Mamma’s RAI TV Child is Fifty

By Dom Serafini

In Italy, RAI, the state’s public service broadcaster, is considered the mother of all Italians. First, because, with its radio programs and especially with the advent of television, it really unified the country under one single language (instead of a myriad of local dialects incomprehensible to all) and, second, because it nurtured a large group of artistic talents: from classic music to modern; from movies to TV epics; from journalism to literature. RAI spearheaded the creation of European organizations (such as the EBU in 1950), international radio-TV festivals (such as Prix Italia in 1948), the development of digital TV (Eureka-256 in 1988) and, in the U.S., the International Emmys (in New York in 1971).

Plus, it lent support to various other world firsts: a film festival (in Venice in 1932) and a market for filmed entertainment (MIFED in Milan in 1960).

For the 21 years that RAI maintained its monopoly on television broadcasts, it shaped two generations of Italians, who took the Nation from an underdeveloped country, to the sixth largest economy in the world, and, in entertainment, one of the world’s eight top territories that, for an independent movie, was worth seven percent of the costs of the negative.

RAI influenced every aspect of Italian life: from marking the bed-time of children in the ’60s (after the 9 p.m. “Carosello,” a carousel of clustered TV spots) to their education; from social attire (décolleté on TV was banned in the early ’60s), to the types of pop music listened to (sexy or politicized lyrics were banned).

Throughout the years, RAI has been the source of program financing for the whole Italian entertainment community, the political support-base for all politicians and the keeper of social mores for the entire country.

Until recently, RAI’s budget simply consisted of money spent the previous year: those seemingly unlimited funds not only programmed TV channels, but were used to promote political patronage. However, while in the past Italian television covered politics, today politics is all about control of television.

At one point, RAI’s three TV channels were divided among the most influential political parties: to the (then) large Christian Democrats went the First TV Network (now RAI-1), who shared it with the Vatican officials; to the (then) powerful Socialists went the Second TV Network (now RAI-2); and to the Communists went the less popular Third TV Network (RAI-3).

This spoil system and political patronage has been both a curse and a blessing for RAI and the Nation: On one side, the splintered and divided management system has at times, caused paralysis and confusion, but, on the other hand, it has assured a well-balanced and democratic access to all concerned, as long as the access was backed by a political party or even a single politician.

Today, RAI’s two TV channels are controlled by the governing center-right coalition parties, while the opposition still has RAI-3. The governing coalition is headed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who’s also the owner of Mediaset, Italy’s largest commercial TV operator.

RAI has been the economy’s exhaust valve for many of Italy’s numerous governments, unleashing its TV power to stimulate consumers’ spending or closing it to reduce inflation. For example, the introduction of color TV was delayed out of fear that, a run for new TV sets, would spark cost increases. Reportedly, the delay of color TV was also caused by in-fighting between politicians who were receiving financial support either from the French, who developed the SECAM standard, or the German who created the PAL system.

Today, technology has changed but the scenario is the same, in the sense that, once again RAI is called upon to control the course of events: this time to expedite the introduction of digital terrestrial television (DTT) in order to keep Rete-4, one of Berlusconi’s three TV networks, on terrestrial frequencies. (With its multiplexes, DTT will increase the number of national TV channels, thus bringing Berlusconi’s TV ownership below the 20 percent limit decreed by the Italian Supreme Court.)

RAI is a very close “mother” to roughly 10,000 people who work there, plus an unspecified number of consultants and freelance experts, making of it one of Italy’s largest employers and a great talent pool for the entertainment industry. RAI management is structured from top to bottom, meaning that executives are always looking above (but only if directives come from the right politically-connected manager), disregarding what springs from below.

However, creativity, imagination, a large workforce, the professionalism of a few executives, and survival skills, added to the riches of a well-financed organization, more than compensate for the lack of organizational skills necessary to deliver a highly professional TV product.

RAI also played an important role for the Italian Diaspora, keeping a close interest on Italians living overseas who also see RAI as a “mother.” This is in spite of the ambiguous attitude of the politicians who, for varied reasons, never trusted the Italians abroad. Now that the Italians overseas are allowed to vote for the Italian elections, after 46 years of parliamentary entanglements, and because of RAI overseas radio-TV services (now celebrating 40 years of service), RAI is assuming an added importance as it helps shape the votes of an estimated three million people outside Italy.