Television viewers in Italy who want to get a full picture of what is happening in their country don't only follow the news on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Channel 4, nor on Channel 5, which he also owns, and perhaps not on the state-owned Channel 1 either. Instead, they tend to watch the "rebellious" channel RAI-3 which, despite its official subordination to the prime minister, has managed to maintain its independence - broadcasting a cluster of critical and satirical programs daily, with Berlusconi the primary target.
The channel is now making headlines after having successfully lured viewers away from Il Cavaliere's game shows and proving that, when given the choice, Italians prefer cultural heroes like Roberto Benigni and Roberto Saviano to the Playboy bunnies and reality stars filling the screens.
Thus far, Berlusconi's associates have left this stepchild more or less alone, perhaps so they can brandish it and refute the claims that the prime minister is gagging free speech and has near total control of what is broadcast. Two weeks ago, however, before the broadcast of a new talk show to which actor and comedian Benigni had been invited, they suddenly took fright and tried to prevent it from being aired. Their reasoning? The broadcasting authority could not afford to pay the comedian his fee of 250,000 euros. But Benigni poured cold water on them, announcing both he and Mafia-fighting author Saviano would appear for free on the program's first episode.
Berlusconi and his people had to swallow the pill, and it was bitter indeed. "I am the boss, I am the entrepreneur ... I buy the whole world, I will buy it with no hesitations and after that I will buy God," Benigni proclaimed on the first episode of "Come Away with Me" ("Vieni Via con Me" ), during a satirical skit about Berlusconi's "guests" and his claims that the sex scandals attributed to him are nothing but a Mafia plot.
To the surprise of RAI-3, the viewer percentages for the show's premiere were sky-high, despite being broadcast in the same time slot as the reality show "Big Brother," aired on one of Berlusconi's channels. In the second episode the viewership soared even higher, reaching an unprecedented record of 30 percent, or about 9 million viewers. The channel also raked in fat profits from commercials.
"This proves it's also possible to create a different kind of television," station CEO Paolo Ruffini said calmly after the figures were published. The editor of the newspaper La Repubblica, Ezio Mauro, went so far as to say: "The program's dizzying success indicates the end of a certain kind of television," referring to the culture of game shows and veline - scantily clad glamour girls - on Italian television, controlled directly or indirectly by Berlusconi.
Northern Leaguers up in arms
The editors of the program and the station executives are hoping success will continue to smile on the show's remaining two episodes. In the meantime, they are preparing for attacks from critics and Berlusconi's allies in the coalition - members of the Northern League who are in arms over things Saviano said on the program this week.
The writer, who serves as a moderator on the show alongside Fabio Fazio, an experienced and pleasant-mannered TV personality, revealed details about the Mafia's modus operandi. Among other parts of his long monologue, he said the southern crime organization 'Ndrangheta has spread into northern Italy and maintains relations with elements in the separatist northern party. These claims enraged the party heads, who are now demanding the right to reply on the program and are threatening to file a libel suit.
"Everything is based on facts," Saviano said in response to their complaints.
At the moment, it is not clear if the producers of the show will agree to the Northern League's demand to appear on it. What is clear is that the new polemic is increasing the chances that TV viewers will choose "Come Away with Me" over "Big Brother." In the fight against Berlusconi's channels for viewers' hearts and pockets, the score is now 1-0 in RAI-3's favor.