In January 2003, the Financial Times published an article by Tobias Jones about the state of Italian television. Jones, a British writer married to an Italian woman and living in Parma, documented his reactions to Italian TV shows in a way that was refreshing and throurougly enjoyable. Enjoyable for anyone who is NOT Italian. Because the picture he painted was clearly depressing:

The following evening, about 7pm, I flick to Channel 5 again. This is the prime-time quiz show, Passaparola. To understand this kind of show, there are more key words to learn. Letterine “the little letters”, Veline “quick news flash”, schedine “the little statistics”: all are diminutive “me” descriptions of the bikini-clad women who start dancing erotically at random intervals. Passaparola is a quiz show based on the alphabet, hence the “little letters”. As I’m watching, Gerry Scotti – the anodyne host – is flirting with one of them and winking at the 8m viewers. Italy, don’t be in any doubt, is the land that feminism forgot.

A clip from Striscia la Notizia – one of the most watched TV programs in Italy (satirical news on primetime TV, on weekdays). These are the “Veline” Tobias Jones talks about:

Passaparola & the Letterine:

From Buona Domenica – Italy’s most watched Sunday afternoon program:

(The male tv presenter jokingly says the two women should keep doing this “until one of them dies”)

The article made a big impression on me back then. As an Italian, who has studied mass communication and film in the United States, who has lived abroad for many years, an activist and a feminist, this subject was very close to me. While in college, every time I went to Italy to visit my parents, I was positively shocked by the representation of women in mass media. Especially when making a comparison with the U.S. or the U.K. I would protest, and tell friends and relatives that I found this overt objectification of women offensive. My blood would literally boil at the sight of young women, about the same age as me, dancing around in bikinis and smiling to creepy 60-something anchormen. Yet all my Italian friends and relatives were relatively non-plussed by this. They found it normal. And it is still the same now, years later. If anything, the number of women scantly clad, offering their bodies for visual consumption has multiplied. Now they are everywhere.

The Financial Times doesn’t carry the article anymore, but I found a blog that reproduced it in its entirety. You can read it at this link.

What fascinated me the most, re-reading it just yesterday, was media consolidation. Because we have all heard the arguments that sex sells and men love looking at pretty women. But very few people go below the surface, to discuss the system that permits this.

It often seems that, in Italy, there aren’t advertisement breaks; there are short programme breaks. Fifty seven per cent of all Italian advertising budgets is spent on television (compared with 23 per cent in Germany, and 33.5 per cent in the UK). Even RAI, the state-owned television network – to whom I pay an annual licence fee of euro 97 – runs adverts. All of which means that audience chasing is crucial, and programmes are designed for quantity not quality. “It’s become a kind of psychological dictatorship”, says Gad Lerner, the most intelligent anchorman on Italian TV.  “The figures from Auditel (which measures audience share) scare people into only producing these vulgar, crowd pulling programmes.” Berlusconi, of course, owns Publitalia, the company responsible for selling 60 per cent of advertising space on Italian television. Within a few days of starting my TV induction I can feel my brain turning to custard.

I had forgotten about this fact. Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, in addition to owning a media empire made up of 50% of the main TV channels, Mondadori – the largest Italian publishing house, countless magazines, newspapers, home video distribution firms, film production houses, a soccer club and insurance companies, also owns the “company responsible for selling 60 percent of advertising space on Italian television.”

When writing “Citizen Kane” Orson Welles would have thought this was too much for his character. And yet it is possible in Italy (watch Sabina Guzzanti’s awesome documentary ‘Viva Zapatero’ if you are insterested in the subject)

When having discussions with friends, I often compare Italy to Russia – it definitely feels like a media dictatorship. And, when asked where I’m originally from, I would jokingly reply “the Banana Republic” – because it feels so surreal. Women have a really hard time being taken seriously. My “golden ticket” is my international background: the fact I have lived for so long abroad and speak English and French fluently. So, my competence is not questioned when I am in Italy. But scores and scores of Italian women, who live and work there, have a difficult time in the corporate world. A few stats, culled from another article (“Naked Ambition”)

“In the largest Italian companies, women represent about two per cent of board directors.”

“In 1976, she says, 11 per cent of members of parliament were women, the same as today.”

Italian women need to break into the boys’ club – in academia, politics, the corporate world, and in mass media. But first they need to be aware of Italy’s pervasive mysoginy. And most of them aren’t.

Read “My Italian TV Hell” here.

Read “Naked Ambition” here.