In 1985, five European public broadcasters came together to start Europa TV, the first multilingual television channel for Europe. But already in the fall of 1986, the dream of a European television was failing and the channel has been largely forgotten since. In 2018, Europa TV reemerged on the agenda of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. Programmes have been rewatched and in the near future, the tapes that have been saved will be digitised. On the occasion of this year’s World Television Day, we invited Bas Agterberg, media history expert at Sound and Vision, to share the story of Europa TV.
The history of Europa TV offers an intriguing case study for any television historian. About 300 VHS-tapes of Europa TV are in the vaults of Sound and Vision. The only description on these videotapes is the date of the broadcast. Earlier this year, we invited two interns to watch a number of programmes and research their context. You can read about the research conducted by Marloes Stapper in our previous blog. Saskia Cluistra was awarded a grant from the FIAT/IFTA Media studies commission which enabled her to continue her research and present the results at the FIAT/IFTA World Conference in Venice in October 2018.
During her research, Cluistra checked what the founding partners of the project have preserved. The most promising was the archive of the RTP in Portugal. There were about 400 Betamax tapes, yet there were no descriptions about their contents. At RTE in Dublin, one document on Eurikon (another European television channel) was recovered, and at RAI in Italy, one film reel was found, but it was about Eurikon. It appeared impossible to approach the archive of the German broadcaster ARD – the company has several archival services but is unclear which one is responsible for Europa TV. In a way, research into the cooperation of Europa TV also became a study into the mechanisms of preserving international broadcasting archives.
The studios of Europa TV were located in Hilversum in the Netherlands. After the cooperation went bankrupt, the general manager Klaas Jan Hindriks became disillusioned and left the Netherlands. He brought some boxes with his documents to the Netherlands Broadcast Museum, a predecessor of Sound and Vision. Much of this documentation can shed light on the context of the organisation.
As a curator, I was curious about the programming of Europa TV. How did the channel try to reach a European audience? How did the programming reflect the European identity at the time? What were the most popular programmes on the channel? Does the programming explain the failure of the channel? In her research, Saskia Cluistra dug into the archival materials to answer these questions.
Weather reports. Europa Television always aired a weather report which reflected the geopolitical constitution of Europe at the time. A map of the continent was shown with numbers and symbols indicating the weather and music playing in the background. Cut-outs of maps were displayed with weather specification in different countries. Except for Norway, Sweden and Finland, all the countries in the weather report belonged to the European Economic Community. The weather in East Germany was not forecasted – was this due to the lack of information from the other side of the Berlin Wall or was it a political matter?
Current Affairs. To research the concept of European identity, one could look into the current affairs programmes such as Worldwatch. Global and European issues were discussed in these programmes. There was also airtime for local cultures, such as an item on Kaatsen, a sport that is traditional in the Netherlands.
Music. Pop music is an obvious common ground in European culture. It is no surprise that the most popular programme on Europa TV was a spin-off of the Dutch music show Countdown, produced by the public broadcaster Veronica. Host Adam Curry presented both the national and international version of the programme which mainly showed video clips. For the Europa TV version, some additional logos were added in the studio. This show looked similar to the programmes of SKY channel and Super channel that were also available to a Dutch audience.
Advertising. Europa TV showed commercials to generate revenue, but this did not prove to be a successful business model for a channel that was watched by very diverse and geographically dispersed European audiences. Because of the eclectic programming that varied from serious political issues to popular music and local news, advertisers found it hard to reach their target audiences and did not see the channel as an attractive platform.
Another solution was programmes about lifestyle and fashion that were sponsored by particular companies. But the Dutch government was quite critical of this approach. One of the sponsored programmes was by the Dutch clothing company Van Gils. In the Netherlands, such commercial advertising formats were not possible on public television, and there were no commercial channels yet. Nevertheless, these attempts of sponsored programming did not offer viable revenue for the channel.
THE AFTERLIFE OF THE CHANNEL
Europa TV offers hours of content that show the growth of transnational television in the 1980s. When the tapes are digitised by Sound and Vision, they should be published on the EUscreen portal. With the help and cooperation between public broadcasters archives, Europa TV content will be available online to anyone interested in the television history and the legacy of the first European channel.