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My Italian TV hell

By Tobias Jones
Published: January 16 2003 19:50 | Last Updated: January 16 2003 19:50
(indirizzo originale)

“A democracy can’t exist”, Karl Popper once wrote, “unless it has its television under control.” In Italy, though, the game’s going the other way. The television studio has already usurped the senate, soft porn has replaced hard news. One of the biggest media players on the planet – Silvio Berlusconi – has been our prime minister for the past 18 months, and his palazzo televiso (his metaphorical “televisual palace”) is only a couple of moves from check-mating democracy.

So what does television look like in this new, “videocratic” world? What – I asked myself a few weeks ago, as I kicked off my shoes, reclined on my sofa in Parma and reached for the remote – is Italian TV really like? Has Berlusconi, I wondered, really turned the frightening, fictional worlds of 1984 and Citizen Kane into reality?

It’s a Sunday afternoon, and I zap on RAI 1. The programme is called Domenica-In. It’s a cabaret show lasting for six hours. After only five minutes I’m feeling drunk from the dizzying lights and dancing. I flick to Channel 5 (one of Berlusconi’s three Mediaset channels): Buona Domenica. It looks exactly the same. Just as on RAI 1, the audience are clapping wildly as some crooner sings old Sinatra songs. There are girls in bikinis everywhere. Both are flagship programmes of the rival networks, attracting millions of viewers every Sunday. To me, it looks like something straight out of Benny Hill.

To familiarise yourself with the terrain of Italian TV, there is one key word to learn: Canzonissima. It means, simply, “very song”. It was, for decades, the most important programme on Italian television, and has now been replaced by dozens of derivatives. Singing, it’s very obvious, is the foundation stone of Italian television. The listings magazines even publish the lyrics to the old hits so that you can sing along at home. It makes TV appear like one long karaoke show, with comperes clicking their fingers as the band springs to life. By far the most followed event on TV is the San Remo festival in February, which serves up a week of syrupy songs.

The following evening, about 7pm, I flick to Channel 5 again. This is the prime-time quiz show, Passaparola. To understand this kind of show, there are more key words to learn. Letterine “the little letters”, Veline “quick news flash”, schedine “the little statistics”: all are diminutive “ine” descriptions of the bikini-clad women who start dancing erotically at random intervals. Passaparola is a quiz show based on the alphabet, hence the “little letters”. As I’m watching, Gerry Scotti – the anodyne host – is flirting with one of them and winking at the 8m viewers. Italy, don’t be in any doubt, is the land that feminism forgot.

Then something strange happens. As the show reaches its climax, Gerry walks to the other side of the studio, with one of the show-girls under his arm. “Dearest viewers,” he says, “I’ve got a wonderful suggestion for you.” This is a “promotional message”, 60 seconds of product placement that interrupts every TV show. Normally the host is promoting grooming products: cellulite solutions, hair removal, hair replacement. Occasionally it’s “shoes that breathe” or a “massaging mattress”. Within minutes of the “promotional message”, there’s an advertising break proper. Filippo, a friend next to me on the sofa, grabs the remote and rides through all the seven main channels: “Bingo!” he shouts: “all the channels are on ad breaks!” There’s nothing to watch. “You see”, he says, “the problem isn’t that Italy has commercial television. It’s that it has only one half of commercial television: the commercials.” As he says this, he’s shaking his head in despair: in front of us on screen is a close-up of a woman’s buttocks. They’re wobbling as plastic pads send electric shocks into her flesh for “slimming and toning perfection”.

It often seems that, in Italy, there aren’t advertisement breaks; there are short programme breaks. Fifty seven per cent of all Italian advertising budgets is spent on television (compared with 23 per cent in Germany, and 33.5 per cent in the UK). Even RAI, the state-owned television network – to whom I pay an annual licence fee of ∑97–≤ runs adverts. All of which means that audience-chasing is crucial, and programmes are designed for quantity not quality. “It’s become a kind of psychological dictatorship”, says Gad Lerner, the most intelligent anchorman on Italian TV. “The figures from Auditel [which measures audience share] scare people into only producing these vulgar, crowd-pulling programmes.” Berlusconi, of course, owns Publitalia, the company responsible for selling 60 per cent of advertising space on Italian television.

Within a few days of starting my TV induction I can feel my brain turning to custard. It’s been cabaret and quiz shows all week. There seems to be an obsession with singing and winning quick cash. And there are so many chat shows such as Al Posto Tuo or Uomini e Donne that have sad lovers screaming at each other. There’s blanket coverage of football. If you have satellite you can even watch your team training for the next game. But – and this is the strange thing – there’s nothing actually on. If content is king, Italy is very much a republic. And so it becomes a sort of self-reflexive hall of mirrors. Quiz shows ask questions such as: “With the letter M, who presents the chat show Uomini e Donne?” Then on that chat show, Maria De Filippi – the blonde Italian Oprah – will host the quiz-master who asked the question. Then news programmes will run long items on the marriage between De Filippi and Maurizio Costanzo, the portly host of Buona Domenica who also hosts another chat show from Monday to Friday. It is television feasting on its own tasteless entrails.

The more you watch it, the more you realise that for all its “variety shows”, there’s precious little variety. And, the most amazing thing, the iconic men who launched Italian TV in the 1950s – Mike Buongiorno and Raimondo Vianello – are still there, right in front of me as I write this. It’s the televisual equivalent of trasformismo: time moves on, tastes change, but the players in the game remain exactly the same. As with politicians, no television personality ever, ever slips off into retirement, which means that Italy appears a sort of “geriatrocracy”, run by doddery old men.

There are, at least, hundreds of films on offer, but they wouldn’t even fit into the B-movie category: they’re almost all oil-and-muscle action movies starring Steven Segal or Chuck Norris. The TV series, too, seem stuck in a time-warp: Colombo, Murder She Wrote, The Saint. That, as patriotic Italians often complain, is the real problem. Italy, once the artistic engine of the world, has become a mass importer of culture. The country is one of Hollywood’s most important markets, with the consequence that nowadays many of Italy’s most famous actors are its dubbers.

Watching news programmes is even worse. This evening I was watching the Italia Uno (Mediaset) news. “Celebrity gossip”, smiles the newscaster, “has become cultural this week”. The news item is an interview with Natalia Estrada – a Spanish bombshell – talking earnestly about her “career” as a show-girl, and proudly announcing her imminent marriage to Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo. A couple of days later I decide to watch the news on RAI 2. During the lead announcement, there’s a slow-motion picture of Berlusconi smiling. Violins are playing moving music. “The prime minister”, the newscaster announces, “has become a grandfather for the second time.”

Most Italians are acutely embarrassed by it all. Many will say that their TV is volgare or else fa schifo: “it’s disgusting”. Signora Ciampi, wife of the politically neutral and widely admired President of the Republic, last year made headlines by declaring it all deficiente: “half-witted”. It’s nothing new. Decades ago Pier Paolo Pasolini spoke of TV’s influence as a sort of “cultural genocide”, wiping away all traces of what makes Italians so noble: the intelligence and generosity, the Catholicism and conversation. Umberto Eco and Dario Fo have moaned repeatedly and eloquently about the televisual state of the nation. The enigma is how Italy – home to the most creative people on earth – ever produced such a leviathan. Who is responsible for this rubbish?

The reply of those pop-culture critics is almost always anthropological. Italy is, they say, a visual rather than a literary country. It has produced the best art, and many of the greatest films, in the western world. With a few notable exceptions (Dante, Boccaccio and so on) almost all Italy’s cultural icons – from Michelangelo to Fellini – are the product of visual, rather than verbal, genius. That visual culture, that obsession with understanding and admiring beauty, means that television is, like fashion, the fulcrum of Italian life. The average adult watches television for more than four hours a day; even when you go out to a restaurant there will be a TV set slung in the corner.

In Italy no other medium - print, publishing, audio - reaches even the 50 per cent thresh old of "info-penetration" into daily life.

By now, the TV set is so ubiquitous that it's nicknamed the focolare domestico, the "domestic fire". It's the warm glow around which family and friends gather; especially, of course, in Italy, a land where three generations often share the same living room. That, in fact, is the second anthropological explanation for TV saturation: the emphasis on family life paradoxically increases TV viewing because it's the only thing many relatives have in common. The easiest way to pass an afternoon with your grandmother is to watch Buona Domenica.

The other explanation for Italian TV is historical: there has always been a bear-hug between Italian politics and television. Lottizzazione - "carve up" - describes the way television channels became, in the old days, fiefdoms of the political parties. Until the early 1990s, the three RAI channels were directly controlled by the three main parties. The Christian Democrats pulled the strings at RAI 1, the Socialists controlled RAI 2, the Communists RAI 3. The RAI Berlusconi inherited in 2001 had obvious left-wing leanings. The real complaint against Berlusconi isn't that he's changed the rules of the game by conflating politics and television; it's simply that he's won the old game so very, very convincingly. And he triumphed through a piece of tactical genius. He turned the tables on the old, political guard by deciding to colonise politics through television, rather than vice versa.

Berlusconi's TV empire also owes its rise to an anomalous business context: in the 1980s, when Berlusconi built himself into a media mogul, commercial television in Italy was almost totally unregulated.

He has duly made TV in his own image: a slick salesman who once worked as a singer on a cruise ship, he has turned TV into endless advertisements sandwiched between the cabaret. (Even the listings magazine he owns is called "Smiles and Songs"). A man enthralled by the US, he has bought the rights to thousands of American films and soap operas. He has turned television into an ideological vacuum, in which the medium really has become the message. The result, of course, is that the mogul has become the prime minister.

There are, though, areas of optimism. The other side of the TV equation - the viewer - is very different in Italy. Italians watch not passively, in silence and concentration (as in Britain), but actively. Watch TV with friends or family and you realise the box is just another relative: ever-present, but often ignored, invariably - as in all Italian conversations - interrupted. "You're a cretin" is the usual shout in the direction of the TV and its smug "celebrities". Italian viewers are simply less supine than their Anglo-American counterparts. Also, if you watch television after 1am you'll see some of the best programmes available: educational documentaries, foreign films, in-depth news analysis. Then there's "La 7", a national channel launched recently - with Gad Lerner as its figurehead - to challenge the duopoly of RAI-Mediaset by going up-market.

In addition, since every Italian city claims to be a "capital", there are more than 600 local channels. Many are incredibly sophisticated and refined. Every Sunday night I work as a football pundit for Teleducato, one of Parma's local channels. Our programme is simply sports chat and if you cough the backdrop falls over. And yet, each week when I leave the studio, I walk past the city's finest opera critics, getting ready to render their verdicts on the evening's opera. When I get home 10 minutes later, I see the three men on screen, swigging wine as they would at home and earnestly talking about the soprano from the current run of Rigoletto. Such intelligence, of course, would be immediately banished from RAI or Mediaset.

These are critical weeks for the future of Italian television. Berlusconi's communications minister has just announced a new draft law proposing a radical rewriting of the media laws (abolishing the 30 per cent ceiling for ownership of any single media sector, lifting the ban on cross-media ownership and preparing the way for the privatisation of RAI for January 2004). At the same time, three out of five of the directors of RAI (representing the state's three terrestrial and seven satellite channels) have just resigned, apparently fed up with political interference and poor programming.

By now, Berlusconi really does have a near-monopoly of the mass media. Anyone who says otherwise is simply burying his head in the television. He recently railed against three presenters on RAI who had criticised him, and their programmes were taken off the air. Blob, an inspired programme that satirises the tele-political powers that be, was also cancelled recently when it dedicated a special edition to the prime minister. "But the thing that really frightens me", says Gad Lerner, "isn't that censorship is a diktat from above, it's that it's servility from below. Everyone working in television knows that, for the next five or seven years, their career will depend upon Berlusconi, and they grovel accordingly."

As if to illustrate the point, a few minutes ago I finally found a film worth watching. It was a Hitchcock film on Rete 4 (Mediaset). Just as the climax arrived, as the pistol appeared from behind the curtain, there was a scroll along the bottom of the screen, ruining the tension: "One year of achievement", it read; "All the highlights of Berlusconi's speech immediately after this film". And that's the strange thing. Berlusconi's political movement, Forzismo, might be vaguely dangerous for democracy, but for television it's simply disastrous.

Tobias Jones has lived in Italy for four years. His diary of life abroad, The Dark Heart of Italy, is published by Faber this month.


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