Erik Gandini’s Videocracy is not a documentary, but a horror movie. Its well-crafted ominous music at the beginning of the film will tell you so right away. One simple suggestion: even though horror is not your favorite genre, keep watching this movie. Next time you switch on your TV in Italy, you’ll do so more carefully, or at least more thoughtfully. Videocracy is worth watching because it is a valuable documentation of today’s television in the Mediterranean peninsula and its declining cultural level. A piece of art that tries to explain to the rest of the world what is often incomprehensible beyond Italian borders: the Berlusconi phenomenon.
Italy-born Swedish director Gandini begins his movie with the old black and white images of the first Italian quiz show, where a housewife shed her clothes every time a contestant answered a question correctly. “This was the beginning of the President’s TV and the beginning of the cultural revolution,” Gandini’s voice-over narrates at the beginning of the movie. This TV show spurred the spread of commercial television in Italy, whose bigger and most successful businessman was Silvio Berlusconi.
Watch out. I said that Videocracy is not a documentary. Gandini plays it cool. He never names Berlusconi. The monster of the horror film is just referred to as “The President,” an epithet implying his power and his fame at the same time. He is so well-known that a shot of Milan-based communication tower with the Mediaset logo on top immediately connotes his persona. Italians know right away whom Gandini is talking about. However, even though he was born and raised in Italy, Gandini is aware that “from abroad, [this phenomenon] cannot be understood.” But, after all, he is Swedish and he wants to explain Berlusconi to the rest of the world. A task I always find impossible to achieve myself.
In its last report on the developments of the Italian press, the Federazione Italiana Editori Giornali (FIEG) gave a complete, yet alarming, overview of the so-called crisis of print media in Italy. The report, La Stampa in Italia 2007-2009, is a precious tool to understand “one of the most critical periods”  of the publishing industry and to discover why this period of recession is taking place. After touching upon various causes of the crisis, the FIEG provides trends and numbers about the declining revenues, sales, readers and workforce of newspapers and periodicals – thus making clear the current difficult situation of the Italian print industry.
Among the various causes of the crisis, the report lists the competition played by traditional and new media in terms of advertising revenue, low readership levels of Italians in general, high production costs and the overall economic recession. However, the FIEG also lays blame on the Italian government for being completely absent and not helping the industry with economic provisions and institutional reforms.
The report states that the most critical problem is the collapse of advertising investments. In total, ad revenues to newspapers and periodicals fell 21% in 2009. This loss was especially felt by the periodical press, rather than dailies, where ad revenues fell 29.5% in 2009 alone. This collapse is to be considered normal in this period of economic downturn. However, this is not the only reason why print ad revenue has kept falling in the last few years. The FIEG lays blame on what is called the “excess of power of the television.” To prove its point, the FIEG cites the OFCOM, an independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, whose report calculates the distribution of advertiser expenditure in twelve major economically advanced countries in 2008. In the report, Italy appeared to be the only country where TV absorbed 49.9% of advertiser expenditure, while only 33.1% went to newspapers and magazine. These numbers highly contrast with what happens in other major countries such as the UK (26.4% of advertiser expenditure to TV and 39.4% to newspapers and magazines), France (28.4% to TV and 39.3% to print media), and Germany (23% to TV and 42.6% to print).
The third one of a series of photogalleries about the printed press around the Eternal City.
If you absolutely adore flipping through your morning newspaper with a cup of coffee in your hands, then don’t read Felice Froio’s book, L’Informazione Spettacolo: Giornali e Giornalisti Oggi. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very entertaining and an interesting piece of writing. However, if you usually read news articles without questioning what’s behind every word, then you might be shocked. After reading this book, you will approach newspapers with a totally different attitude. And, your morning paper, that faithful friend waiting for you close to your steaming cup of coffee, will turn into a fierce enemy.
Froio’s essay on the rise of infotainment and low quality journalism in Italy is a sharp, at times sarcastic, analysis of how the press is losing track of its principles and is falling victim of the spiral of entertainment and the sin of subjection to political and corporate interests. Froio, who has worked as a reporter for Italy’s three major newspapers La Stampa, La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera, wrote this book at the beginning of the 21st century, in 2000. The shocking news is that, today, all his critiques are still relevant and appropriate to the contemporary state of the Italian press. L’Informazione Spettacolo could well be a book written in 2010. The only difference would be more up-do-date examples. In case you want to modernize this ten-year-old essay, just open a newspaper and pick the first article you find.
We all know that journalism’s content has changed over time. It did so in Italy after the introduction of radio, a new threatening technology for the printed press that actually spurred a modernization of newspapers, in terms of content and format. Italian print journalism began to diversify its content, use more photographs, widen sport sections, increase the number of newsroom journalists, give value to influent editorialists, and report on cinema, theatre and science. Print journalism changed again after the introduction of TV. And this is the kind of the content change that most interests us, because 21st-century society in Italy is still witnessing the effects of this dramatic change.
The spread of television revolutionized journalism all over the world, not just in Italy. Journalist Enrico Pedemonte, in his book Morte e Resurrezione dei Giornali, interviews Pro Publica founder Paul Steiger in order to give an idea of how US newspapers responded to the introduction of the threatening new medium in the 1960s. According to Steiger, one of the first changes was the failure of evening newspapers due to a new phenomenon he sums up in two words: Walter Cronkite. As many more people gathered in front of the TV at the dinner hour, newspaper evening editions disappeared. And so did hundreds of minor newspapers that could not survive what Pedemonte calls a “hecatomb.”
Every technological development brings some sort of chaos and forces people to rethink the status quo. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440 changed the meaning and the utility of the scribes. The telegraph was first seen as a threat to newspapers. Again in the 1930s, with the Great Depression and the rise of radio, hundreds of newspapers ceased operation. And according to several experts, the decline of newspapers actually “began at the end of the Second World War,” when newspaper circulation couldn’t keep the pace of the “population increase” and of “the social changes due to working women and internal migrations.” The rise of television caused a big circulation crisis and forced newspapers to change and adapt to a new kind of communication.
Technology has always changed journalism and it will continue to do so in the future, even after today’s revolution – the Internet – will have been accepted and integrated in the journalism business model. As my previous article “Decline, Decline, Decline” showed clearly enough, the current (economic) crisis of print media is worrisome. Newspapers are indeed losing revenues and readers. And the industry will be forced, in one way or the other, to rethink its business model while maintaining high quality standards. In order to understand this crisis and find a way out of it, it is necessary to learn about its roots and causes. Only then we will be able to find alternatives and propose solutions. When did this crisis begin? And where is it leading newspapers?