Published March 11, 2005
Italy has some 640 channels, a full quarter of the world’s 2500 television channels. You would think that they wouldn’t want for variety. And yet, as you flick through the infinite number of channels, they all seem to be showing the same program. What is this that so absorbs the Italians? Nostalgic reminiscnces about the Roman Empire? The finer points of Renaissance Art? The infinite variety of Mediterranean cooking?
No, it seems that almost every program on offer is some sort of semi-pornographic version of the Eurovision song contest. While the rest of the continent seems to think one night of the year of this is more than enough to suit most people’s needs (at least in the Golden Age before Idol), Italians seem to make do with this year round. And in 640 different versions, no less. What gives?
Heaving Cleavages and the Public Eye
The average Italian spends around four hours a day in front of a television set.
Almost all presenters intertwine promotional messages into their programming. This is in addition to regular advertising, which comes on every few minutes. Adding insult to injury, the ads are actually broadcast at a higher volume than regular programming. So what’s the attraction of watching television where this is what’s on offer?
British journalist Tobias Jones, author of The Dark Heart of Italy, writes, “Breasts are ubiquitous, even boringly so…Italy is the land that feminism forgot. It’s not that there aren’t many successful women in Italy, it’s that they’re never in the public eye. Unless they come with heaving cleavages.” 640 channels of lotteries, horoscopes, TV markets, and heaving breasts everywhere. How did it come to this?
The Best Films in the World
In the 50s and 60s, directors like Fellini, Pasolini and Visconti made some of the most interesting films being made anywhere. At the time, state company RAI ran Italian TV wholesale. When, in 1976, broadcasting was opened up to the private sector, one might have been forgiven for thinking that a country with such directorial talent and such a long history of visual artistry would produce first rate television, once the restraints had been lifted. The new media law, introduced that year, stated that RAI would still retain the rights to nationwide broadcasting, but private stations could broadcast locally.
In 1978, the first private television station, Telemilano, started broadcasting in the outskirts of Milan. Its owner was a man called Silvio Berlusconi, best known as owner of the popular local football club AC Milan. He was soon to become a household name.
Sesame Street for Beginners
By 1980, there were 1300 local television stations. But Telemilano circumvented the law that said private channels could only broadcast locally by having its local channels broadcast the same programs at the same time, and had the most popular fare such as Dynasty and Dallas. Italy was moving from culture exporter to culture importer. The government had no choice but to legalize private national broadcasting as well.
Telemilano, renamed Canale 5, bought out their major competitors Italia Uno and Rete 4, which then formed the Mediaset group, owned by Berlusconi. Mediaset then bought most of the remaining independent channels. Mediaset’s advertising was handled by the advertising company Publitalia, also owned by Berlusconi, which today handles about 60% of Italy’s television advertising market. Tobias Jones concludes of Berlusconi’s broadcasting empire, “Watching Mediaset is like watching Sesame Street without the clever bits.”
If this makes you want to go out and rent a video instead you can at the local Blockbuster, also owned by Berlusconi. Small wonder he’s not only Italy’s richest individual, but ranks at 45th richest in the world.
Who Wouldn’t Want to Be Rich?
But too much is of course never enough. Berlusconi entered politics, and currently holds the post of Italy’s prime minister. This gives him a huge influence over the still existent state television channels, previously the only televised media out of his reach.
Upon running for office, he claimed he intended to sell his Mediaset channels to avoid any conflict of interest. Once elected, he instead passed a law making the prime minister immune from any corruption charges.
Berlusconi’s popularity, at least among a large part of the population, comes from two sources. Partly because he’s rich. And who wouldn’t want to be rich? This has made him a hero to many. The other reason is his uncanny ability to present himself as man of the people fighting against government legislation. Until, of course, he and the government became one and the same.
Why TV Matters
And who’d have thunk it, but culture actually matters. Spanish cinema was for a long time living in Italy’s shadow, the Spaniards having no equivalent to Fellini, Visconti and Pasolini. Two decades ago, Italians were buying twice as many cinema tickets as the Spaniards. Now, the Spanish are going more often to the cinema, and Italy has no equivalent to Almodóvar or bright young thing Alejandro Amenábar (director of The Sea Inside). Of course, Spanish language films have a built-in market in South America and even in the US, whereas Italy previously succeeded in spite of language, this no longer seems to be the case.
The decline of Italian cinema versus Spanish cinema is symptomatic of a bigger trend. Spain, with a population of 40 million, has created 4.5 million new jobs in the past decade; Italy, with a population of 58 million, has created half that number. In Spain, poverty is declining; in Italy, it is rising. Perhaps the decline in culture has led to the economic decline; perhaps it is the other way around. But the decline of Italian cinema has probably not been taking place in a void away from the decline of Italian television.
As the Italian screenwriter Alberto Marini, currently working in Spain, says in a recent edition of Newsweek, “Italian cinema keeps making comedies with the same actors, reproducing the same things and pretending they are new.”
When people spend half of their non-working, non-sleeping hours watching TV, is it too fanciful to suppose that it matters what they watch?