Emperor of the Air
Berlusconi's new political alliances have already begun to serve him well in the newly constituted European Parliament. His first move after this summer's election was to obtain the right to appoint one of his own deputies to head the Parliament's Culture Commission, which makes legislative proposals to the European Commission. The EC may take up the delicate issue of media concentration and will be undergoing a review of its policy on domestic content in European television--two areas of considerable personal interest to Berlusconi. The bread and butter of Berlusconi's networks are cheap American imports; European Union regulations require broadcasters to show 50 percent European content, but don't specify when. Berlusconi generally chooses the wee hours of the morning for such shows, while reserving prime time for the likes of Schwarzenegger and Baywatch. "If they are forced to run 50 percent European content during prime time," an executive for Berlusconi's company Fininvest told me, "that would hurt."
There is, however, a threat looming for the media mogul, in the form of the new President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, who defeated Berlusconi in the Italian elections in 1996 and was Prime Minister until last year. Prodi, who was forced to run an election campaign with almost no television coverage, is highly sensitized to the issue of media concentration; competitive tensions between the two men have been an ongoing feature of Italian politics since Berlusconi was deposed. Thus, the political-media drama of Italy is becoming a Europe-wide problem.
Berlusconi's political adventure dates from early 1994, when he addressed the nation on all three of his national networks from his study, announcing his decision to enter politics for the good of the country, as if he were a US President speaking to the public from the Oval Office.
Berlusconi's timing could not have been better. The political parties of the center and the right had fallen apart and dissolved after their principal leaders were indicted by Milan prosecutors on corruption charges. Berlusconi's Fininvest was itself under investigation for paying political bribes and was badly in debt, and the parties of the left--which appeared ready to triumph--were talking openly about passing antitrust measures that would have forced him to unload one or two of his three TV networks.
Squeezed on the judicial and financial fronts, Berlusconi launched a political campaign that took Italy by storm. He combined telegenic charm, can-do entrepreneurial rhetoric and a confident "It's morning in Italy" smile. Berlusconi was anything but a political outsider: He needed to enter politics because party protection had always been central to his entrepreneurial success. As a young real estate developer in the early seventies, Berlusconi convinced politicians to reroute the flight patterns of a Milan airport, turning a noisy and unattractive piece of real estate into a financial gold mine. And, in his rise as a real estate and, later, media mogul, Berlusconi was provided critical assistance by Bettino Craxi, whose ascent to the top of the Italian Socialist Party coincided with Berlusconi's own rising prominence. Craxi built the Socialist Party on a vast system of political patronage and bribery that financed the party and feathered his own nest.
In the late seventies, Berlusconi shifted from real estate into the new market of private television. Until that time, television was a monopoly of the state, but a court decision in 1974 allowed the broadcasting of private television stations on a local basis. Berlusconi, however, found a way to skirt the law and create a national network. He bought numerous small, regional stations and, by having each one broadcast the same program just seconds apart, achieved a national audience (and high ad rates) while appearing to obey the letter of the law.