Belgium has two distinct media markets – French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish-speaking Flanders. Given the small size of the markets, publishers continue to see consolidation as a way of securing their digital transition and keeping international companies at bay.
As elsewhere, Belgians flocked to mainstream media during the pandemic, while advertising revenues initially dropped significantly before recovering in the second half of 2020. DPG Media and Mediahuis, Flanders’ largest publishers, increased subscriptions across their Flemish and Dutch titles by 2% and 11% respectively, leading to strong annual results. There is a similar picture in Wallonia, with digital subscriptions increasing for most publishers. All this is taking place in a context of major structural changes where, although there are positive signs of an increased willingness to pay and growth in digital subscriptions (up 4% points to 16%), these do not compensate for falling advertising revenues. Estimates suggest that about 40 to 50% of Belgian online advertising flows to Google and Facebook.
The year 2020 saw the consequences of recent mergers play out. At DPG Media, the merger brought Flanders’ most popular newspaper/website, Het Laatste Nieuws/hln.be, and commercial TV news provider, VTM Nieuws, under the same roof – literally, in the purpose-built News City building in Antwerp city centre – with a single integrated newsroom for all their news properties. DPG Media also dropped the TV station’s own news site vtmnieuws.be and launched the live online video news channel HLN Live in an attempt to position hln.be as the go-to online news site.
In Wallonia, Rossel continued its local consolidation by acquiring the remaining shares of the free daily Metro from Mediahuis as well as expanding in Northern France by buying the struggling newspaper Paris Normandie. IPM bought L’Avenir and the other print activities from Nethys. RTL Group (Luxembourg) bought out the third of its shares held by Audiopresse (a joint venture of Belgian publishers), meaning RTL Belgium is now 100% owned by an international media group. This ended the peculiar Belgian arrangement dating back to 1985, where companies seeking the new commercial TV licences were required to partner with publishers, to reduce their hostility to increased competition for advertising. In both regions, legacy news publishers have now refocused their activities mainly on print and online. As a result, the daily press is dominated by two big players in each region, Mediahuis and DPG Media in Flanders and Rossel and IPM in Wallonia.
The argument seems to be gaining ground that small media markets need a degree of concentration and collaboration to face international competition and digital transition. One concrete example is the ‘Flemish Netflix’ Streamz, launched in September 2020 as a joint venture between DPG Media and telecom operator Telenet, helped by the Flemish government easing regulatory obstacles and requiring the public broadcaster VRT to offer its drama content on the platform.
In 2020 there was also a new five-year agreement between public broadcaster VRT and the Flemish government. It requires VRT to accelerate its digital transformation but also to restrict its online news to broadcast-based, rather than text-based content. This is in response to lobbying by news publishers concerned that VRT’s free news online undermines willingness to pay for commercial digital news. Meanwhile, public subsidy for (profitable) commercial media prompted debate. In Flanders, DPG Media received €996,000 for digital reskilling, while in Wallonia, RTL Belgium nearly received €40 million to cover losses due to the pandemic, but in the end, given the controversy caused and a recovery in the market, did not pursue their request.
The pandemic has brought Belgium’s first high-profile case of disinformation, from anti-vaxxers. The issue remains high on the policy agenda, but so far proposals from a 2018 federal expert group for a joint initiative to combat disinformation have come to nothing. However, trust in news overall remains high, especially in Flanders, and the downward trend of recent years has been reversed. Trust in major news brands remains stable, with Flemish news brands even showing a small trust bump. In Flanders VTM (DPG Media) has now overtaken één (VRT) as the most used offline news source, and VTM Nieuws has also surpassed quality newspapers De Tijd and De Standaard to become the second most trusted news brand after VRT Nieuws. In Wallonia, RTBF’s TV news (La Une) has overtaken RTL to become the most used offline source and RTBF News remains the most trusted brand, but RTL is still the leading brand by online weekly use.
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels
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Trust in the news is up overall, though it remains considerably higher in Flemish-speaking Flanders (61%) than in French-speaking Wallonia (45%). During the COVID-19 crisis, public broadcasters VRT and RTBF have been a source of reliable information for their respective communities and are also the brands with the highest trust scores.