Until the late 1970s, Italian television was an earnest affair. The only national channels were run by RAI, the state broadcaster. On average, RAI only broadcast for about 10 hours a day. Nearly two-thirds of its content consisted of serious news or educational programming. Even advertising had to meet high moral standards; ads for pet food, for example, were not allowed to show moving images of cats or dogs. Apparently the bosses at RAI thought it was inappropriate for companies to hawk food for Fluffy or Rover while people in the developing world were suffering from famine.
All of this changed when Silvio Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest entrepreneurs, started buying up regional channels in the 1980s. Though Italian courts repeatedly declared his activities illegal, Berlusconi’s close connections to leading politicians allowed him to build Italy’s first private network, Mediaset.
The difference between RAI and Mediaset was about as big as that between American networks of the 1960s and the cable shows of the 2010s. Less than 10 percent of Mediaset’s content consisted of news or educational programming. Whereas RAI devoted hours to earnest politicians and professors debating the most pressing issues of the day, Berlusconi’s channels homed in on the lowest common denominator. On one of Mediaset’s most infamous shows, a model would take off a piece of clothing every time a contestant answered a question correctly or had a lucky turn at the roulette wheel; when she was (nearly) naked, he won.
Gradual introduction of Berlusconi’s networks into different regions of Italy makes it possible to study the effect that entertainment television had on voting behavior. [Continue reading…]