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Citizen B: The Legacy of Silvio Berlusconi's TV Empire

By Celluloid Liberation Front | Indiewire October 30, 2012 at 11:13AM

"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
Erik Gandini's 2009 documentary 'Videocracy'
Lorber Films Erik Gandini's 2009 documentary 'Videocracy'

"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.

'Citizen Kane'
'Citizen Kane'

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?

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco

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.

'Drive In'
'Drive In'

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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, Silvio Berlusconi

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