In 1931, the first television program was broadcast in Belgium by the INR-NIR. After the establishment of RTBF and BRTN, each public service broadcasting institution had a monopoly in their respective markets. But the high penetration of cable television, which started to replace terrestrial reception in the late 1950s, allowed the broadcast of over 20 foreign television stations, most notably from the Netherlands, Germany and France. This ensured competitive pressure on the public service television and opened up a debate for breaking up the public monopoly (pressured by European policy). In 1981, a new law allowed for the presence of pay-TV, regional television and, most importantly, private television in both Wallonia and Flanders. However, it took six years for Wallonia and eight years to Flanders to install a private competitor to the public monopoly.
In 1989, Vlaamse Televisie Maatschappij (VTM) became the first Flemish commercial broadcaster. The Flemish Government required that at least 51 percent of the shares would be owned by newspaper publishers. The European Commission later protested against this requirement, calling it a form of obliged cross-ownership. In reality, newspaper organisations came to control 100 percent of the capital of VTM (nowadays 100% owned by De Persgroep). In the following years, other channels such as VT4 and Ka2 entered the market. As a result of this ‘new’ competition, the market share of the BRTN, which was rebranded into VRT, shrank spectacularly. In order to give the organisation more autonomy from the government, a system of management contracts was introduced, giving VRT more weapons to address the increased competition. Using new management and marketing techniques, VRT was able to reclaim a part of its market share and has been the market leader with één (first channel) since 2008. As of today, VRT commands a 38.5 percent market share. Main competitor Medialaan, which owns generalist channel VTM and thematic channels Vitaya, CAZ and Q2 and children channels Cadet and VTMKZoom, accounts for 31.6 percent of the market.
In 2014, De Vijver, the other main commercial broadcaster operating VIER (7.8 percent) and VIJF (4 percent), was purchased by cable operator Telenet, a subsidiary of U.S. cable giant Liberty Global. With the purchase, Telenet controls the entire audiovisual value chain: it owns Flanders’ best known production company Woestijnvis and the second commercial channel VIER. Telenet is also the largest pay-TV operator (about 85 percent of all connections), holds the most attractive sports and movie rights, controls about 50 percent of all internet connections and some 25 percent of mobile telephone users, resulting in an unprecedented accumulation of market power (Evens, 2014). Telecom incumbent Proximus (formerly Belgacom) is a distant runner-up on the market for digital television services, which has a penetration of about 90 percent of Flemish households.
Walloon public broadcaster RTBF was challenged by a commercial competitor (RTL-TVI) as early as1987. Like its Flemish counterpart VTM, RTL-TVI was, at least partially, owned by newspaper publishers via Audiopresse (today, only Groupe Rossel participates), which has a minority share of 34 percent in RTL-TVi. The remaining shares are with the Luxemburg media conglomerate Groupe RTL/Bertelsmann, which also operates Club RTL (3.5 percent) and Plug RTL (2.7 percent). Officially a Luxemburg channel, RTL-TVI is the market leader with 19 percent. In addition, French channels, most notably TF1 (15.5 percent), France 2 (7.1 percent) and France 3 (4.9 percent), are very successful in the audience market of Wallonia. In contrast to Flanders, the public service broadcaster plays only a minor role in the television market: the combined market share of La Une and La Deux accounts for only 20.5 percent. However, there are signs that RTBF still is not yet fully depoliticised, which hampers its ability to compete with foreign channels (both in radio and television). The Walloon market for digital television services is divided between Proximus and VOO. Telecom incumbent Proximus was the first provider in 2005, but after consolidating most of the independent cable operators, VOO has become the leading television provider. VOO is part of Publifin and also owns pay-TV channels BeTV, which hold the rights to the Belgian football league. Similar to Proximus, which operates in both parts of the country, VOO provides quadruple play services (television, telephony, internet and mobile all-in-one). Rumour has it that Telenet and VOO, active in Flanders and Wallonia respectively, would like to merge operations in order to provide a national quadruple play offering.