority (Medienrat) and the Federal Media Authority (the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications or BIPT), regulating the Belgian electronic communication market and the media market in the Brussels-Capital region. However, the Belgian Competition Authority (BMA) is responsible for the evaluation of media mergers and acquisitions, although this assessment is made in close collaboration with the responsible media authority(ies).
The public needs transparent information about media and their ownership structures. This transparency is also crucial for political stakeholders, knowing which companies are working together, which have intertwinings, which names are present and what power their number of shares represent. Consequently, transparency conditions are enshrined in the Media Decrees. The Flemish Media Authority (VRM) is imposed to write an annual report on media concentration offering transparency on competition, diversity and pluralism (Media Decree, Art. 218). Via the website, its annual report about media concentration is publicly accessible.
For the Walloon region, the AVM Decree of 2021 demands public data “in an easily accessible, understandable and transparent manner, concerning the ownership, organisation and financing of their services” (AVM Decree, Art. 2.2-2). Precise information must be sent to the Authorisation and Control College of the CSA (Higher Audiovisual Council), but some remain not public due to elements of business secrecy. It is up to the CSA’s Authorisation and Control College to initiate assessment procedures if the significant position by one or more publishers or service distributors threatens the public’s access to a pluralistic offer in audiovisual media services. The conditions defining a “significant position” are described in Art. 2.2-3. Regularly, the Authorisation and Control College carries out, and at least every two years, the evaluation of pluralism. Apart from the transparency conditions imposed on publishers and audiovisual operators, no support or report is imposed by the legislation of French-speaking Belgium in order to make information relating to companies public. However, it is part of the CSA’s missions to ensure media pluralism and the transparency of the economic structures of companies in the sector as well as their independence. In order to respond to this mission, the CSA has set up an easily accessible website (https://www.csa.be/pluralisme) which brings together various information concerning the audiovisual media.
In addition to the legal obligation to map media concentration, we also find some legal measures to restrict ownership. For the Flemish region, these ownership restrictions are based on the percentage of shares for operating companies of regional TV and radio broadcasters (Articles 138 and 166/1, Media Decree). For the Walloon region and the German-speaking community, there are ownership restrictions based on the percentage of shares and audience reach figures both for television and radio media services (Article 2.2-3, AVM Decree; Article 11, Decree on media services and cinema screenings).
The EC Digital Services Act (DSA proposition, 15/12/2020), which intends to regulate network organisations and networks, online platforms and hosting service providers, and the Digital Market Act (DMA, same day), which intends to regulate platforms that are considered as gatekeepers, have not been implemented yet.
We already referred to the changing role of distributors (gatekeepers) who are diversifying into content creation. Despite of the boundaries set by the regulatory authorities, media stakeholders remain vigilant. Recently the distributors made agreements to set boundaries. The powerful position of the distributors is also noticed for the non-linear TV services.
On media ownership transparency, the position of the Flemish government (and in relation also the position of the VRM) is rather twofold. In the annual report of VRM, the need for public information on media ownership is at focus. We read: “In many European countries the obligations to report ownership are insufficient to give insight in the actual ownership of media companies, especially so in those situations where ownership is anchored in a holding structure (…) thus creating possibilities for conflicts of interest between stakeholders in media, in economics and in politics” (VRM, 2022, pp. 319-20). Although VRM (2022) acknowledges that Art. 5 paragraph 2 of the AVMDS (2018) provides instruments to strengthen this transparency and label holding structures as a threat to ownership transparency, the Flemish Media Decree was not expanded as such. In the Explanatory Statement (Memorie van Toelichting) of the Flemish Parliament, we read that it is not considered as necessary, “since information on media ownership of broadcasters can also be retrieved by other means” (Flemish Parliament, 2021, p. 6). Rather surprising, the VRM duplicates this political position and assesses extra measures to provide transparency only fit for ownership of digital media (VRM, 2022). This study shows a lack of transparency within the ownership structures of media companies. Although, direct owners of the companies are easily traceable, we were not able to trace back details about shareholders positions and divisions of power in the network of mainly family-related (holding) companies.
CSA (2022). Guide des médias, sociétés, groupes et secteurs [Guide to media, companies, groups and sectors]. Retrieved 11 August 2022, from https://www.csa.be/pluralisme/
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VRM (2022). Mediaconcentratie in Vlaanderen 2021 [Media concentration in Flanders 2021]. Retrieved 10 June 2022, from https://www.vlaamseregulatormedia.be/nl/over-vrm/rapporten/2021/rapport-mediaconcentratie