“People have willingly lobotomized themselves with the aid of TV, we are living in a landscape of enormous fictions of which television is the supplier. Reality is now a kind of huge advertising campaign selling television’s image of what life is about. A politician’s lies are the new truth; TV wars are the new peace. Alienation is the new togetherness.”
— JG Ballard
It’s not by chance that one of the most influential movies ever made, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” recounts the exploits of a media tycoon and his megalomaniac empire-building. And it’s perhaps not by chance either that the first case — of the countless Silvio Berlusconi is implicated in — that saw the former Italian Prime Minister being sentenced to jail along with Hollywood producer Frank Agrama on October 26 is related to broadcasting rights. Though popular belief in Italy and especially abroad has Berlusconi as the cause of Italy’s problems, more realistically speaking he is the outcome of these problems. He embodies a social syndrome whose causes cannot be exclusively attributed to him.
Berlusconi, rather than a person, is better understood as a metaphor, a socio-cultural phenomenon describing the colliding trajectory of shallow entertainment and politics. To look at how Italian television changed under Berlusconi is to look at the transformations that Italian society underwent in the past 30 years toward its inexorable alignment with the Anglo-American model. Like Nixon and Reagan before him, Berlusconi’s background is in his cheap entertainment. His rule began long before his official debut in politics; the innovations he introduced via his privately owned TV channels already contained the very matter of his dubious political conduct. Far from being some sort of biblical plague inflicted on the Italian population, Berlusconi’s mass-mediated dominion implied and simultaneously fed a shared value system, a new secular religion: consumerism.
Berlusconi, to use an expression dear to the free marketers, supplied what the public demanded. Admittedly, he did so in a fraudulent fashion that in 1992 faced him with the compelling choice of going to jail or into politics. He opted for the latter to enjoy parliamentary immunity and pass a couple of tailor-made laws while at it. A close look at the TV programs aired by Mediaset (his broadcast company) in the 1980s — when few even knew who Berlusconi was — reveals in startling detail the very crookedness and underlying moral standards now on trial. Indignant liberals outraged at Berlusconi’s (mis)behavior have had the exact same thing on primetime TV every day for a very long time. Pornocratic rule has been in place for the last three decades on Italian screens, with its generous assortment of scantly dressed women in provocative poses. Barely veiled sex parties took place pretty much every day on TV in front of everybody’s eyes. Hardly anyone ever complained. Why?
Berlusconi liberalized the Italian television market. He introduced commercial TV in Italy, multiplying the offerings from three state-owned RAI (Italian Radiotelevision) channels that jumped to six thanks to Mediaset’s three new networks. How? Berlusconi broadcast on private channels nationwide at a time when they could only transmit regionally, breaching the law first and having it changed in parliament later by his mentor and spiritual father, Socialist PM Bettino Craxi. From educational programming that featured basic literacy and numeracy instruction, Italians could now freely tune into flashier and more entertaining channels. Freedom of choice — that legendary tenet of western democracies — exorcised the specter of Communism from Italian TV screens, though Berlusconi insists on alleging an unfathomable “Communist conspiracy” for his judicial odyssey.
Luminaries such as avant-garde composer Luciano Berio and cultural theorist Umberto Eco (who both worked for RAI programs in the ’60s), were replaced by third-rate comedians. Narcotizing buffoons of the lowest rank swamped the country that gave birth to the only comedian ever to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Dario Fo. Political satire, critical thought and informative journalism were eclipsed by collective idiocy. Political tribunes where two distinct ideological blocks would confront each other made way to performative duels where looks, charisma and the right jokes could win you an election (look no further than Mitt Romney’s sudden rise in popularity for elucidating purposes). As the historical contraposition between Catholics and Communists that had characterized post-war Italy came to an end in the late ’70s, consumer culture became the new universal belief (as presciently predicted by director Pier Paolo Pasolini). Berlusconi’s television captured, incarnated and presided over this epochal change, moulding the Italian consciousness into an anthropological abortion.
Pivotal to Berlusconi’s televisual influence and commercial innovations is the figure of Antonio Ricci, a man, in the words of Variety, “who, with his penchant for comedy and variety, changed the face of Italian television.” Indeed. If programming had, up to then, mainly targeted families with quiz shows, song contests and populist spectacles that appealed to multiple generations of viewers, Ricci’s schedule attracted a younger, snappier audience. His series had a new rhythm — catchier, funnier and flashier, with new narrative devices allowing for more commercial breaks whose tones and aesthetics seamlessly blended into his programmes.
“Drive In” is perhaps the single most significant show epitomizing ’80s Berlusconian TV, one whose very title leaves no doubts as to its geopolitical source of inspiration. The program revolutionized the rules of Italian shows with a new set, the titular “drive in,” an apolitical superficiality and a pace so different that actor Vittorio Gassman will declare “after ‘Drive In’ I had to change rhythm in my theatre plays too.” Another crucial innovation was the introduction of curvy female objects whose presence characterizes Berlusconi’s TV and private life to this day. Seriality, a relatively alien concept for Italian audiences, was introduced. In 1981, after a brief and unsuccessful stint on public television, Mediaset acquired and aired the American franchise “Dallas” on prime time, turning it into an audience favourite.
What had up to then represented a marginal and exotic curiosity seeped into the pores of the nation. The plastic and predatory spirit of Reagan’s America spoke now Dante’s language. Recurrent satirical characters distinguished by a limited and repetitive set of jokes dominated TV shows; neologisms coined by the series’ protagonists would become part of the national vocabulary. The nagging repetition of the same lame gags mirrored a new, individualized form of urban alienation, with privacy being publicly exhibited on television. Fast food restaurants and shopping malls started making their appearance in Italian cities (Berlusconi’s reign originates from his native Milan, the most industrially and technologically advanced city in Italy).
A post-ideological Italy obsessed with wealth, notoriety and status-seeking ambitions was forever immortalized in Mediaset’s programs. It was not a pleasant sight, but it was a very popular one. For the first time in its history, Italy could now listen to recorded laughs mechanically triggered by stale jokes. “Laugh, you idiot, or someone else will laugh at you” seemed to be the underlying motto. Hypnotized by this synthetic sirens’ song, Italians would retreat from public life and squares, desert street life to elect television as their new polis. The end of grand political narratives and the defeat of domestic dissent were succeeded by the unattainable dream of fame and success. The possibility of daily joys, humble pleasures and ordinary fulfilment was hijacked by illusory and over-sexualized promises, as shining as unrealizable.
It was the catastrophic triumph of form over content, packaging over substance; a TV format where the space for interpretation and antagonism was erased. Homologation parading as freedom is the quintessential quality of Berlusconi’s TV. Another program authored by Antonio Ricci that now feels almost conspiratorial — though featuring Italian citizens as the conspirators themselves — is “Fantastico,” with comedian Beppe Grillo. Grillo is now the political leader of an emerging and eerily successful party running a campaign based on indifference, racism and dubious slogans like “They are all thieves!” whose overall significance is better described by the Italian term qualunquismo, which literally translates as “whatever-ism.”
As long as Berlusconi shaped the media landscape and therefore the political life of the country from a distance, opposition to his new cultural model was marginal. When he became the official representative of the state thanks to his preliminary “cultural revolution,” opposition grew stronger and more hypocritical. No mainstream political faction ever proposed to unhinge or even to address the socio-cultural contrivances that allowed Berlusconi to thrive in impunity. Critiques are always brought against him, not his significance nor his national rootedness. He effectively emerged as this evil entity, when in reality his professional résumé is no different from a Rupert Murdoch (except in terms of global reach) and his political moves not dissimilar from a Tony Blair (they both privatized public services and invaded sovereign countries).
Murdoch and Blair never completely lost their legitimacy primarily because they stuck to their respective roles. Berlusconi, with his exhibitionism, shocked spectators worldwide precisely because he violated the unwritten distinction between political rule and lobby. He clung to power like an oil-rich sheik, personifying the merging of soft and hard power, politics and entertainment, which in other western “democracies” remain distinct affairs, interdependent, but still distinct. Here lies his exceptionalism. For the rest Berlusconi incarnated the modern imperative of democratic capitalism, destructive enjoyment, immaculately encapsulated by hip-hop artist 50 Cent in his ruthless aphorism “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” Whether you get to that through Wall Street via Harvard Business School or through the barrel of a gun or, like Berlusconi, thanks to the institutional fragility of your country, seems to be a matter of secondary importance.
Why follow the rules when those who take shortcuts not only get away with it but are also hailed as “great men” and “achievers”? What’s important is to be successful — contemporary society stigmatizes “losers” and rewards winners, encouraging people to do whatever it takes to “become somebody.” Berlusconi did become somebody, and he did so with huge democratic support, cheered forth by the same audience who had dreamt of fame and success in front of his television screens. While publicly denying his wrongdoings, Berlusconi can still rely on the conniving complicity of half of the country that repeatedly overlooked, when not overtly applauding, his every move. The other half has yet to come up with a credible alternative, which leaves us with a country unlikely to change overnight after Berlusconi’s demise.