Italy (population 58.4 million) is one of the founding members of the EU. It is a parliamentary republic; general elections are held every five years. The electoral system, formerly a mix of majoritarian rule and proportional representation, was changed to purely proportional before the general election of 2006. Governments and political parties have always displayed an acute sensitivity over issues of communication and information, and have produced legislation and regulations that have allowed political power to exert tight control over the broadcasting media and to keep the press in check, mostly by means of the lottizzazione, a partitioning of the political parties’ grasp on all sectors of communication. The “political parallelism” model (Hallin & Mancini 2004) explains such close connections between politics and news media in Italy.
Until the mid-1970s the country’s media landscape was made up of the radio and television channels of the public broadcasting company Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) and of a dozen publishing houses that printed hundreds of newspapers and weekly magazines. After a historic pronouncement by the Constitutional Court in 1976 that allowed private companies to enter into the formerly monopolized broadcasting market, the situation changed rapidly and radically. Between 1976 and 1990, more than 500 local television and about 2,500 radio stations were established. It is in those years, interestingly with an almost total lack of legislation, that an entrepreneur who had struck gold in real estate and construction, Silvio Berlusconi, entered into broadcasting and in a short time put up three nationwide television networks, which are still today the backbone of his multifaceted communication empire.
RAI gradually lost its central position, even though it grew hugely, stimulated by the competition of Berlusconi’s commercial networks, but eventually contained by the thresholds to advertising imposed by the law. The 15 years of wild deregulation ended in 1990 when Parliament passed a broadcasting act that essentially legitimized the Darwinian evolution of the domestic broadcasting system. This meant the recognition of a duopoly between RAI and Mediaset (Berlusconi’s company), each with three networks. The law failed to introduce measures to leave the door open to other players in the domestic market, and the situation remained the same until Berlusconi’s government, in 2004, passed a controversial law that not only strengthened the existing duopoly but also extended it to the new digital television sector.
Normative And Legal Framework
Reform is in prospect at the time of writing, but meanwhile, the media system is regulated by several laws and regulations, not always clear cut and easily applicable. It is worth noting that, in the context of the instability of legislatures and governments over the years, and the inconsistency and discontinuity in law-making on the part of the political world, the Constitutional Court played a key role in implementing some critical measures regarding the media system. Its ruling in 1976 that allowed commercial broadcasting showed the courage to start deregulating broadcasting despite RAI’s strong position. Several other Court decisions, not always implemented by government and Parliament, deeply affected the development of the regulation of the media sectors.
The following laws have had a strong influence on the structure and development of the Italian media system. A law passed in 1975 reformed RAI, transferring control from the government’s hands to Parliament. The law created a bi-cameral commission representing all political parties, with significant power in appointing the governing body of RAI and in issuing guidance for public service programs. The Press Law passed in 1981 rescued the newspaper industry from financial crisis by providing public subsidies to publishers, and introduced legal barriers to concentration of ownership in the hands of industrial trusts. In 1990 Parliament passed a law that preserved the role of public service broadcasting, and entrusted it to a publicly owned company; it also recognized the rights of private enterprises to run broadcasting activities and allowed RAI and Berlusconi to own three television network licenses each.
In 1997 the Authority for Communications was established as an independent body with several tasks in the fields of telecommunications and electronic and printed media, a body whose president, however, is appointed by the prime minister. The law introduced restrictions on the number of licenses (down from three to two) for terrestrial television (never enforced, due to political stalemate). In 2000 the Par condicio (equal opportunity law) introduced strict regulation for political broadcasts particularly during campaigns and elections. Finally, in 2004 the Gasparri Law (named after the minister of communications) was passed. It inaugurated digital terrestrial television, reinstated the possibility of owning three licenses for television networks, and set out the various steps and conditions for a partial privatization of RAI.
The regulatory bodies of the broadcasting sector are the above-mentioned Authority for Communications (AGCOM), with a wide range of tasks from telecommunications to new media; the Authority for Competition (AGCM), with anti-trust functions; and the Parliamentary Commission of Vigilance on RAI, with authority only on matters concerning the public service. An interesting peculiarity of Italy’s journalism is the regulation of the profession by a law (No. 69/1963). To be admitted into the official list of “professional journalists” one has to pass a public examination. Various attempts to reform the law, in light of the liberalization of professions, failed and the “Ordine dei giornalisti” continues to condition access.
Overall there exist about 140 daily newspapers in Italy, owned by a dozen publishing companies, the most important of which are Gruppo RCS (Il Corriere della Sera and La Gazzetta dello Sport), Gruppo L’Espresso (La Repubblica), Gruppo Caltagirone (Il Messaggero), Gruppo Monti (Il Resto del Carlino), Editoriale La Stampa (La Stampa), and Il Sole 24 Ore, some of which run also several regional and city newspapers.
Italy does not excel in newspaper circulation and readership rates. In addition there is no tradition of a popular or tabloid press. In 2004 the copies sold per 1,000 inhabitants were 149, in contrast to the 650 of Norway and the 67 of Greece (WAN 2005). The average daily circulation in 2005 was 5.9 million (FIEG 2005), whereas the number of readers in an average day is 20.9 million, i.e., 41 percent of the adult population. The free press (three major dailies) is a recent and successful phenomenon, which reached a circulation of 1.6 million copies in 2004. Experts have very diverse explanations for the low penetration rate of the daily press: from the too “literary” flavor (Hallin & Mancini 2004) of much Italian printed journalism, to an excess of political content in the news, to the competition of other outlets, among which the new media like the Internet play a considerable role. On the other hand, the market for the tabloid press is quite lively and achieves higher readership penetration rates, with 67.6 percent (33.9 million) readers.
The RAI-Mediaset duopoly and the competition between the two is reflected very clearly in the picture and the figures of the domestic television market. RAI runs three major channels: Rai Uno, Rai Due, and Rai Tre. Mediaset runs Canale 5, rete 4, and Italia 1. The public broadcasting company draws most of its revenues from the license fee (57.7 percent of the total returns in 2005) and from advertising (41 percent). Mediaset, being a commercial venture, lives only on advertising and on sale of rights. Beside the two giants other minor companies operate in the domestic market, the most important of which are Telecom Italia Media and Sky Italia (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and mostly in the business of pay-TV). Most of the channels offer generalist content, i.e., a mix of news, entertainment, and fiction. RAI channels carry significant quotas of educational and cultural programs, though, according to critics, not enough to live up to its peculiar public service mission. To compete with commercial channels, RAI has scheduled a large number of entertainment programs, often very similar to those of its commercial competitors.
The Italian radio sector is more fragmented, with hundreds of local stations, mostly associated in different forms with fewer than 20 nationwide networks. The networks of the public radio have the lion’s share, but a few commercial/all-music channels have very high audience rates as well (AGCOM 2006).
The Gasparri Law in 2004 launched terrestrial digital television and set the date for an end to analog television in 2008. To make this possible the Berlusconi government subsidized the buying of decoders. By the end of 2005, the number of decoders was 3.5 million. However, the new digital channels have rapidly turned into a sort of pay-TV, competing with satellite TV for premium contents (football, games, movies, TV series). The government elected in 2006 stated its intention to introduce major changes in the development of the digital television sector and to delay the switch-off of analog signals to 2012.
The use of the Internet and especially of broadband has registered significant increases since the early 2000s. In 2005 there were 9.2 million households with access to the net and 18.3 million web users. The diffusion of broadband (6.8 million more users 2004 – 2005) is associated with an increase in the demand and supply of innovative applications such as VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and IPTV (Internet Protocol TV). In the latter sector, Telecom Italia is seeking joint ventures with information and content providers like Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Italy’s mobile telephone market is one of the largest and liveliest in Europe. The overall value of this sector was a19.6 billion in 2005. The UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) services of the four mobile companies had been subscribed to by 10 million people at the end of 2005 with a forecast of 25 million by the end of 2007. The 2006 soccer World Cup opened the way to the new venture of mobile television (with DVB-H [Digital Video Broadcasting – Handheld] technology). The enthusiastic acceptance by users of this new service has prompted analysts to issue optimistic forecasts for future development in this sector.
Overall, the Italian media system shares most of the features of other European media markets, while being sharply distinctive in what has been termed an “anomaly” in the European landscape, i.e., the unique concentration of television channels and other media in the hands of one single trust with strong interests also in the political arena. The “Berlusconi factor” deeply marked the development of both Italy’s media and political systems, bringing about a contamination that to a certain extent has always been typical of the national “parallelism” between politics and the media. This has raised a great deal of concern for the quality of the democratic process in Italy, even if it was an exaggeration to fear a “videocracy” when Berlusconi took power in 1994 and in 2001 (Mazzoleni 1995, 2004). Berlusconi lost the elections in 1996 and in 2006, notwithstanding his exceptional media power. Nevertheless, the weakness of the Italian media system lies in its strong connection with the political powers (no matter what coalition runs the country), which makes it dependent on the political system even in its industrial policies, in the ambiguous legislation that has left large margins for abuses, and in the limited power of the regulatory bodies.
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- WAN (World Association of Newspapers) (2005). World press trends 2005. At www.wan-press.org.