Hey RAI, We Still Watch TV!

Can Italy's national public television station return to being a service for citizens?

RAI Programme Italian Television
An episode of the political talk show Porta a Porta. Photo: Palazzo Chigi, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

If a foreigner were to turn on a television that broadcasts only RAI channels, let’s say on August 13, in the middle of summer around 9 pm, after a couple of hours he would wonder if some strange spell had suddenly transported him back to the 80s. A bit like Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30, but in the opposite direction. All he would see would be replicas, black and white images, showgirls, and many, many sexist jokes. In short, the historical season of Italian television.

For many Italians, this is normal and would likely be dismissed with a “Yeah, whatever, it’s RAI.” The Italian national public television service is made of news, talk shows, and ‘fictions’ where the protagonists are usually either priests or nuns and good feelings rule the day. An old company, with repetitive and at times irritating content, a bit like the uncle who asks, “Have you found a boyfriend?” on Christmas day, and if you answer, “No, actually I have a girlfriend,” he is shocked and lowers his eyes. That guy, are we clear?

In short, as you may have guessed, in Italy, RAI is not very popular. In recent years, the audience is decreasing, the average viewer age is 58, and according to most Italians what’s offered isn’t worth the cost (an obligatory fee of €90 every year).

Research by Istat in 2016 showed that, according to Italians, RAI is lacking in promoting innovation, diversity, and transparency and presents several gaps in the independence of its information. One of the main requests expressed by respondents to the ISTAT survey summarized the need for RAI to respond to the needs and tastes of different age groups.

In a few words, we need progress and modernization, but in practice we need a revolution.

RAI’s problems

RAI’s problems seem to revolve around what is represented — as a public service, we need more pluralism and certainly less nostalgia — and who decides what will be broadcast.

With regard to content, here’s where the issue becomes really complicated. It’s not true that RAI never proposes anything new, that there is no avant-garde and progressive content. The problem is that the brand identity of the company does not coincide with these programs, which are more the exception than the rule.

Take the representation of women — on which, as you know, much of the credibility of those who profess to be ‘modern’ is played out: it is anachronistic and awkward. No matter how hard you try, you always get the feeling that women are put there by someone (a man) to prove that they exist.

In recent years RAI has been involved in several cases of sexism and machismo. We have witnessed a tutorial on how to be sexy while shopping, and a presenter of the Sanremo Festival (a leading RAI program followed internationally) who praised the partner of one of its guests for knowing how to stay one step behind her man. Basically, if men didn’t exist, I don’t know what we would be good at.

During three different RAI TV series a fake rape has been staged for personal gain. Considering that Italy is the country where a leading politician, Beppe Grillo, has made a video in which he says that to “report a rape after eight days seem strange,” RAI continues to offer a questionable public service.

There are plenty of examples, but in general it can be said that in the top programs women in RAI are a side dish and are functional in relation to the man they married or the children they care for. Programs on women and women issues are not lacking (see La Prima Donna che) but are relegated to unpopular schedules or appear directly on the streaming platform Raiplay.

As far as decision makers are concerned, looking at the organization chart of RAI managers and group leaders there seems to be no doubt: it is the men between 51 and 60 who, much like in politics, are the decision makers.

Why does the RAI feel old?

Questions abound. Why in all this time has RAI not managed to reflect the various sensibilities of Italian viewers? Why is it a format designed for families? Why has it not evolved together with Italian society? Where are the women? Where are the immigrants and their children? The disabled? The young people?

Obviously, it is very difficult to answer these questions and it is necessary to start from a clear and evident premise: generalist television is losing ground to digital and to streaming. Platforms such as Netflix for films and TV series, and the world of social media for information, have changed the rules of the game. Young people are attracted to it and it is difficult to make them attached to a medium that, after all, belongs to a revolution of the previous century.

Given all this, there are some faults of the RAI that are clear to everyone.

First of all, it is important to remember that one of the fundamental problems of the company lies in its politicization. The main criticism leveled at RAI is that it suffers too much from the interference of political parties, and therefore is managed by politically aligned decision-makers who too often have their hands tied in being able to bring about real change. They’re also subject to the typical political instability of Italy where, on average, a government lasts less than two years.

The RAI method is, in fact, based on the idea of wanting to maintain the core of its audience, only introducing from time to time something new, but without ever frightening the public and without ever pushing into real experimentation. In this way, however, the old ways are hard to get rid of and the much vaunted public service only appeals to a diminishing segment of the population.

It is hard to say if and how RAI can get rid of this negative label especially among teenagers or young adults. What is sure is that a positive model is not lacking — above all the shining example of the BBC, the British public broadcaster. BBC’s fame and success is based on its independence, fairness, and inclusivity. Its mission is based on the idea that a public service has to bring diversity to the screen and to be attentive to social justice.

In short, what we expect from RAI is to return to being a service for citizens, and not at the service of politics and power.

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