Taming the Global on Italian Television

by: Michela Ardizzoni / Indiana University

The famous Dutch television producer, Endemol, will probably go down in the annals of history as a catalyst of standardized television programming across the globe. Since 2000, some of its innovative reality shows like Big Brother, Fear Factor, Star Academy, and Blind Faith pervade prime-time television in 22 countries, from the most liberal channels of Europe to the most conservative of the Persian Gulf.

The globalization of television programming is not a new phenomenon. Yet, the localized forms current programs take in various national contexts offer interesting insights into accepted boundaries of nationality and the pervasive notion of nation-state. The nationalistic fanfare that characterizes most prime-time television programs in Italy is emblematic of this confluence of global and local trends, which ultimately aims at reinforcing (rather than challenging) cemented visions of Italianness.

Out of a total of seven free-to-air channels, five regularly feature Endemol productions ranging from reality-based to game shows: Ready Steady Cook, Big Brother, Star Academy, and several others have become staples on public and private channels alike. While the irksome convergence of public and private interests in Italian television is luckily unique in its genre, the overwhelming popularity of these shows has colored the television scape of other European countries. France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom are only some of the many who have succumbed to the bewildering power of Endemol productions. Unlike its fellow EU members, Italian television has further demystified the appeal of these shows by donning them with a domesticated version of Italianness that suits well the socio-political climate of these years.

Fundamentally, the images and discourse that reach the viewer depict Italy as a country designed along regional lines that seem more rooted in people’s identity and more appropriate for the identifying processes enacted by television. Consider, for example, Your Business, a prime-time Endemol program aired daily on the main public channel RAI 1. Each episode of the show features a different contestant who attempts to win the largest sum of money by opening the lucky box. Unlike in other European versions where participants and their boxes are labeled by numbers, those in the Italian Your Business are labeled by numbers and regions like Calabria, Sardinia, Tuscany. Every time a contestant chooses a box, a rather folkloric song characteristic of the corresponding region is played. Often, the show’s moderator, who recently has helped RAI 1 recover control of prime-time after years of lagging behind Berlusconi’s private channel, would switch to the region’s dialect or accent in a highly stereotypical fashion. Even in entertainment, television portrays an unrelenting vision of Italianness as a composite of distinct cultural regions.

This emphasis on regionalism as the essence of national identity expands to other global products like Big Brother or Music Farm. Aside from the formulaic characterization of participants, this process elicits a contradictory conception of unified identity that is paradoxically fragmented and potentially divisive. In Italy, the presumed homogenizing impact of globalization is confronted with the permeating awareness of regional differences that are frequently accentuated rather than de-emphasized. As clearly evidenced by current news channels, media globalization — the multi-faceted monster condemned and revered by innumerable sources — has produced a sense of immediacy and simultaneity by making us part of common worlds. Yet, at the local level it has been met with deeply rooted realities that defy most attempts of standardizing sub-national experiences.

The resilience of regional identification in Italy stems from a concerted political campaign that has reached its momentum in the last few years with the ascent of a federalist party, the Northern League (Lega Nord), under the boisterous leadership of Umberto Bossi. This party, the name of which reminisces an obsolete vision of Italy split along the Po river, originally advocated ideological (if not political) separatism, dividing the Northern Padanian region from the rest of Italy. In recent years, the improbable outcome of the ethnocentric logic forced the party to channel its efforts to further empower local governments. This process has led to the creation of a ministry of devolution that has reinforced the autonomy of local governments in the areas of education, health, and law and order. The media have also been affected by the ubiquity of devolution when the second channel of the RAI public network was moved from Rome to Milan, the largest city in the Padanian region, and more airtime was slated for programming featuring an unprecedented parade of localism.

This vengeful localist turn seems an unsurprising reaction to the forces of globalization and the presumed fear of cultural contamination, but the celebration of the local as it encounters the global does not necessarily lead to a reification of unity along nationalistic lines. In a reciprocal mode, Endemol programs are made to fit the localism of national productions, as these tend to mimic the transient nature of foreign game shows and reality-based television. The way global products like Endemol’s are appropriated on Italian television leads one to question not the obvious impact of globalization on national identity, but the extent to which accepted discourses on the nation-state may conceal the primacy of regionalism as a growing constituent of identity in the media. In the case of Italy, regionalism seems to be the tool used to hunt the specter of national and global standardization.


Endemol homepage

Museum of Broadcast Communications archives: Italy
Museo Nazionale del Cinema (English version)

Reality TV in Italy
Italian media landscape
Silvio Berlusconi and Italian media

www.rai.it (in Italian)
www.ansa.it (in Italian)

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One comment

  • While shows like the “Italian Your Business” acknowledge the cultural variety of the country, we must ask whether the depiction of each regional culture is an authentic representation. Reality television programs such as those produced by Endemol allow “real people” from various regions to appear, which seems to be more authentic than a fictional version of those regional people written by an elite. Do the shows offer highly stereotypical visions of each region, or can they offer a more nuanced picture of the disparate cultures? What is the difference between actual regionalism (or nationalism) and a superficial regionalist pose in reality TV?

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