Paula Sémer in the 1960s | Brussels, VRT

Arts & Sciences
1925 - 2021
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Paula Sémer

Television as a Window on the World

On Saturday 31 October 1953 a few hundred families watched the very first Flemish television broadcast. The news and weather forecast were followed by Drie dozijn rode rozen (Three Dozen Red Roses), a comedy with Paula Sémer. The young actress went on to become a familiar face on television and many people’s regular housemate.

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Paula Sémer began her broadcasting career in 1944 on the radio, as a presenter and as an actress in radio plays. Shortly after the launch of television she presented, together with Bob Davidse, Kom toch eens kijken (Come and See), the first programme especially for children. Later she became the face of programmes for and by women.

In 1964 Sémer, in her programme Penelope, showed explicit footage of a childbirth. That caused a good deal of commotion. Sémer quite often spoke out on socially relevant themes. Subjects like sexuality, breast cancer and contraception were also taken out of the taboo sphere. Behind the scenes too she kept fighting for the emancipation of women. Years before #metoo she spoke openly about sexism and inappropriate intimacy in the television world.


Brussels, VRT

In the early years, channels broadcast for only a few hours a day. For the rest of the time viewers had to make do with a test image.

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Television as a Window on the World

In the 1960s and 1970s television sets occupied a prominent place in more and more living rooms. The new medium changed people’s view of the world. Suddenly pictures brought up-to-date news – apparently – unfiltered into their homes. For example, viewers saw shocking reportages from Vietnam, the first war to be covered daily on the TV news. Those images contributed to worldwide protests against the conflict, also in Flanders.

Besides an important source of news, watching television became a favourite pastime for many Flemings. For the latter they tuned in in their thousands in the 1960s and 1970s to Netherlands-based channels. A whole generation of children grew up with the Dutch Fabeltjeskrant (Fable Paper). Flemish public television was itself a pioneer with youth magazines like Kapitein Zeppos, which were also successful abroad. Grown-ups on the other hand, went for the many shows and quiz programmes on the Netherlands-based channels.

Television had the power to tie viewers emotionally to people or events. Hence the medium gained a powerful community-shaping function. For example, Flemings adopted expressions from popular TV programmes, like the phrase ‘’Zal ‘t gaan ja!’ (What are you doing!) from the sitcom F.C. De Kampioenen. The intense attention given to sporting contests also created involvement. In televising cycle races Flemish public broadcasting was also a pioneer.

Focal points

Tante Terry.

Brussels, VRT

Terry Verbeeck (1931-2018) as Aunt Terry was a pioneer of children’s programmes. Together with Paula Sémer she was also one of the first announcers.


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Public Broadcasting

Public broadcasting, from its early years on, attached great importance to informative programmes and human interest, often with Paula Sémer as presenter. In 1962 public broadcasting began school television, an educative package of programmes for the classroom. In the 1980s the journalist Maurice De Wilde familiarised viewers with collaboration during the Second World War in his legendary programme De Nieuwe Orde (The New Orderopposed to parliamentary democracy and in favour of an authoritarian political system with a strong leader. ).

One of the core tasks of public broadcasting was the promotion of the Dutch language. Flemish viewers, often only familiar with their own dialect, could, via the programme Hier spreekt men Nederlands (Dutch spoken here), acquaint themselves with the pronunciation and vocabulary of Standard Dutch.

In the 1980s the domestic monopoly of public broadcasting came under pressure. The public found the programmes on offer too dull and only tuned loyally in to the BRT (Belgische Radio en Televisie) for news and current affairs. Politicians thought the range was no longer adequate. European policy also favoured the advent of commercial television. VTM (Vlaamse Televisie Maatschappij) appeared on cable in 1989. The advent of an internal rival obliged public broadcasting to renew its profile. That led later to an extensive range of public television, with VRT1 as a broad public channel and Canvas, Ketnet and Sporza as channels with a more specific profile.

Openingsshow VTM.

Vilvoorde, VTM

The arrival of VTM in 1989 ended the monopoly of public service broadcasting in Flanders. Celebrities Koen Wauters and Francesca Van Thielen during VTM’s opening show, 1 February 1989.

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Commercial Television

The arrival of the commercial channel VTM in 1989 redrew the Flemish television landscape. From the outset the channel’s profile had two spearheads: amusement and information. The news service prioritised domestic news and left plenty of room for the opinion of ‘the man in the street’. The formula was successful and in due course was accepted by public broadcasting.

The expansion of the range of Flemish television gave impulses to the whole audiovisual sector. Production houses and other suppliers experienced a golden age. In addition, with programmes like Tien om te zien (Ten to Look Out For) VTM gave a boost to Flemish singers and musicians, who previously had been given little attention in the media.

VTM quickly gained a large market share and reduced the popularity of the Dutch channels. Advertising revenue exceeded all expectations. Because of that success other commercial channels soon appeared on the scene.

The present range of television on offer consists of public broadcasting and several regional and commercial channels. The internet, programmes available online and the advent of streaming services have changed the television experience. Flemings are led less and less by broadcasting schedules and at present watch a lot on demand.

Tik tak.
Brussels, VRT

Tik Tak, first broadcast in 1981, stands as one of the most successful Flemish television programmes ever. The programme was sold to channels all over the world.

Wikimedia Commons

The Flageygebouw is an iconic art-deco building in the shape of a passenger ship. From 1938 to 1974 it was the home base of Belgian public broadcasting, today it is the headquarters of the Brussels Philharmonic and the Flemish Radio Choir.

Armand Pien.
Brussels, VRT

For 37 years the astronomer Armand Pien (1920-2003) was the weather man on public service broadcasting and became a popular face in people’s homes.

Studio Herman Teirlinck.
Michiel Hendryckx

The former drama school Studio Herman Teirlinck functioned for years as a breeding ground for television faces. Actors like Julien Schoenaerts (1925-2006) reached a wider public thanks to television, and sometimes grew into real stars.

Eddy Wally.
Vilvoorde, VTM

Tien om te zien (Ten to Watch Out for) was VTM’s most successful programme in the 1990s. Partly because of the programme, many artists grew into Flemish celebrities. Here the popular folk singer Eduard Van De Walle (1932-2016) from Zelzate (Province East Flanders), better known by his stage name Eddy Wally, is performing.

Man bijt hond.
Brussels, VRT

In the programme Man bijt hond (Man Bites Dog, 1997-2013) the central focus was on ordinary woman and man. Under the influence of VTM from the 1990s on public service broadcasting began to pay more attention to the everyday lives of Flemings.

-De voormalige acteerschool Studio Herman Teirlinck fungeerde jarenlang als kweekvijver voor televisiegezichten. Acteurs zoals Julien Schoenaerts (1925-2006) bereikten dankzij televisie een breder publiek en groeiden soms uit tot echte vedetten.
Michiel Hendryckx

The former drama school Studio Herman Teirlinck functioned for years as a breeding ground for television faces. Actors like Julien Schoenaerts (1925-2006) reached a wider public thanks to television, and sometimes grew into real stars.

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