In the bars of the 1950s, Italian television became popular when crowds of Italians, women as well as men, left their homes to meet after supper and look at the first huge success of Italian public television. The attraction was Lascia o raddoppia (Double Your Money), a quiz show imported from the United States by a young showman, Mike Bongiorno (who continued to host shows through the 1990s). The crowds watched television and discussed the contest, fiercely favouring or opposing this or that game player.

In August 1996 the Board of administrations of RAI, the public radio and television company, made decisions concerning nominations of the directors and vice directors of all the different news and programs departments in the organization--the third such change of executives in four years. For three days, all Italian newspapers dedicated the lead article to the subject, and continued with two or three inside pages filled with comments, backgrounds, and feature stories. As on previous occasions, the nominations of RAI department directors have been an important conversation topic. This level of attention in the press, and the concern about public opinion by RAI would be seen as quite unusual in most other countries; even in Italy, there is no similar interest with regard to other kinds of companies. Television is not only a conversation topic in terms of the content and programs it presents to audiences, but for itself.

Beginnings and Developments

The official history of Italian television begins on 3 January 1954. RAI was the only television network transmitting news and prime time programs.

A state-owned entity was created in 1924 as a radio company, URI, amd was heavily controlled by the national government, at that point a facist regime. For years, and despite transformations in government, the same company (which simply changed its name-in 1924 URI, in 1927 EIAR, in 1944 RAI), remained a monopoly. RAI was the only producer of radio news and programs, the only broadcaster through different channels, the only owner of technical installations and repeaters. From 1954 to 1976 the history of Italian television is also the history of RAI, for the monopoly was extended to television, with the same benefit of vertical concentration established during the radio era.

In 1954, the reconstruction period ended and a new phase of industrialization began, with huge transformation of the country. Until the end of the 1960s millions of Italians moved inside the country, from South to North, from small villages to large cities, from agriculture to industry. This was a period of great transformation. Television, contrary to the expectations of intellectuals and politicians, was an immediate success. At first, for most people, television viewing was public viewing: in the bars, the cinemas, the houses of the richest families. In the 1960s, when a second channel began programming (4 November 1961), television reached a nationwide audience and a long period of family viewing began. In a country still characterised by a high level of illiteracy, television became the most wide-spread media, in contrast to the traditional low circulation of the daily press (among the lowest in the world) and the irregularity of school attendance (especially in the South). Radio and cinema had benefited during the 1940s and 1950s from high rates of listening and attendance, but the coming of television overcame them in a few years.

The unexpected success of television, in coincidence with the unexpected great transformation of the country and the rapid growth of national income, explains why the medium became an important political issue. While private entrepreneurial groups tried to create alternatives to the state monopoly of radio and television, the Corte Costituzionale (a high court which oversees the Constitution), ruled on 13 July 1960 that the television monopoly was legal. Just a few years after the beginning of regular programming, then, "television" and RAI (as the only broadcaster and producer), became the makers of two different kinds of histories. One is the history of a new medium, which concerns technological evolution, the quantity and quality of programs produced and broadcast, and the audience reactions. The other is the history of the power struggles which concern political parties, and businesses of various kinds. The struggles were conducted for the control both of legislation and the resources related to RAI--from the control of news and electoral campaigns, to the control of advertising, to the production of fiction, variety shows and other forms of popular culture.

The Struggles for Television Power

In post-war Italy, after the end of fascism and World War II in 1945, the form of the State changed from monarchy to a Republic, established by a referendum in 1946. The parliament, made up of two chambers with slight differences, was now elected by the people, including for the first time the vote of women. Governments are formed as expressions of the majority of parliament. With the exception of the first five years of the Republic (1948-1953) during which the Catholic party, the Christian Democrats (DC), received an absolute majority, all Governments have been coalitions of political parties with the DC having a relative majority. The governing coalitions are opposed on the left by a very strong Communist party (PCI) and on the right by a small neo-fascist party (MSI). The Communist party is the strongest among Western countries. It is very influential among trade unions and intellectuals and receives the absolute majority of votes in the central regions of Italy: Emilia-Romagna, Toscana, and Umbria. This kind of political geography lasted, with minor changes, until the collapse of Soviet Union and the communist regimes of Eastern Europe (1990). During this period the coalition governments of Italy were usually constructed from a conflictual alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Socialist party (PSI). In the years immediately following World War II, the Socialist party had been allied with the Communist party, but from the 1960s it was autonomous and attempted, unsuccessfully, to compete for the vote of the working class. With the success of television viewing, RAI, as a state monopoly under the control of government became the main and the most visible stake in the Italian spoils system.

Television became important as a matter of public debate and political struggle on the Italian scene. All political parties have been united by the idea of maintaining RAI as a state monopoly, because every one hoped to win a share of television power by getting more votes in the elections. Indeed, this happened when the Socialist party entered into the governing coalition during the 1960s, and when the Communist Party became more influential during the second half of the 1970s.

Italian television has not only been a public service institution, in the European tradition. It is also--mainly--a central means of power controlled by the Christian democrats, the Catholic culture and the Roman Church. It does not work as a self-supporting industry. Rather, it receives financial resources from both advertising and form fees paid by subscribers. Advertising is sold to firms at low prices and in a very discriminating way, depending on the political power of the organizations and institutions involved. Automobile advertising, for example, was forbidden because FIAT, the Italian automobile company did not want other cars to be seen on the screen.

During the 1970s these situations began to change. On 14 April 1975 a new reform law gave RAI a new regulatory structure. The main powers--nomination of the board of administration, and control over policies--were transferred from the government to parliament. Even more significantly, a year later, on 28 July 1976, the Corte Costituzionale issued a new ruling which allowing the transmission of radio and television programs at local level. With that decision the era of competition had begun and the media system entered a period of change which continued through the 1990s.

In 1977 colour television was finally allowed by government decisions. And at the end of 1979 RAI began a third channel, partly devoted to regional news programs. Hundreds of local radio and television stations mushroomed throughout the country, but no cable television can be created because of legal restrictions.

Still, the television scene is changing rapidly. RAI no longer holds monopolies for radio or television: half of its radio audience has gone. Even within the company RAI is no longer monolithic. Radio and television channels have their own news departments, budgets, and political and cultural outlook. They compete among themselves and with private broadcasters for audience. Influence and power, resources and audiences are broadly divided across three segments: the major portion goes to the Catholic area, the second to the Socialists, the third part to the Communists. Meanwhile, in the private sector the greatest competition has come from the media empire created by Silvio Berlusconi.

Under the new legal structure permitting local broadcasting, Berlusconi was able to build a network made by three channels: Canale 5, Italia 1, and Rete 4. These local and regional broadcasting systems were unified by a common management and strategy within Fininvest, the company created to oversee the media operations. They were financially supported by Pubitalia, a firm specialising in the collection of advertising revenues. The extraordinary and very rapid success of private television in Italy was due mainly to one factor: a large number of new companies which had flourished in the roaring 1960s and 1970s had no way to reach Italian markets with their advertising. Yet after years of hard work, of social and political unrest, consumers were ready to accept new styles of living and to enter the era of mass consumption. Berlusconi and his management understood this need and provided an answer--a private television system which for the first time in the European scene offered a scheduling and programming policy oriented by marketing philosophy.

The three channels were shaped to be strong competitors with the public channels. They began to gain audience in all time periods where the RAI offerings were weak: afternoon television for children, late afternoon television for women, night-time television for youngsters, late evening television for intellectuals, and so on. Canale 5 was shaped as a general channel for mass audience, while Italia 1 was shaped for an audience of youngsters, and Rete 4 for women. At the beginning private television was especially successful among northern-Italian and large-city audiences, where there was a higher level of income and consequently a more widespread acceptance of consumption. Successful programs included American films and American series and serials (such as Dallas and Dynasty), game shows, Latin American telenovelas, new formats of Italian variety shows, and Japanese cartoons for children. By the end of the 1980s the competition between the private and public networks was at its height and the audience more or less divided in two equal parts. The financial resources coming from advertising grew seven times in about twelve years and although the greatest part went to the private network, the overall media system, RAI and daily press included, increased their revenues as well. While at the end of the 1970s the percentage of advertising expenditure on the Gross National Product was the lowest among industrial countries, at the end of 1980s it reached 6%.

On 6 August 1990, after years of discussion and struggle among the main political parties, a new law was passed by parliament which recognised that a new television system had emerged from the rough competition between RAI and Fininvest. With the new law, private television systems, at both national and local levels, are obliged to transmit a news program in order to maintain their license. In the 1990s, then, competition began in the news arena. Twelve national channels are recognised by the 1990 law. But the six channels owned by the two main networks, RAI and Fininvest, share 90% of the audience.

In a way what happened in the second half of the 1980s could be read as a form of Americanisation of Italian television. The media system, previously more directly oriented toward matters of state and politics as was common among European systems, suddenly became more open to market orientations. This shift could be explained by the huge expansion of the Italian economy, led by a large number of small and medium size firms located in the eastern part of Italy, especially in the north and centre regions. The Socialist Party (PSI) whose leader Bettino Craxi had long been a successful premier, tried hard to be the leading party of the so-called new Italy that developed from the great transformation of the 1960s and 1970s. Mainly for this reason Craxi and the Socialist party strongly supported Berlusconi and his television strategy, expressing favour for pluralism, a market economy and consumption, trying to make Italian society more similar to American society.

Television as a New Enemy

In the 1990s television has become, more than ever before, if possible, the centre of the Italian scene. Silvio Berlusconi, the owner of Fininvest made the decision to enter directly into the political arena, creating a new political movement called Forward Italy. "Forza Italia" is the slogan that supporters of the national teams in all sports scream during international games. Forza Italia was rapidly organized with the help of volunteers--and mainly with the very efficient staff of Fininvest and Pubitalia. The Italian flag was taken as symbol of the movement; a hymn was created; blue, the national colour for sport teams in international competitions, was adopted as the official colour; a coalition with other parties was set up in a few weeks and a nation-wide electoral campaign was organised, using marketing techniques, polls, and television spots. The reaction of the left coalition, led by the PDS, was furious. The two television networks were heavily engaged in the campaign: RAI on the side of the left coalition and Fininvest on the side of right coalition. To the surprise of most observers the right coalition of Silvio Berlusconi won the elections of 27 March 1994 and Berlusconi became the head of the national government.


But from the day of the Berlusconi victory a terrible war began. It was not only a war against Berlusconi but against television itself--the new enemy. Politicians, intellectuals, teachers, newspapers, began to organise public meetings and conventions against television. Italians were called to a national referendum against private television. Berlusconi became, for half of the country, evil itself and was unable to resist the attacks--he decided to resign after only seven months. A new government passed a law, which was not approved by parliament, dictating severe restrictions on the use of television in electoral campaigns (practically forbidding the use of television as a propaganda device). In the meantime advertising revenues decreased rapidly and the entire media system entered a period of recession. Both RAI and Fininvest faced large debts and drastically reduced their investments in fiction production, the most expensive segment of the television industry. The general atmosphere of the country shifted toward the negative and pessimistic: fear for the future, a strong reduction of private consumption, demands for the restriction of goods and services were all indicators of the national mood, the opposite of what they had been in the 1980s.

In spite of these views a June 1995 national referendum against television--mainly against advertising, American series, soap operas and telenovelas, all targetting private television--demonstrated that Italians accept and like private television. The campaign against television continued but began to resemble campaigns of the same kind occurring in other countries. Now the themes focus on the amount of violence and sex in programming, or on ways of protecting children from television.

Scheduling: Programs and Audiences

The long-lasting success of television in Italy can be explained by the fact that networks and channels were able to meet the demands of Italian people, in different periods of time and circumstance, with an offer of programs and scheduling criteria which have something in common. In spite of restrictive rules and the heavy influence of political parties and leaders, men and women who were in charge of television, at different times and in both private and public television, were able to play a relatively autonomous role and to make television work quite well on a daily basis.

Italian television is created from an original and always changing mixture of five different kinds of ingredients or content: American fiction, Italian fiction, Italian soccer and other sports, Italian songs and shows, Italian news and politics. Each one of these elements is bound to strong patterns of Italian culture.

The style of presentation has two main approaches. One is melodramatic, in the 19th Century tradition of melodrama and opera. The other is light and ironic, in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte (the comedy of art) and of the avanspettacolo, a form of popular theater variety show featuring comedians and girls.

In all these forms, Italy is the main subject of Italian television: Italian places and faces, Italian stories, Italian products, Italian sportsmen and women, and teams to be proud of. A second subject is America, focused on notions of the American dream, which many Italians consider as an American version of the Italian dream. European countries and the rest of the world form a minor part of Italian television. Europe and the world are places where Italians go as emigrants, as tourists, and as exporters of goods and services. Fiction is for cultivating dreams and fears; dreams are located elsewhere and mainly in America, fears are located in Italy. Sport is for cultivating national pride. News and politics are for locating oneself in a turbulent world and trying to understand what is going on and how to take part.

The relationship of Italian television to American fiction has specific characteristics. Even prior to television American mass culture has been the model for Italian entertainment, mainly through films. Throughout the 1950s most American movies were imported, dubbed in Italian, and shown throughout the country in more than eleven thousand cinemas. The first audiences for television, then, looked at television as a different form of movie, and indeed, American films have for years been the prime time family viewing on Mondays. American films, and subsequently, American series and serials have provided a considerable part of the total offering of television schedules and Italian television channels. Among European channels, Italian television has dedicated more air time to American fiction programs and to films dubbed in Italian.

Another important characteristic of Italian television has been the production of original fiction series which had no model abroad. These were called teleromanzo (television novels) or sceneggiato (adaptations of novels). The stories were presented in six or eight episodes of two hours each, taken from the masterpieces of international literature. They were shot and played in a very accurate way in a mixed style between theatre and film. One of their models is to be found in an Italian post-war invention, the fotoromanzo, novels with photographs. These long-running series sold weekly as magazines. They met with huge success and are still produced. Action was slow and all the stories were located in the past, mainly in the 19th Century. Prime time Sunday was for years dedicated to family viewing of teleromanzo. Since the 1980s this kind of fiction production has no longer been produced in the same way. But Italian fiction, which in the last 15 years has tried to adopt more standard formats, is still similar to that original model, even if the stories are now located in contemporary Italy. The most successful of these stories is called La Piovra (The Octopus), a story about criminal syndicates commonly referred to as the Mafia. Begun in 1984 and still continuing, it is a kind of Italian-style serial comprised of seven miniseries to date.

Looking At the Future

The future of Italian television is uncertain. A new law concerning telecommunications, radio, and television was proposed in Parliament by the Government on 25 July 1996. If approved, it will open the system to more competition, while preserving an important role for public service and more severe anti-concentration rules. For television, the new law will open the possibility for cable and satellite channels and, consequently, reduce the predominance of terrestrial networks and channels. It will also be possible for the same company to have limited partnerships in different communication businesses: telephone, cellular, television, radio, press, content provider.

The state owned monopoly of telephone services will become private. In the arena of cellular services there will possibly be a competition among at least three different companies. The 1000 local radio and 500 local television stations will be reduced in number. Pay-TV, which is actually run by one company (Tele +) on three analogic channels will be expanded, as will a rich bouquet of digital European channels.

In the area of broadcast television three groups now compete for participation and dominance. RAI, located in Rome, with three channels and an average audience share of about 45%; Mediaset (previously Fininvest) located in Milan, with three channels and about an average share of 43%. Mediaset became a publicly traded stock company in July 1996 and is no longer the personal property of Silvio Berlusconi. The Cecchi-Gori Group, located in Florence, with two channels and about an average share of 6%. Minor national channels, pay-TV and local stations get the remaining audience.

Each one of these three main organizations has its own competitive advantage: RAI has the advantages of tradition, the income from fees, no debt, and, more than before, the total support of the centre-left Government; Mediaset has the advantages of innovation, the internationalisation of part of its capital, its know-how, and support in Parliament from the strongest political party at the opposition. The Cecchi-Gori Group, which is the most powerful Italian film producer and distributor, has the advantages of its control of the copyright to a huge number of Italian and American films. It also has a special relation for copyright of soccer matches. The company is the proprietor of the soccer Florence's winning team, "la Fiorentina," and has special agreements with international networks interested in buying copyrights of soccer matches of Italian teams, which can be widely sold to many television channels of Arabic and Latin American countries. In parliament support comes from Catholic politicians who are part of the centre-left government. Vittorio Cecchi Gori, the main proprietor and the leader of his group, is also a senator of Florence.

These groups face considerable difficulties in the immediate future. The main problems emerge from the fact that in the last ten years Italian audiences have had the benefit of a huge free offering of programs of many kinds. In each hour of the day, it has been possible to choose among a great variety of fiction, talk shows, variety shows, and game shows.

At the same time, however, large financial resources are no longer readily available to television producers and distributors. Advertising revenues for mass consumption products and services are decreasing and there is a need for more restricted and better defined targets. The fees that Italians pay for public television will not be accepted much longer by the public, yet two thirds of the income for RAI comes from these fees. These problems must solved in the near future as Italian television reshapes itself once again.

-Giovanni Bechelloni


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See also Berlusconi, Silvio; European Union: Television Policy