Two Ways of Being Italian on Global Television


How to Cite

Hayward, M. (2008). Two Ways of Being Italian on Global Television: Mega-Events. M/C Journal, 10(6).
Vol. 10 No. 6 (2008): 'vote/citizen'
Published 2008-04-01

“We have made Italy, now we must make Italians,” in the (probably apocryphal) words of the Prime Minister, sometime after the unification of the nation in 1860. Perhaps in French, if it was said at all. (The quotation is typically attributed to Massimo D’Azeglio, the prime minister of Piedmont and predecessor of the first Italian prime minister Camillo Cavour. Many have suggested that the phrase was misquoted and misunderstood (see Doyle.) D’Azeglio spoke in Italian when he addressed the newly-formed Italian parliament, but my reference to French is meant to indicate the fragility of the national language in early Italy where much of the ruling class spoke French while the majority of the people in the peninsula still spoke regional dialects.)

It was television – more than print media or even radio – that would have the biggest impact in terms of ‘making Italians.’ Writing about Italy in the 1950s, a well-known media critic suggested that television, a game show actually, “was able to succeed where The Divine Comedy failed … it gave Italy a national language” (qtd. in Foot).

But these are yesterday’s problems. We have Italy and Italians. Moreover, the emergence of global ways of being and belonging are evidence of the ways in which the present transcends forms of belonging rooted in the old practices and older institutions of the nation-state.

But, then again, maybe not.

“A country that allows you to vote in its elections must be able to provide you with information about those elections” (Magliaro). This was 2002. The country is still Italy, but this time the Italians are anywhere but Italy. The speaker is referring to the extension of the vote to Italian citizens abroad, represented directly by 18 members of parliament, and the right to information guaranteed the newly enfranchised electorate.

What, then, is the relationship between citizenship, the state and global television today? What are the modalities of involvement and participation involved in these transformations of the nation-state into a globally-articulated network of institutions?

I want to think through these questions in relation to two ways that RAI International, the ‘global’ network of the Italian public broadcaster, has viewed Italians around the world at different moments in its history: mega-events and return information.


Eighteen months after its creation in 1995, RAI International was re-launched. This decision was partially due to a change in government (which also meant a change in the executive and staff), but it was also a response to the perceived failure of RAI International to garner an adequate international audience (Morrione, Testimony [1997]). This re-launch involved a re-conceptualisation of the network’s mandate to include both information services for Italians abroad (the traditional ‘public service’ mandate for Italy’s international broadcasting) as well as programming that would increase the profile of Italian media in the global market.

The mandate outlined for Roberto Morrione – appointed president as part of the re-launch – read:

The necessity of strategic and operative certainties in the international positioning of the company, both with regard to programming for our co-nationals abroad and for other markets…are at the centre of the new role of RAI International. This involves bringing together in the best way the informative function of the public service, which is oriented to our community in the world in order to enrich its cultural patrimony and national identity, with an active presence in evolving markets. (Morrione, Testimony [1998])

The most significant change in the executive of the network was the appointment of Renzo Arbore, a well-known singer and bandleader, to the position of artistic director. At the time of Arbore’s appointment, the responsibilities of the artistic director at the network were ill defined, but he very quickly transformed the position into the ‘face’ of RAI International. In an interview from 1998, Arbore explained his role at the network as follows: “I’m the artistic director, which means I’m in charge of the programs that have any kind of artistic content. Also, I’m the so called “testimonial”, which is to say I do propaganda for the network, I’m the soul of RAI International” (Affatato).

The most often discussed aspect of the programming on RAI International during Arbore’s tenure as artistic director was the energy and resources dedicated to events that put the spotlight on the global reach of the service itself and the possibilities that satellite distribution gave for simultaneous exchange between locations around the world. It was these ‘mega-events’ (Garofalo), in spite of constituting only a small portion of the programming schedule, that were often seen as defining RAI’s “new way” of creating international programming (Milana).

La Giostra [The Merry Go Round], broadcast live on New Year’s Eve 1996, is often cited as the launch of the network’s new approach to its mission. Lasting 20 hours in total, the program was hosted by Arbore. As Morrione described it recently,

The ‘mother of live shows’ was the Giostra of New Year’s ’97 where Arbore was live in the studio for 20 consecutive hours, with many guests and segments from the Pole, Peking, Moscow, Berlin, Jerusalem, San Paolo, Buenos Aires, New York and Los Angeles. It was a memorable enterprise without precedent and never to be duplicated. (Morrione, RAI International)

The presentation of television as a global medium in La Giostra draws upon the relationship between live broadcasting, satellite television and conceptions of globality that has developed since the 1960s as part of what Lisa Parks describes as ‘global presence’ (Parks).

However, in keeping with the dual mandate of RAI International, the audience that La Giostra is intended to constitute was not entirely homogenous in nature. The lines between the ‘national’ audience, which is to say Italians abroad, and the international audience involving a broader spectrum of viewers are often blurred, but still apparent. This can be seen in the locations to which La Giostra travelled, locations that might be seen as a mirror of the places to which the broadcast might be received.

On the one hand, there are segments from a series of location that speak to a global audience, many of which are framed by the symbols of the cold war and the ensuing triumph of global capitalism. The South Pole, Moscow, Beijing and a reunified Berlin can be seen as representing this understanding of the globe. These cities highlighted the scope of the network, reaching cities previously cut off from Italy behind the iron curtain (or, in the case of the Pole, the extreme of geographic isolation.) The presence of Jerusalem contributed to this mapping of the planet with an ecclesiastical, but ecumenical accent to this theme. On the other hand, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne (not mentioned by Morrione, but the first international segment in the program) also mapped the world of Italian communities around the world.

The map of the globe offered by La Giostra is similar to the description of the prospective audience for RAI International that Morrione gave in November 1996 upon his appointment as director. After having outlined the network’s reception in the Americas and Australia, where there are large communities of Italians who need to be served, he goes on to note the importance of Asia: “China, India, Japan, and Korea, where there aren’t large communities of Italians, but where “made in Italy,” the image of Italy, the culture and art that separate us from others, are highly respected resources” (Morrione, “Gli Italiani”). La Giostra served as a container that held together a vision of the globe that is centered around Italy (particularly Rome, caput mundi) through the presentation on screen of the various geopolitical alliances as well as the economic and migratory connections which link Italy to the world.

These two mappings of the globe brought together within the frame of the 20-hour broadcast and statements about the network’s prospective audiences suggest that two different ways of watching RAI International were often overlaid over each other. On the one hand, the segments spanning the planet stood as a sign of RAI International’s ability to produce programs at a global scale. On the other hand, there was an attempt to speak directly to communities of Italians abroad. The first vision of the planet offered by the program suggests a mode of watching more common among disinterested, cosmopolitan viewers belonging to a relatively homogenous global media market. While the second vision of the planet was explicitly rooted in the international family of Italians constituted through the broadcast.

La Giostra, like the ‘dual mandate’ of the network, can be seen as an attempt to bring together the national mission of network with its attempts to improve its position in global media markets. It was an attempt to unify what seemed two very different kinds of audiences: Italians abroad and non-Italians, those who spoke some Italian and those who speak no Italian at all. It was also an attempt to unify two very different ways of understanding global broadcasting: public service on the one hand and the profit-oriented goals of building a global brand.

Given this orientation in the network’s programming philosophy, it is not surprising that Arbore, speaking of his activities as Artistic director, stated that his goals were to produce shows that would be accessible both to those that spoke very little Italian as well as those that were highly cultured (Arbore).

In its attempt to bring these divergent practices and imagined audiences together, La Giostra can be seen as part of vision of globalisation rooted in the euphoria of the early nineties in which distance and cultural differences were reconciled through communications technology and “virtuous” transformation of ethnicity into niche markets. However, this approach to programming started to fracture and fail after a short period. The particular balance between the ethnic and the economically ecumenical mappings of the globe present in La Giostra proved to be as short lived as the ‘dual mandate’ at RAI International that underwrote its conception.

Return Information

The mega-events that Arbore organised came under increasing criticism from the parliamentary committees overseeing RAI’s activities as well as the RAI executive who saw them both extremely expensive to produce and of questionable value in the fulfillment of RAI’s mission as a public broadcaster (GRTV). They were sometimes described as misfatti televisivi [broadcasting misdeeds] (Arbore). The model of the televisual mega-event was increasingly targeted towards speaking to Italians abroad, dropping broader notions of the audience. This was not an overnight change, but part of a process through which the goals of the network were refocused towards ‘public service.’

Morrione, speaking before the parliamentary committee overseeing RAI’s activities, describes an evening dedicated to a celebration of the Italian flag which exemplifies this trend:

The minister of Foreign Affairs asked us to prepare a Tricolore (the Italian flag) evening – that would go on air in the month of January – that we would call White, Red and Green (not the most imaginative name, but effective enough.) It would include international connections with Argentina, where there exists one of the oldest case d’italiani [Italian community centers], built shortly after the events of our Risorgimento and where they have an ancient Tricolore. We would also connect with Reggio Emilia, where the Tricolore was born and where they are celebrating the anniversary this year. Segments would also take us to the Vittoriano Museum in Rome for a series of testimonies. (Morrione, Testimony [1997])

Similar to La Giostra, the global reach of RAI International was used to create a sense of simultaneity among the dispersed communities of Italians around the world (including the population of Italy itself). The festival of the Italian flag was similarly deeply implicated in the rituals and patterns that bring together an audience and, at another level, a people. However, in the celebration of the Italian flag, the notion that such a spectacle might be of interest to those outside of a global “Italian” community has disappeared.

Like La Giostra, programs of this kind are intended to be constitutive of an audience, a collectivity that would not exist were it not for the common space provided through television spectatorship. The celebration of the Italian flag is part of an attempt to produce a sense of global community organised by a shared sense of ethnic identity as expressed through the common temporality of a live broadcast. Italians around the world were part of the same Italian community not because of their shared history (even when this was the stated subject of the program as was the case with Red, White and Green), but because they co-existed by means of their experience of the mediated event. Through these events, the shared national history is produced out of the simultaneity of the common present and not, as the discourse around Italian identity presented in these programs would have it (for example, the narratives around the origin around the flag), the other way around.

However, this connection between the global television event that was broadcast live and national belonging raised questions about the kind of participation they facilitated. This became a particularly salient issue with the election of the second Berlusconi government and the successful campaign to grant Italians citizens living abroad the vote, a campaign that was lead by formerly fascist (but centre-moving) Alleanza Nazionale.

With the appoint of Massimo Magliaro, a longtime member of Alleanza Nazionale, to the head of the network in 2000, the concept of informazione di ritorno [return information] became increasingly prominent in descriptions of the service. The phrase was frequently used, along with tv di ritorno (Tremaglia), by the Minister for Italiani nel Mondo during the second Berlusconi administration, Mirko Tremaglia, and became a central theme in the projects envisioned for the service. (The concept had circulated previously, but it was not given the same emphasis that it would gain after Magliaro’s appointment. In an interview from 1996, Morrione is asked about his commitment to the policy of “so-called” return information. He answers the question by commenting in support of producing a ‘return image’ (immagine di ritorno), but never uses the phrase (Morrione, “Gli Italiani”). Similarly, Arbore, in an interview from 1998, is also asked about ‘so-called’ return information, but also never uses the term himself (Affatato). This suggests that its circulation was limited up until the late 1990s.)

The concept of ‘return information’ – not quite a neologism in Italian, but certainly an uncommon expression – was a two-pronged, and never fully implemented, initiative. Primarily it was a policy that sought to further integrate RAI International into the system of RAI’s national television networks. This involved both improving the ability of RAI International to distribute information about Italy to communities of Italians abroad as well as developing strategies for the eventual use of programming produced by RAI International on the main national networks as a way of raising the awareness of Italians in Italy about the lives and beliefs of Italians abroad. (The programming produced by RAI International was never successfully integrated into the schedules of the other national networks. This issue remained an issue that had yet to be resolved as recently as the negotiations between the Prime Minister’s office and RAI to establish a new agreement governing RAI’s international service in 2007.)

This is not to say that there was a dramatic shift in the kind of programming on the network. There had always been elements of these new goals in the programming produced exclusively for RAI International. The longest running program on the network, Sportello Italia [Information Desk Italy], provided information to Italians abroad about changes in Italian law that effected Italians abroad as well as changes in bureaucratic practice generally. It often focused on issues such as the voting rights of Italians abroad, questions about receiving pensions and similar issues. It was joined by a series of in-house productions that primarily consisted of news and information programming whose roots were in the new division in charge of radio and television broadcasts since the sixties.

The primary change was the elimination of large-scale programs, aside from those relating to the Italian national soccer team and the Pope, due to budget restrictions. This was part of a larger shift in the way that the service was envisioned and its repositioning as the primary conduit between Italy and Italians abroad. Speaking in 2000, Magliaro explained this as a change in the network’s priorities from ‘entertainment’ to ‘information’:

There will be a larger dose of information and less space for entertainment. Informational programming will be the privileged product in which we will invest the majority of our financial and human resources, both on radio and on television. Providing information means both telling Italians abroad about Italy and allowing public opinion in our country to find out about Italians around the world. (Morgia)

Magliaro’s statement suggests that there is a direct connection between the changing way of conceiving of ‘global’ Italian television and the mandate of RAI International. The spectacles of the mid-nineties, implicitly characterised by Magliaro as ‘entertainment,’ were as much about gaining the attention of those who did not speak Italian or watch Italian television as speaking to Italians abroad. The kind of participation in the nation that these events solicited were limited in that they did not move beyond a relatively passive experience of that nation as community brought together through the diffuse and distracted experience of ‘entertainment’.

The rise of informazione di ritorno was a discourse that offered a particular conception of Italians abroad who were more directly involved in the affairs of the nation. However, this was more than an increased interest in the participation of audiences. Return information as developed under Magliaro’s watch posited a different kind of viewer, a viewer whose actions were explicitly and intimately linked to their rights as citizens. It is not surprising that Magliaro prefaced his comments about the transformation of RAI’s mandate and programming priorities by acknowledging that the extension of the vote to Italians abroad demands a different kind of broadcaster.

The new editorial policy of RAI International is motivated from the incontrovertible fact that Italians abroad will have the right to vote in a few months … . In terms of the product that we are developing, aimed at adequately responding to the new demands created by the vote… (Morgia)

The granting of the vote to Italians abroad meant that the forms of symbolic communion that produced through the mega-events needed to be supplanted by a policy that allowed for a more direct link between the ritual aspects of global media to the institutions of the Italian state.

The evolution of RAI International cannot be separated from the articulation of an increasingly ethno-centric conception of citizenship and the transformation of the Italian state over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s towards. The transition between these two approaches to global television in Italy is important for understanding the events that unfolded around RAI International’s role in the development of a global Italian citizenry. A development that should not be separated from the development of increasingly stern immigration policies whose effect is to identify and export undesirable outsiders.

The electoral defeat of Berlusconi in 2006 and the ongoing political instability surrounding the centre-left government in power since then has meant that the future development of RAI International and the long-term effects of the right-wing government on the cultural and political fabric of Italy remain unclear at present. The current need for a reformed electoral system and talk about the need for greater efficiency from the new executive at RAI make the evolution of the global Italian citizenry an important context for understanding the role of media in the globalised nation-state in the years to come.

Author Biography

Mark Hayward