When Silvio Berlusconi got into the television business in 1978, it was to entertain families in a housing complex he had built outside of Milan, Italy. “Reality offers too many occasions that cause anxiety: mine will be an optimistic television,” he had confided to reporters the year before. Within 10 years, he built a television empire now called Mediaset, specializing in strip quiz shows and US soap operas. In 1990, a new law ended the Italian state-run television company’s monopoly on news coverage and political commentary, so Mediaset created a news program for each of its three channels. In 1994, Berlusconi began assembling a new political party from the ranks of his own television and advertising executives, and only a few months later, Italian voters elected him prime minister of Italy. They also effectively handed him their remote controls: combined, Mediaset and government-controlled broadcaster RAI provide 90 percent of television programming in Italy, a country where eight out of 10 citizens get their news from television.
Berlusconi’s political career only “marginally” influences Mediaset journalists today, according to Giovanni Toti, 44, editor-in-chief of Mediaset news program TG4: “We are judged on viewership statistics, on our ability to conquer our audience based on the needs of our advertising and publicity agency, rather than on political pressures.” But most of TG4’s audience is made up of Berlusconi supporters. So, in one sample week in January 2013, as the media magnate campaigned for his fourth term as prime minister, TG4 dedicated almost three times as much “talking time” to Berlusconi as to other leading candidates.
From the pages of COLORS #86 - Making the News.