Statement | In the battle for private feelings, public values ​​on television remain vital

On 2 October 1951, the first Dutch television broadcast took place from an empty church in Bussum. Since then, television’s main function has been emancipation. Ground-breaking and taboo-breaking programs have made invisible minorities visible and empowered.

Take homosexuality. In 1964 brought current affairs Behind the news the first speaking and visible homosexual on the tube: COC chairman Benno Premsela. In the 1970s, talk shows (as talk shows were then called) pushed the boundaries further by shifting talk of homosexuality to talk with and by gay people. From the 1990s, television enabled homosexuals to express their sexual preferences and identity in shows and reality TVwithout this being labeled as problematic. There they show that their sexual preference is a self-evident part of their total person, which is formed in part by creativity, intelligence, artistry and other social and cultural skills. Paul de Leeuw was perhaps the most important symbol of this successful emancipation.

The liberating role of television in recognizing and making visible cultural, ethnic and gender minority groups is clear. It also applies to all kinds of groups facing social problems and dilemmas.

You get it by program maker Tim Hofman, for example, stands in an endless line of other empathetic television programs about illness, human suffering, euthanasia, mental health issues, bullying, etc. These are all confronting emotions in the private sphere that have entered the public sphere through television, but has an important social and liberating effect due to the intention of the program maker.

This therefore requires a responsible approach to private feelings on television. It is urgent because these emotions fit wonderfully into the logic that television uses to show its viewers reality.

The pursuit of liberation

This implies a paradox. On the one hand (making) television requires a strict program, on the other hand it has the spontaneity flow in human and emotional stories. Structural problems such as the climate crisis, migration, inflation or war are returned to people who ‘bear’ such a problem. The drowned boy Aylan Kurdi in 2015, who was found on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey, made the asylum crisis caused by the civil war in Syria much clearer than any elaborate reflection. So it’s always one pars pro toto: a story in which a person or a particular group is representative of a larger social or political problem, and in which that one person or group is decisive for success or failure.

If this television law is combined with social emancipation efforts to give a voice to the voiceless, to offer development opportunities to the disadvantaged, to show minorities their identity and allow them to fully participate in democratic society on their own terms, then the release of private feelings occurs. This is a positive development; television has given many people and groups more opportunities for identification. In addition, television is part of the processing or even the solution of problems such as bullying, illness, trauma, abuse and deprivation, death and loss and transgressive behaviour.

Unheard of to ban Holland? This could lead to detailed government interference in the content of television programs

You can see how difficult it is to deal with private feelings in critical, independent journalism. Can a journalist doubt the integrity of the enraged citizen or farmer who cries and howls at all the suffering that has been inflicted on him or her? It amounts to journalistic suicide. Because with critical questioning, a journalist is quickly accused of lacking empathy or not recognizing a problem. Journalists therefore often do not ask questions when they record the ‘vox pop’. It’s more about finding the right quote to complete the already established journalistic story. An old wisdom in television journalism is therefore that a quote from the man or woman on the street serves the journalists’ laziness more than the truth.

Unheard of Holland

It has always been the power of public television to use private emotions and confrontations of conflicting ideas with integrity to promote liberation or social and political change. Does this also apply to the emotional confrontation culture at the broadcaster Ongehoord Nederland? The confrontational ideas that Ongehoord puts forward, for example by provocatively using the word ‘nigger’, are based entirely on emotional experiences with a political purpose.

Illustration by Max Kisman

The NPO’s ombudsman recently concluded that the grant guzzler Ongehoord Nederland fundamentally violates the journalistic code of the grant provider NPO in this way, especially when it comes to reliability and verifiability of news. One could also say that Ongehoord uses unlimited private feelings to form opinions, without bothering to check for the truth and omitting a discriminatory tone. It can be thought of in the formation of opinion, and it happens regularly at NPO, for example in columns and also in talk shows, where figures without expert knowledge but with an overflowing feeling and emotion are allowed to talk about all imaginable topics.

Should we ban Unheard? I don’t think we should jump to such drastic things too quickly. After all, that can only lead to detailed interference by the government in the content of TV programs – and we shouldn’t have that. Censorship, as experienced by radio in the years before World War II, leads to oppression and arbitrariness. It is precisely on the basis of these censorship experiences that we have learned to accept public confrontation as a positive force in democracy and as a positive force in the pursuit of integration and liberation of minority groups.

In the talk show genre, DWDD was the most successful combination of audience appeal and public values

This does not mean that nothing should be done. The NPO must be more vigilant than ever when public values ​​are undermined. It is in the public interest to maintain the NPO quality mark with conviction. Public broadcasting is necessary to keep private feelings socially relevant, as history has shown. Where commercial broadcasters often excel at exploiting emotions as entertainment because it generates a lot of revenue, public broadcasters should use emotions based on the perception of identity and social relevance.

Display of judgment

The latest affair surrounding the program The world moves on (DWDD), about transgressive behavior behind the scenes, shows, according to some, that the pursuit of ratings is now the only motive for public broadcasting – with the derailments at DWDD as a result. That the pursuit of ratings is the public service broadcaster’s only motive is, in my opinion, an extremely simplistic and opportunistic reasoning. Pursued by media that have a commercial interest in making NPO a less dominant player in the TV market and politicians from right-wing parties who for political reasons want to curb public radio, the Rutte creators have in recent years made performance deals with NPO on viewership and market shares. If the broadcasters did not achieve this, they threatened to cut the budget. To underline these pressures, the NPO has been subjected to extensive cutbacks and forced mergers.

Also read: Op1 mercilessly shows the problems with public broadcasting

It seems to have already been forgotten, especially by people who think you can make linear television for a few pennies: You let some random figures with a big mouth talk to each other in front of a TV camera, and that’s it.

For example, people also think of DWDD, while I think complex programming in the talk show genre is the most successful combination of audience appeal and public values ​​in the last fifty years. It is clear that within the tight flow format of DWDD, the choice and processing of subjects was very daring from an international perspective and structurally fascinating for a large audience. The same newspapers that now talk about the sick culture at DWDD due to the excessive viewership of the creators, praised the program at the time for its innovative style; a program that also achieved high ratings with sometimes difficult subjects and an extremely daring approach.

It is true that cross-border behavior in production must be condemned. At the same time, from a media historical perspective, it is clear that DWDD has had enormous significance for Dutch television history in general and for public broadcasting in particular.

Therefore, in the debate about television and public broadcasting, we should focus more on responsible and socially relevant use of private feelings and content-rich confrontations, made by people who use public values ​​- also for their own behavior.

This is a shortened and edited version of the text that Huub Wijfjes gave on Friday in his farewell lecture as professor by special appointment of the History of Radio and Television at the University of Amsterdam.

Leave a Comment