As TV Gets Political, Italians Turn It off ; A New Law May Boost the Italian Leader's Media Clout
Sophie Arie Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
As Italy heads into the age of digital television, growing numbers of discontented Italians are turning off their TV sets and heading out to the theater.
Last month, Esterni, a small pro-arts organization in Milan, called on television viewers to strike, offering discount museum and theater tickets around the country to anyone who handed in their TV remote control handset for the day.
"We're not political," said Barbara Specchia, one of the strike organizers. "We just think for too many people television is the only source of entertainment, information, and culture. Too many people never look outside."
The group has been organizing strikes for seven years, with record results this year as more than 400,000 people switched off.
But to many Italians, television is not just a cultural sedative; it has become a pervasive political tool, and spurning television is, therefore, a political gesture.
Government figures show that the average Italian watches television for four hours a day and, since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi controls most of what is broadcast, critics say that the nation is being fed just one political line.
According to one of Italy's leading authors, Umberto Eco, Italy is living under a new kind of dictatorship, the "media regime." The difference between Benito Mussolini's fascist regime and a media regime, Mr. Eco says, is that "in fascist times, people knew that the newspapers and the radio were only communicating government press releases." In Italy today, political opponents are given airtime, Eco says, but they are never allowed to have the last word.
"A media regime does not need to send its opponents to jail. It silences them," he wrote in La Repubblica newspaper earlier this month.
Several satirists and critics of Berlusconi have been forced off state television Radio Televisione Italiana in the 2-1/2 years since Mr. Berlusconi was elected.
And a media bill to be assessed in parliament later this month, designed to open up and modernize the Italian television market, could also present an opportunity for Berlusconi's media empire to expand into newspapers and radio.
Many artists and thinkers now see the country's theaters as the last escape route from a "media dictatorship" in the heart of Europe.
But even on stage, the threat of lawsuits hovers. "They want to shut our mouths," Franca Rame told La Repubblica newspaper this week as she and her husband, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Dario Fo, were sued for defamation over their satirical play about Berlusconi, which is currently touring Italy.
After a week performing their play, "The Two Headed Anomaly," in Berlusconi's home town of Milan, a Forza Italia senator, Marcello Dell'Utri, sued the artists, claiming one million euros compensation for their "baseless attack" on his reputation. …