The worst television in Europe crying out for reform

On Sunday, Italy holds a referendum to decide whether Berlusconi should sell his TV channels.
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Even without Sunday's referendums on media ownership, Italy's television regulations were long overduefor overhaul. Fashioned in the narrow interests of the country's political parties, the television stations leave much to be desired - whether in the private or public sector.

"We are a G7 country that claims to be advanced, yet our television is 10 years behind the times. The idea of having a state monopoly on one side and a private monopoly on the other is positively medieval," says Paolo Garimberti, a former news director on RAI2, the second of the three state channels.

For years, the RAI was carved up along political lines, with the first channel controlled by the Christian Democrats, the second by the Socialists and the third by the Communists. Although nominally a public service broadcaster financed in part by licence payments, the RAI bears few of the characteristics of its foreign counterparts, such as the BBC - it carries no educational or children's programmes, no programmes for minorities, few concerts or plays, and classic films only in the dead of night. Despite the licence fee, it advertises heavily.

When he first burst on to the airwaves in the late Seventies, Silvio Berlusconi claimed to be a new broom sweeping away the old habits of Italian broadcasting. In fact, he owed his rise to the same political system that created the unwieldy bureaucracy at the RAI. Mr Berlusconi's political mentor was Bettino Craxi, leader of the Socialist Party and prime minister from 1983 to 1987.

It was thanks to his political links that Mr Berlusconi's company, Fininvest, was able to build up its three national networks - Retequattro, Italia Uno and Canale 5 - which today enjoy a virtual monopoly of the private sector. Nominally, there are six other national networks, but only one, Telemontecarlo,reaches an audience rating of even 5 per cent. Fininvest has 42 per cent to the RAI's 48 per cent.

A broadcasting law passed in 1990 and named after the then telecommunications minister Oscar Mammi effectively underwrote Mr Berlusconi's domination of the market and gave him the media back-up he needed to launch his entry into politics in 1994.

While prime minister, Mr Berlusconi pledged to reform broadcasting. But the only noticeable reform was the removal of the heads of RAI's three channels and their respective news programmes, and their replacement with acolytes of Mr Berlusconi's right-wing coalition government. As a result, the RAI has come to resembleFininvest, with a diet of game shows, trashy imported serials and sex 'n' crime news bulletins. Documentaries and discussion programmes have been axed.

Parliament has been discussing possible reforms to the system for months, but with Mr Berlusconi a player in politics as well as broadcasting, a solution acceptable to all was impossible to find. Sunday's referendums - which refer to three specific provisions in the Mammi law - were therefore proposed as a way out of the impasse.

Whatever the result, however, parliament will have to draw up new rules which may reduce the number of stations controlled by the RAI as well as those owned by Fininvest. Deputies will have to work out a time-frame to allow new investors to get a proper foothold in the market, and make provisions for satellite and cable television, both of which are at a primitive stage in Italy.