Is it arrivederci to cleavage and sexism on Italian TV?

Could Italian television, the original temple of TV sexism, be on the cusp of a new, enlightened era? That's the question some feminists are daring to whisper this week after decades battling the relentless parade of well-endowed 6ft blondes twirling in scanty costumes at the beck and call of irritating, 50-year-old, 5ft male hosts, that Italian viewers face every night.

The source of campaigners' new optimism is the formation of a new anti-sexism watchdog that will crack down on the gratuitous use of young female flesh by state-funded Rai TV.

The "independent observation" panel will have responsibility, in the words of one of its parliamentary backers, for ensuring "the correct representation of people's dignity, with particular emphasis on the distorted representation of women".

The panel has been written into Rai's new contract and approved by ministers. If it spots too much flesh or female stereotyping it will report back to the Rai commission in parliament, which has the power to censure programme-makers.

Giovanna Melandri, the Democratic Party MP and a member of the Rai commission in parliament, said there was a long way to go in reforming Italian TV but she said the tide was finally turning. "Is this the beginning of a revolution? We hope so. With the creation of the panel to monitor the way women are portrayed on state TV we hope to curb the use of women as mere decorative images," she said.

Silvia Costa, an Italian member of the European Parliament, agreed: "I'm very satisfied that this amendment that has been approved will allow a more realistic representation of women in our country."

But this week, when Il Giornale, the right-wing daily owned by the Berlusconi family tutted about "moralising" by "post-communist types", campaigners were no doubt reminded that even if Rai turns over a new leaf, the other half of Italian TV, owned by the media mogul premier Silvio Berlusconi, is at the very least likely to drag its heels. Or at worst dig its stilettos firmly into the studio floor. Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset channels could reasonably be said to take their lead from their philandering owner, who is well known for his sexist diatribes.

Observers note, however, that even at Mediaset there are signs that latent feminist sentiments – or at least marketing instincts – are surfacing with the launch this month of its own women's channel La5.

Further evidence that even Mediaset sees the need to change came recently when it allowed a female presenter a stint on its top-rated evening satire show Striscia La Notizia (Hot off the Press), which despite its pretensions of sophistication, still employs dancing girls in hot pants to flesh out the programme.

In allowing smart, and pretty, television high-flyer Michelle Hunziker several weeks as guest presenter, the programme makers only succeeded in highlighting how backward its current portrayal of women actually is.

But one Mediaset comedy writer, who declined to be named, told The Independent that people hoping for a radical change on Italian television shouldn't hold their breath.

"Every five years some politician realises that Italian TV is too sexist, and tries to change that. It never worked and I'm not sure it will work this time," he said.

"It would be like trying to stop us eating pizza: showing sexy girls on TV is so ingrained in our daily life that it can't be stopped anymore. I really believe that."

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