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With TV unregulated, anarchy reigns on Italy's airwaves

By Janet StobartSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 1984


The Italian Parliament is the scene of overheated discussions these days as, among other squabbles, parliamentarians haggle to produce a workable law to cope with the lawless state of Italy's private television networks.

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''They are the biggest illegality going,'' a private network employee says. Private television stations began sprouting all over the country after a constitutional ruling in 1976 stated that RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana), Italy's state-sponsored TV and radio, did not have a monopoly on nationwide TV transmission. Private television stations are authorized to transmit locally, though only recorded, not live, programs. The lack of further regulation has helped turn the country's ''biggest illegality'' into one of its biggest advertising businesses - 50 percent of Italian advertising is done on television.

In the early stages of the no-holds-barred race to set up local stations, some 800 TV operations were estimated to be in business - often for just as long as their money lasted. Like their counterparts in private radio stations, TV operators transmitted 24 hours a day, their programs ranging from fuzzily transmitted old films to all-night pornography. Housewives applied for ''starring'' roles in late-night strip shows, and bleary-eyed office workers would compare notes on last night's entertainment over their morning coffee break.

The anarchic antenna-race now numbers about 200 serious competitors, but there is still no definite or official count. ''There is no way to monitor them, '' says Giampaolo Gamaleri, assistant to the director general of state-run RAI-TV. ''All you have to do is find the equipment and an unoccupied frequency and start your own TV station.''

Sharp investors soon turned a haphazard amateur market into a professional growth industry, and some half dozen full-fledged TV stations and networks now operate on a national scale, while keeping their transmissions theoretically local.

Of these, the most successful is the Milan-based Canale 5, whose owner, Silvio Berlusconi, has bought majority shares in two other major private TV concerns, Italia Uno and Rete Quattro. ''It may be months before there is a law to restrict TV ownership,'' says one TV advertising executive, ''But there is little doubt in TV circles that Mr. Berlusconi will have to reduce his television interests.''

Meanwhile, Berlusconi's stations function almost on a professional par with state TV. Canale 5 claims 3.3 million prime-time viewers, according to latest meter system statistics, second only to RAI Channels 1 and 2. Berlusconi secures simultaneously transmitted nationwide programs by dispatching videotapes , via planes, trucks, and motorbikes, to his 27 repeating stations up and down the country 24 hours in advance of transmission time. His organization feels hampered by the veto on live broadcasting. ''While 18 million viewers watch the state-run news broadcasts between 7:45 and 8:30 p.m.,'' says Alberto Scandalaro, one of Berlusconi's chief assistants, ''we have an audience of 3 to 3.5 million. Our job is to make them switch channels when they are settled in for an evening's watching.''

To do this, most of Italy's leading commercial stations are investing more heavily in home-produced quiz and variety programs. The nation's favorite quizmaster, Italo-American Mike Bongiorno, has been wooed away from RAI by Canale 5 for a Thursday night quiz show. And RAI had to offer a mammoth $1.25 million contract to popular compere and showgirl Raffaela Carra, to keep her from the clutches of Berlusconi and from abandoning her highly successful midday talk and phone-in show on RAI's first channel, the all-purpose family channel directed by the conservative Christian Democratic faction of RAI.