Italy: Silvio Berlusconi's Media Empire

Berlusconi.jpg Silvio Berlusconi image by chakom
Berlusconi.jpg Silvio Berlusconi image by chakom

By: Liz Rogers, Annika Dawson, Ashley Novack

History of Media in Italy Before Berlusconi (Liz Rogers)

When World War II ended in 1945 the restrictions of the fascist government was lifted and Italian filmmakers began to produce films about a realistic portrayal of Italy. These films displayed the devastations from the war, the hardships of rebuilding a disheveled country, the poverty throughout their nation, and the world of the lower classes. It was a transformation in a new direction for cinema. For example, in the late 1950’s Federico Fellini began to make films that broke with tradition. Fellini’s films included fantasy, dreams, and his own memories. Furthermore, the topic of sex became an issue of great interest for society. Along with this change came an economic boom. There was an increased demand for books. Before society’s fascination with film and literature there was a large amount of illiterate Italian people. Some linguists relate a connection between the establishment of film and television, with the spread of the Italian language (Mignone 1998, 346-48)

In a 1951 census there showed that 12.9 percent of Italians over the age of six were illiterate and in the south 24 percent of the population was illiterate. It is understandable that Italy struggled with acquiring a good understanding of their own language because Italy at this time had been unified for less than 100 years, and prior to this time they had been controlled by numerous countries and cultures. There were still dozen of dialects that were used after the war. Fortunately, in the last forty years there has been a drastic change in the literacy of Italy and there has been a strong post-modern movement. (Mignon 1998, 349)

When Italy finally gained an economic boom in the 1950s there was more access to paper and books became easier to access. During the 1960s consumerism evolved, education prospered, culture discovered new markets, and social tensions erupted. As a result, literature had a profound change on society. A large contributing factor to the popularity of books was due to the publicity maneuvered by the publisher. After a decade of literary advancement, publishing had become a new and successful business.

All of the advancements in film, literature and language in Italy led to a consumption of services rather than the production of industrial goods. Italy transformed from an industrial society to a “post-industrial” society. The term “post-industrial” is interchangeable with “information society” because the majority of the working population is concerned with the handling of information such as communications, computer data, and cultural services. Italy’s transformation as a post-modern nation circulates around a large change in the area of mass culture. The formation of industries revolved around the production and distribution of information, which revolutionized the culture’s ideologies. There was a break from old ideologies and a new cultural unification around a consumerist society. The business of books, television, magazines, newspapers, films, and radio were crucial to these new ideas.

It was during this time that a new face entered the media scene. He recognized how quickly he could put his ideas on paper and then witness them on television the next day. He saw a nation that could easily be controlled by the popularity of television. These ideas transpired through Silvio Berlusconi, one of the most powerful men in Italy; he built his character through the television audience beginning in 1979 when he founded his advertising business Publitalia (Ginsborg 2004, 33).

Current State of Italy’s Media: Censorship (Liz Rogers)

According to the Washington Post, Berlusconi is “the quintessential anti-political politician, yet with more power than anyone in Italy since Mussolini” (Andrews 2005, 34).

Sicily also has a metaphorical addition about Berlusconi and his political and media empires; Furbo (cunning) and omerta (silence) are considered by many to be Sicilian characteristics. They have absorbed dark subtleties of the current issue concerning Berlusconi, which have now determined new possibilities for “conspiracy and indifference” (Andrews 2005, 131).

When Berlusconi came into power he made many promises of change for his country and he actually had written plans for change, however most of Berlusconi’s reforms have had a very narrow focus: he wanted to maintain his own power of Italians and expand and control private interests, most significantly media ownership. (Andrews 35)

When told about Richard Nixon’s forty-nine state land-slide in the 1972 U.S. presidential election, Pauline Kael said in the New Yorker, “How can that be? I don’t know a single person who voted for Nixon.” The same quote could be said about Berlusconi because many citizens claim they would never vote for him. However, there are many people who did vote for him and it is mainly because Berlusconi understands that people need someone to follow rather than to have a leader. He understands that there is a difference between followership and leadership. Thus, Berlusconi won over audiences because he managed to convince them that they were all unified in one big idea. Berlusconi also uses his media company to attract large audiences. On his programs such as soap operas, films, and game shows he presents the American consumer as an appealing model of life. Although Berlusconi actually had values that opposes those portrayed by American television, he advertised it to his viewers because it was popular and gained him good standing. Since Berlusconi controls most of the private and public television channels in Italy, he has a large advantageous control of political communication. Also, he has the power to regulate information that he does not want portrayed to the public. For example, Berlusconi banned satirical Italian talk show hosts such as Paolo Rossi and Sabina Guzzanti from the air.

In a short span of twenty years Italy has gone “from a neoclassical democratic model, founded on the competitiveness of the multi-party system, to a post classical democratic model, that is to say, beyond representation, dependent on the television opinion polls and the soundings of public opinion.” (Zolo 1999, 728) Political communication is now completely consumed by television and political parties no longer exist. They have been replaced by entrepreneurs who are competing amongst themselves for advertising time with the masses, by offering their symbolic products through television as a marketing strategy. (Shin and Agnew 2008, 21)

Television viewership is significantly higher in Italy than it is in other Europeans nations and celebrity politicians are high in numbers. The political candidates rely on portraying their personalities to the viewer, however political parties over time are more likely, in Italy, to fail to identify with their viewers, possibly because they do not fulfill their promises that they make during their campaigns (Shin and Agnew 2008, 23).

However, I was fortunate enough to read an opinion by Giovannia Sartori that argues that people will arrive at their own common sense and that the persuasions of television most often backfire. He says that television encourages localism rather than nationalism because it places more responsibilities on the politicians rather than on the parties. Thus, those politicians need to help serve the needs of the constituents (Sartori 1989, 189). Perhaps the citizens of Italy truly do attempt to think for themselves, but it is any person’s guess how because it is impossible to find any neutral opinions in the Italian media.
Photo credit: google images and
Photo credit: google images and

Political and Business Career (Annika Dawson)

Business Career- Born in 1936, Silvio Berlusconi, attended the Università Statale in Milan where he studied law. His career began in the building construction business shortly after, when he became involved in the design of a garden city - Milano 2 -on the outskirts of Milan.

His first venture into the Media business came in 1973 when he became involved in a cable television station to service Milano 2, Telemilano. He later formed his first media group, Fininvest (The Biography Channel).
Berlusconi went on to own an array of other enterprises including Italy’s largest department store chain in the country and a publishing company that produced newspapers and more than thirty magazines. Fininvest is also involved in film production, having provided nearly half the investment in Italy’s film industry. He also purchased the soccer team AC Milan in 1985.

By expanding his television operations outside Italy with broadcasting outlets in Spain, France, Germany, Tunisia, and Yugoslavia, he was able to claim that Silvio Berlusconi Communications (SBC) was “the fourth largest television network in the world after CBS, NBC, and ABC “ (Graham, 1994). In 2009, Berlusconi was listed as #12 on Forbes’ Most Powerful People List. With a net worth of 9 billion, Berlusconi on The World’s Billionare List 2010 by Forbes Magazine. Building his fortune through Fininvest, Berlusconi’s two current largest assets are, Banco Mediolanum and Mediaset(Forbes Magazine, 2010).
Political Career- In 1994 Berlusconi formed his own political party in response to a bribery and corruption scandal that ruined the credibility of the Christian Democrats who ruled Italy for more than fifty years. In apparent effort to influence the upcoming reform-driven elections, his party originally created to back Italy’s centralist politicians, was a network of twelve hundred political clubs collectively known as Forza Italia. Berlusconi’s goal was to prevent the Democratic Party of the left and the Popular party from winning control of the government. Resigning as president of Fininvest, he formally announced his candidacy for parliament in January of 1994. Some observers speculated that Berlusconi was entering politics in order to keep the Left from using new anti-trust measure to break up his empire and drive Fininvest further into debt. By buying advertising time on his own stations and using the same shrewd marketing techniques with which he had built his empire, he managed to transform himself and Forza Italia into formidable political forces. Elected Prime Minister in 1994, Berlusconi continued to find himself the target of charges of conflict of interest due to his continued holdings in Fininvest (Graham, pp. 48-52).Faced with conflict of interest and other charges, he resigned in December 1994. He was later convicted of fraud and corruption, though he was acquitted of tax evasion. Despite the convictions and criticism of his control of much of the Italian media, he remained the leader of Forza Italia and again became prime minister in 2001 (, 2010). As a potential prime minister, many questions were raised about conflicts of interest that would arise when Italy's wealthiest businessman gained control of three TV channels operated by the state broadcasting company, RAI. Despite critics' concerns, Italians voted into office the House of Freedom coalition on May 13, 2001.

By April 2002, a number of anti-Berlusconi protests had taken place in Rome and other major Italian cities. On March 3, 2002, an estimated 300,000 opposition members marched in Rome protesting a conflict of interest bill that allowed Berlusconi to keep his private business interest while in office. As a result of this law, Prime Minister Berlusconi would have control of an estimated 90 percent of the media; greatly concerning the opposition.

In 2003, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi faced court in corruption charges hearings. Berlusconi was accused of bribing judges in order to wrest control of a state-owned food company. In December 2004, Prime Minister Berlusconi was cleared of corruption charges. The criminal court acquitted him of one charge in the four-year trial, and said the other offense occurred too long ago to be prosecuted.
A few months later, in April 2005, Berlusconi's family said it would sell a large share its stake in Mediaset, an Italian broadcast entity. Critics had called for Berlusconi to reduce his stake in the firm for some time, citing a conflict of interest between the political and media publication dimensions. The move to finally deal -- in some fashion -- with the perceived conflict of interest came on the heels of regional elections in which the prime minister's party performed poorly.

In 2006 elections were taking place. Berlusconi’s chances of securing a new term were complicated by the fact that he was being investigated in regard to allegations of corruption. His critics also charged him with exploiting his status as a media mogul to dominate the airwaves. He lost to Prime Minister Prodi in 2006.

On May 8, 2008, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called on center-right coalition leader Silvio Berlusconi to form a new Italian government. Berlusconi quickly accepted the role and submitted a cabinet list to the president and was elected for the third time, currently serving as the Prime Minister of Italy. By the end of 2008, the global economic crisis was being in Italy. After two consecutive quarters of negative growth, Italy was officially in a recession. (Coleman, 2010)

Media Empire Fininvest: Then and Now (Annika Dawson)

Fininvest- founded over fifty years ago by Berlusconi, Fininvest began as a real-estate company. It had several projects including residential areas and retail parks. In 1977 the company acquired a stake in the publisher of the daily national newspaper, Il Giornale. In 1978 Telemilano starts up and Manzoni theatre is acquired. In 1979, Reteitalia - operating in the acquisition and sale of TV programs, and Publitalia '80 - advertising sales - are founded. In 1980, Telemilano becomes Canale 5, a circuit of broadcasters for nationwide transmission. Elettronica Industriale is acquired for the design and construction of the signal distribution infrastructure. In 1981, Programma Italia, a financial services company, is launched. Videotime is established for the creation, development and production of television programs. In 1983, the group acquires the TV channel Italia 1 and the weekly listings and entertainment magazine Sorrisi e Canzoni TV, one of Italy's leading entertainment titles and TV channel Retequattro and Mediolanum Assicurazioni are bought. Meanwhile the group's position in the TV market is consolidated and activities in the financial services area expand in 1984. Finivest acquired A.C. Milan in 1986, a very successful soccer team. In 1988 Fininvest acquires Standa,
a large-scale retail chain, becomes part of the Group and Fininvest's revenues grow from 2,600 billion lire to around 6,000 billion and its employees from 7,300 to more than 24,000. In 1990, Fininvest participates in the founding of the Spanish television network, Telecinco. In 1991 Fininvest added Arnoldo Mondadori Editore to its ranks. This acquisition continues the process of focusing on the publishing and media sectors. By 1995 Fininvest creates Medusa Films for the production and distribution of films. In the space of a few years Medusa becomes the Italian leader in film production and distribution. In 1997, Banca Mediolanum, a direct bank, is established, an absolute novelty in the Italian banking sector. In the year 2000, to develop activities in the new media sectors, Mediadigit is created. It is now a division of RTI. Among the most important online initiatives there is TGCOM, the Mediaset newscast online. In 2004, Fininvest bought a stake in Molmed, a medical biotechnology company founded by San Raffaele hospital and focused on innovative therapies for the treatment of cancer. The Fininvest Group entered in the radio sector in 2005 with the acquisition, by Mondadori, of the national radio network R101. In 2006, Mondadori took an important step forward with its strategy for international development by acquiring Emap France, later renamed Mondadori France, a major magazine publisher in France. Mondadori France has a portfolio of approximately 30 titles, many of which are market leaders in their respective specialties. By 2008, Telecinco enters the North American Spanish speaking market by acquiring a 29.2% share of the broadcaster Caribevision and Premium Gallery is founded, the new Mediaset pay-tv offer with high-value content on digital terrestrial: included are the best TV programs, American cinema and soccer. More recently in 2009, Fininvest becomes the leading shareholder of Molmed with a share of 23.95%. In France, Mondadori launches the magazine Grazia: the new magazine immediately makes itself known as a point of reference in the high-end women’s market. Mondadori Pubblicità and Publitalia '80 sign an agreement to establish Mediamond, a jointly owned company whose aim is to collect on-line advertising.

With a history of Bersculoni’s Media company Fininvest, which is now run by his daughter Marina Berlusconi and several of his family members, one can see the vast amounts of media Fininvest is involved in not only in Italy, but worldwide. The company structure includes 39% of Mediaset, television and cinema, 50% of Mondadori, publishing, 100% Teatro Mandoni, entertainment, 36% Mediolanum, financial services, and 100% ACM, sport.

With an estimated overall value of €6 billion, revenues of more than €5,5 billion and approximately 20,000 employees, the Fininvest Group is one of Italy’s leading companies and a world leader in media and entertainment (Fininvest, 2003).

Berlusconi’s Influence on the Media (Ashley Novack)

Saying that Silvio Berlusconi has an influence over the media in Italy is an understatement. It would be the equivalent of saying that Barak Obama has an influence over America. Berlusconi currently owns half of the nations media market, including the three largest television stations. Italy is the only country in Europe whose leader controls the media; 90% of which is in the television market, where 80% of the population gets their news from TV. Print has not been a trusted source for news by Italian’s since the influence over publications lies in the political parties. One in ten Italian’s buy a newspaper, verses the one in five in the US and China. And as far as the broadband, a little over 51% of the population is connected and using.
Berlusconi has transformed the Italian airwaves by giving the public a stead stream of American soap operas, football and “sexed up” game shows where “velinas” (the equivalent of a show girl) prance around in minimal clothing. He introduced the culture to luxury and free inhibitions, completely different than what Catholicism promoted. Velinas have become one of the most prized careers for young women in Italy today on account of the fame and numerous connections to the media they can make in the process. The number of velinas have escalated so much so that in early 2009, La Republica launched a petition stating that Berlusconi’s use of women’s bodies “undermined democracy.” Broadcasting in Italy has become so polluted with ideal beauty of a woman, that if you do not possess the looks you are not going to make it Berlusconi’s business.

Financial scandal, revealing pictures, and infidelity have followed him throughout his career and by following them up with strings of inappropriate comments, made by the Minister, has not helped his public image. Despite this, on his television stations Berlusconi is made out to be a “normal superman.” He is the only politician in the world who is able to create and mold the voting people, before they elect him.

A recent proposed law on wiretaps had been in parliamentary committee for months. “Details emerged in the press about an ongoing corruption investigation into deals linked to major public events, such as the G8 summit hosted by Italy in 2009. Transcripts of wiretaps were leaked and forced one of Berlusconi's key allies, the economic development minister Claudio Scajola, to resign” (Speciale, 2010). After these recent events the law, which would place a gag on wire tapping making it more difficult for police to get permission to wiretap, set a limit for eavesdropping and charge publishers up to €450,000 for dispersing transcripts of wiretaps before cases reached trial. Berlusconi has been criticized for backing this law to protect himself and his allies. June 10, 2010 the law with stood a confidence vote in the Senate, yet still has to win support over the Chamber of Deputies. In response to this law, which has become a scare tactic towards the media, journalists have threatened a news blackout.

As far as the print is concerned, Italians have been told for the past 50 years that the newspapers were written for the party leaders, parliamentarians, industrialists and others in power; the bulk of these papers are also run by these same people. In June Berlusconi urged advertisers to not invest in newspapers. And this year there is expected to be more than 500 layoffs of journalists, in a country where discharging workers is not an everyday occurrence.

The Internet front in Italy has recently been a popular area of discussion. In early 2010, the Italian government sued three Google senior executives for defamation. The Google owned YouTube allowed a user to post a
video of a mentally challenged boy getting harassed and left it posted for about 2 months. If the ruling goes in favor of Italy, it could have severe ramifications on Italian’s online freedoms. The case is currently scheduled to resumed in September due to an ill interpreted.

Since the airwaves are reserved for Berlusconi and the newspapers for political parties, the Internet is Italian’s only platform for free expression, something which the Italian government has also launched a battle against. The trail against Google has lead to questions about the censorship of not only YouTube, but also the entire Internet. The Italian government is intent on halting online expansion. Berlusconi is rallying to get the state to control online video content and to force people to get licenses for frequent posting.

In spite of government attempts to regulate virtually everything, new media in Italy has hopes of undermining Berlusconi. Before the elections, RAI (a Berlusconi controlled station) suspended political debates until the election had occurred to help political balance. In most recent news, journalists got around this legislation and were able to stream political program Raiperunanotte, on the eve of the elections in March live via web cam and cable television. This brought the “candidates’ programs rather than the usual mix of cheaply sexed up TV game shows and cheesy soap operas” into homes of the Italian public. The word of the live stream was publicized on various social networking sites, including Facebook.

In early December 2009, Facebook states that they were going to monitor the content about Berlusconi on account of an attack made on him during a political rally, which left the Prime Minister hospitalized. “Facebook has shut down the largest fan page for Massimo Tartaglia, the man who is accused of hitting Mr. Berlusconi on Sunday with a statuette of the Milan cathedral, after it had amassed almost 100,000 users in less than 48 hours” (Sylvers, 2009). Promoting violence and threatening content are not permitted on Facebook. This has not been the first time Italy has had to go up against Facebook. In the past there have been many groups including one titled, “Let’s Kill Berlusconi,” which was promptly taken off the site. In reaction to these numerous online attacks on Berlusconi, the government has launched many bills hoping to regulate banning anonymity on the Internet.

Social networking sites are allowing for new forms of social and political organization in Italy. Since other avenues for expression are not an option, Italians are relying on their online networks and sites for discourse and information. The image below shows Italy in relation to the rest of the world in membership of online communities 2007-2008. Although Italy has lagged in technology in previous years, the gap is narrowing. The government is committed to advancing technology and innovation but critics say that popular culture is moving at a quicker pace than the ruling upper class. Berlusconi may be losing the battle, but the jury still stands if the man in power will win the war. He is still very much in control over an immense part of the Italian media.
Photo Credit: Neilson Online

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