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Italian ambivalence about television on display at the U.N.

Did RAI, Italy's public broadcaster, spend its money well when it put an estimated $600,000 toward organizing the second annual World Television Forum, held November 19-21 at the United Nations in New York? Some would say that the visibility, recognition and respect that RAI and its co-sponsor, private broadcaster Mediaset, received at the U.N. were well worth the money.

However, it was difficult to determine RAI's ultimate goal in sponsoring the event. If RAI intended to highlight its industrial strength in the world market, it failed, despite the reassurances of RAI board member Federica Olivares, who spoke of a RAI that "can function in the world marketplace, even though, so far, RAI has undervalued its international role." If, as novelist and RAI Chairman Enzo Siciliano said, RAI wanted to establish its role in the world of culture, it succeeded, but not entirely.

While CBS anchorman Dan Rather was at one of the forum's six sessions decrying the lack of art appreciation programs on American television, Walter Veltroni, the Italian deputy prime minister and de facto "shadow chairman" of RAI, was in Turin, Italy, criticizing RAI for its failure to serve as a cultural institution. The role of RAI and RAI's future corporate structure are subjects of heated debate in Italy, and there are as many definitions of "public service" as there are commentators. Similarly, political opposition leader and Mediaset owner Silvio Berlusconi was in Rome complaining that he wasn't happy with Mediaset.

In the words of Mediaset Chairman Fedele Confalonieri, chairman of Mediaset, "There is a considerable ambivalence about the value of television."

Rather -- who joined U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch in opening the forum -- commented that American television fails to illuminate. "It informs, entertains and it is a good propaganda tool, but it doesn't illuminate," Rather said. He also blasted religious TV programs, calling them "cynical."

Confalonieri expressed a more positive opinion: "The very fact that we are gathered here today is a clear indication of a sense of responsibility and indicates the determination of the world of television to improve."

Murdoch decried "the stranglehold" that government regulations have over private enterprises worldwide. He also said that monopolies in television are not a problem since the costs of entry into the TV sector have fallen dramatically.

The same line was heard from Michael Bloomberg, who spoke via a satellite link from Asia at a subsequent session. Bloomberg, the owner of a very successful worldwide information TV service, was subsequently taken to task by panelist Bob Collins, director general of RTE in Ireland, who was offended by Bloomberg's suggestion that state broadcasters are, in effect, political puppets.

Olivares, a book publisher married to a rich banker, was perhaps responding to Murdoch when she stated that "the recent tendency toward temporary regulations encouraging the adoption of new technologies and maximizing the potential for economic development ... is extremely positive."

Murdoch said that there is no threat of American cultural imperialism, because local culture always prevails. Murdoch also spoke highly of DBS, calling it "an advanced technology" that will soon offer local broadcasts via spot beams and will offer interactivity in 1998 at lower cost than cable. In Murdoch's opinion, "advanced cable is many decades away."

Some 250 people were wined, dined, challenged and entertained by RAI and co-sponsor Mediaset in the course of the forum. Delegates attended from more than 60 countries. Among the luminaries invited to participate were Zwelakhe Sisulu, CEO of South Africa's SABC; former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt; Ed Bleier, president of Warner Bros. Pay-TV; and Jan Mojto, president of the Association of Commercial TV in Europe.

Many Italian politicians were also in attendance, including Monica Baldi, first vice chairman of the Cultural Committee of the European parliament; Vincenzo Vita, deputy minister of Telecommunications; U.N. Ambassador Paolo Fulci; and Lamberto Dini, minister of Foreign Affairs (who seconded Rather's assertion that TV serves as a propaganda tool by stating that "four out of five Americans vote on the basis of what they see on TV").

Though the turnout was twice that of the previous forum, the event was ignored by the American press and even by C-Span, the cable network that specializes in covering political affairs. The Italians blamed the poor coverage on the ineffective public relations firm hired by RAI.

Since the theme of this year's forum was "Television in the new multimedia environment," many speeches touched on the subject of digital television. Carlo Sartori, director of Thematic Channels and New Media Services at RAI, asked the audience to "be careful not to consider digital television as a tout-court synonymous with pay-TV." According to Sartori, who is also a college professor, "in many of our civil societies, the public service broadcasters that respond to the parliamentary democracies guarantee digital democracy."

At one point, a broadcaster from a developing country complained that many nations that are just now adopting analog television will soon be thrown out of the loop by yet another new technology that they cannot afford. The fear is that digital technology will further distance developing countries from the rest of the world.

According to RAI's Olivares, there are now 350 digital channels on a national level around the world. She added: "The growth of total TV revenues is now, worldwide, driven by pay-TV. Advertising revenues [are] still increasing but are decreasing in percentage of the total revenue."

Italy's deputy minister of Telecommunications, Vincenzo Vita, said that what "the governments miss is the ability to `read' various research to solve the problems that new technologies raise with violence." Vita proposed a U.N.-sponsored world TV authority that would take into consideration more than just the interests of the industry.

RAI's Siciliano expressed the opinion that, "in the era of digital multiplication, television, faced with problems of quality and access to supply, must both simplify and diversify." Siciliano also introduced two international studies at the forum: one on models of television, telecommunications and computer convergence, and the other on problems of programming throughout the world.

During World Television Day, a series of TV specials aired in connection with the forum, RAI broadcast the sessions over its worldwide satellite system. The series was coordinated by RAI International's Glauco Binigni from RAI's offices in New York. Siciliano proposed that for the next World Television Day, on November 21, 1998, international broadcasters participate in a telethon benefitting young victims of land mines. For November 21, 1999, Siciliano proposed a salute to the 20th century utilizing archive material from all the world's broadcasters.

The World TV Forum included a video exhibition of programs submitted by various organizations ranging from BSkyB to RTHK of Hong Kong and the Israel Broadcasting Authority. The forum concluded with a cocktail party at the U.N. Plaza Hotel.
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Author:Serafini, Dom
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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