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.
''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.
The million-dollar contract caused a furor, both with the public and in Parliament. Even the prime minister himself questioned the ethics of such extravagant expenditure of public money. RAI, which operates on state funds, license fees, and advertising, has a fixed income. Its advertising revenue is fixed by Parliament each year - this year's ceiling income is $310 million. ''Yet there is no law to stop private channels from attracting inordinate advertising, while we are limited by law in both earnings and advertising time, which is only 5 percent of total transmission time,'' says Mr. Gamaleri at RAI.
In fact, private stations make the most of their commercial freedom by bombarding viewers with ads about every seven minutes, to the fury of film directors who see their erstwhile classics mercilessly dissected with appeals to lowbrow consumerism.
''I always watch RAI,'' says one Rome housewife. ''I can't stand the ads on private TV.'' And a recent market survey showed that, of 500 families monitored while watching TV, over 70 percent said they totally reject the commercial spots.
Yet enough viewers - and especially young ones - are undeterred by ads. ''I don't know anyone who watches RAI,'' says a 24-year-old office worker. ''All my friends watch private TV.'' One station shows only music videos 24 hours a day. Other main private stations offer a diet heavily seasoned with police series, soap operas, cartoons, and films imported from the United States.
Although this year's budget for Italia Uno and Canale 5 calls for cuts in spending on foreign programs, they have learned to cultivate and keep a hefty audience for ''Dallas,'' ''Dynasty,'' and ''Flamingo Road'' among Italians and foreign visitors. Their ambitions also ran to offering $8.5 million for the Italian rights to the Los Angeles Olympics. But Mr. Scandalaro says ''political pressures made us withdraw the offer.''
Although Parliament is far from agreeing on a TV transmission law, private television stations have already been in trouble with local law-enforcers. Recently, magistrates in three regions confiscated TV-radio links that, they contended, transmitted beyond the local limit laid down by the state. For more than a week, viewers in those regions were deprived of their soap operas and quiz shows. The public outcry was such that Parliament hastily reinstated the status quo, with a decree that for the next year TV stations should operate at least on a basis of equality until a permanent law is passed. The furor also showed the extent to which this unchecked phenomenon has spread, now claiming almost half the country's viewers.
The local magistrates' latest move has taken away another favorite item on the local small screen. Several small stations run TV auctions of furniture, paintings, jewelry, carpets, and fur coats. Viewers phone in offers as the items appear on the screen. These sales were carefully monitored by authorities a year ago after one viewer recognized, and bought, a piece of jewelry that had been stolen from her the year before.
Recently 12 private stations in the Rome area were accused of running auctions without the necessary license from the Rome police authorities and were shut down. As a result much bitterness spread through the small TV companies. One private TV official complained: ''It's all very well to strike out at small companies like us. On the one hand, it might push the legislators to speed up their law. On the other hand, by the time they make a law, there may not be any TV stations left