VRT: Discovery, Preservation and Exploration

Printable version Friday 11 May 2012 Last updated at 11:29

The Audio-visual Archive of the Flemish Public Broadcasting Organization (VRT): Discovery, Preservation and Exploration

The VRT and EUscreen

The EUscreen portal http://www.euscreen.eu combines freely available digitized content from 19 different countries. The thematic approach of the published content enables comparative studies. VRT is contributing 800 items to EUscreen, all carefully chosen by theme and 200 items for the special collection which will be used in virtual exhibitions. This material ranges from coverage of world events such as this of the last days before Congolese independence, construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 and coverage of the troubles in Northern Ireland as well as more domestic offerings concerning technology and the rise of the right in Flemish politics. A selection of this material is in English and therefore allows non-Dutch speakers an opportunity to become acquainted with Flemish public broadcasting heritage with particular added value for education and research.

Preserving the collection

When Flemish public radio broadcasting began in 1930 there was no initiative to create a structured audio-visual archive. Even after the establishment of television broadcasting in 1953, the archive was still neglected and it was the responsibility of individual departments to archive their own material.

Following broadcasts the news and sports department of the national public broadcaster decided to store and classify the audio-visual material themselves, in order to reuse the content within their productions. Until 1986 no systematic copies of news programs were recorded. Occasionally some early live broadcasts were recorded by kinescope and later on videotape, but this was an exception.

In the early 1960s the department in charge of film took the initiative to preserve and to index film material coming from other services of the public broadcasting, such as educational, entertainment, youth, artistic and fictional material. Until the 1980s 35 and 16 mm film formats were used, first for black/white and from 1972 onwards, for color.

In 1960 the Belgian national broadcaster NIR was divided into two different departments: the Dutch-speaking broadcasting department BRT (N) (now VRT) and the French-speaking RTB (F) both of whom are part of the EUscreen project.

In 1974 both departments relocated to the Reyerslaan in Brussels and a shared storage facility for films was provided in the basement. Films that were previously preserved in the National Film Archive or scattered across different studios in Brussels were also stored here. 

This logistical change coincided with a major innovation in the technical field. The introduction of magnetic videotape in 1963 led to it becoming integral to the production process in the late 1970s.The technical department also assumed responsibility for the preservation and classification of videotape. Videotape was very expensive to purchase but could be reused, a consequence which was disastrous for archiving. An erase policy was introduced which was based on the quality of the magnetic videotape rather than on its content and this has led to unique material being irretrievably erased, including important game shows from the entertainment department.

The 1980s were the start of the computer age and this shift progressively found its way throughout the different departments of the public broadcasting. In 1987 the capsizing and sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry shocked the Belgian nation and the world. The judicial investigation made use of rushes and non-edited archive material from the news department to examine the circumstances of the disaster.

This public recognition of the importance of archival material brought about a shift in attitudes in Belgium. Soon all the separate archive services of the public broadcasting were relocated to a centralized archive and all material pertaining to their content were stored in a database, which is still used today. Another consequence of these events was the initiative for consistent recording on VHS of all broadcast programs. The VHS collection is of great historical importance because it gives a full account of was been broadcasted during the past 25 years on the channels of the VRT and its predecessors. 

Digitisation and digital production platform

In 2004 a project was started to digitize the one and two-inch videotapes. This project will be successfully completed in the production of 23,000 digital files. The digital production platform Ardome was launched in June 2007 first for the news and sport department and later for other departments. In 2008, the project DIVA (Digital Archive VRT) and its successor Verdi (Digital Heritage VRT) were developed with the aim to digitize the audiovisual collection and to make it available.

So what is in the VRT collection?

The audio-visual archive collection includes VRTs own productions, private collections of filmmakers, exchange material of the EBU and other news agencies. There are distinct collections based on the different carriers which were used through the years, as well as the film collection, the analogue tape collection, the digital tape collection and the digital born collection.

As with any collection, the incompleteness of the global audio-visual collection is not entirely due to the erase policy back in the 80s. Relocation, misjudgments, creation of personal archives, the non-recording of live broadcasts, and cutting up the rolls of film for recycling the fragments are other reasons for the incompleteness of the archives.

The film collection has great historical value and it covers important and significant national and international events. such as: Expo '58, the expansion of Belgium’s transportation network, industrialization, the arrival of foreign workers in the 1960s, the closing down of coal mines and female emancipation. Cultural and sporting events are also covered with footage of the visit of Salvadore Dali to Brussels in 1962 and the reception held to honour Tour De France winner Eddy Merckx in 1969 as well as programmes dedicated to female viewers which focus on fashion.     

At regular intervals a team from the news department of the public broadcaster was sent abroad to make live contributions, to film reports for the News or to film a documentary. These carrier films were used until the late 1970s. This material includes footage of Prague after the Prague Spring, Chile under Pinochet the expansion of the Jewish state Israel, the problems in Eastern Europe, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, the Cold War, the civil rights movement in the U.S., Congo after independence, development projects in the former colony of Rwanda and coverage of genocide in Rwanda and Burundi.

The collection on analogue videotape is of lesser quality and not everything is preserved. But the collection is still important. There is videotape material covering the federalization of the Belgian State, testimonies of collaboration and resistance during the Second World War as well as programmes on fashion, the arts and live contributions from sporting events at home and abroad.

The future

Today VRT digitizes its archives with its own resources. Priority is given to endangered carriers which have to be digitized quickly otherwise they will decay (like film) or those which can no longer be played because the hardware no longer exists and retrieval material for its own productions. An increasing number of external groups, such as cultural and heritage organizations and schools ask for the archive to be made accessible for external users. To make this happen the storage and access policy will need to be revised.

Up to 70% of the collection still needs to be digitized and time is running out as the risk of decay increases; it has also become clear that the analogue material is being neglected as a resource in favor of the more accessible digitized content.

Political and cultural pressure groups have increased the push towards a central storage archive that guarantees the preservation of audio-visual heritage and is accessible to everyone. The participation of VRT in projects like EUscreen ensure that this important archival material can be viewed by larger numbers of people and sheds light on Belgium’s television heritage.


Elke Poppe

Graduate of History and Archival science

Archivist VRT archive / section Television


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