The president's wife recently told a group of schoolchildren to "read, read and read again" rather than watch "that idiotic television," "the most asinine of mass media." Last year she revealed that she and her husband often switch off the set to avoid "vulgar and degenerate" programs.
What's even more remarkable, no one in the TV industry seriously contested her remarks.
Although she didn't specify, the first lady of Italy was probably thinking of prime-time shows like one on which a comedian sniffed a dancer's g-string, or another on which a "reporter" surprised a woman model he was interviewing by stripping naked in front of her.
As in the United States, the most explicit fare here is reserved for the pay channels, yet Italian network TV abounds in sex. Almost every show with a studio audience boasts a dozen gorgeous young women in two-piece outfits of black leather or sequined fabric, standing in the background, doing nothing but smile and stare invitingly into the camera.
The other day I flipped to a science show on a state-supported channel, with a report on an Amazonian tribe that supports itself entirely from products of the rain forest. The segment ended and we cut to the studio, where the attractive hostess was joined by some schoolchildren -- and a row of lovely young women modeling textiles made from precious metals, which was the topic of the next segment.
Even hard news is not off-limits to the most blatant displays of sex appeal. One evening during the early phase of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, while the anchor and his expert guest speculated on troop movements, a short-skirted assistant repeatedly bent over to shift markers across a map of Central Asia.
To American eyes, the cheesecake on Italian TV is less objectionable than the cheesiness. Five or six domestically produced drama series with relatively high budgets are outnumbered by badly dubbed "telenovelas" from Mexico or Brazil. Most of the schedule consists of game, talk and "reality" shows -- many based on foreign prototypes, such as "Big Brother" and "Wheel of Fortune" -- which make maximum use of fixed sets and unpaid amateur talent.
Flourishing on Italian airwaves is one genre that has practically vanished from the U.S.: the variety show, with a seemingly endless succession of singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians, comedians -- and, of course, half-naked women.
Sometimes the variety concept is fused with one or more others, a particularly disjointed example being a Sunday-night extravaganza whose title translates roughly as "Those For Whom Black Tie is a Must." This is a kind of pre-game show without the game, since televised soccer is, like explicit porn, available only by subscription. Instead fans get to see a shapely blonde hostess (the wife of a star payer) chat, joke, and sing with celebrity guests, all in formal evening wear.
Occasionally the camera cuts away to the press box of a stadium, for some brief commentary on the match in progress. Serious soccer enthusiasts loathe the show for trivializing the sport, and I can see why. Adding to the merriment the other night was a middle-age comic in a toupee and Harry Potter costume, running around the set, whacking everyone with his magic wand.
With such material to work with, it should come as no surprise that Italian TV these days is increasingly making fun of itself. Every night at ten past eight is "Blob," a twenty-minute, unnarrated montage of clips from the previous day's telecasts. On "Protected Zone," an enormous transvestite in a beehive hairdo trades wisecracks with his pretty co-hostess at the expense of other programming.
The hottest satirical show at the moment is one that bills itself as the "Voice of Insolence." A cross between "Sixty Minutes" and "Saturday Night Live," it made the front pages recently by exposing one of the big names in home shopping as a con woman, who allegedly bilked viewers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by promising to ward off evil spirits or turn salt into gold.
There are some pretty gullible Italians out there, obviously, yet that hardly explains why a nation with the world's eighth-largest economy and an unsurpassed artistic heritage should put up with such crummy mass entertainment.
One answer is lack of competition. About fifteen years back, all national television was state-controlled, with three networks divided among the three major political parties: Christian Democrat, Socialist and Communist. Content was predictably dull and ideologically biased.
Then Silvio Berlusconi came along and, using his connections at the highest level of government, managed to establish an alternative semi-monopoly of three private channels, with racier programs and much longer commercial breaks. The public television bureaucracy, free from strict partisan ties since the old party system collapsed in the early nineties, has dumbed down its offerings to keep up its ratings.
Two taste-makers are evidently too few to stimulate televised creativity. Moreover, since Berlusconi is now prime minister, he effectively controls both major forces in Italian TV.
Though all this ought to make Americans feel grateful for their four networks, not to mention the scores of other options on the typical U.S. cable service, there's one respect in which Italian broadcasting unquestionably enjoys the edge in glamour. How often do Americans get to see the likes of Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, Marlon Brando, and Uma Thurman in original, made-for-TV productions? All these international stars have recently appeared on Italian TV -- pitching comfort shoes, cars, long distance service and perfume.
Francis X. Rocca is a writer in Vicenza, Italy.