Mediaset: The Decline Of The Italian Empire Will Not Take Place

Article  by  Luca BARRA  •  Published 28.04.2014  •  Updated 29.04.2014
Mediaset visuel Luca Barra
Founded by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media company has a long-lasting interconnection with the political sphere: is it an enhancer or a burden?


In Autumn 2013, Mediaset main networks and digital channels started to broadcast a series of special promotional videos, devoted to underline the important role of the company in the Italian media system, as well as in its general economy. The reasons of this campaign were multiple: on one side, the political goal to strengthen Silvio Berlusconi in a moment of weakness – with his expulsion from the Italian parliament due to judicial reasons and the consequent marginal role into political sphere after 20 years of important positions of power –, recalling to a large audience his professional accomplishments; on the other, also the more general aim to reinforce the company after some years of economic losses, due to the economic crisis as well as to the new challenges of the digital scenario and to a diffused perception of creative stasis and immobility in its programming. To most observers, it seemed an unsteady and even desperate move, object of various critical remarks and parodies. However, even if in a oblique way, it reminded the Italian audience of the trajectory of the company, as well as of its long-lasting interconnection with the political sphere, that works both as an enhancer and as a burden.
The promotional video broadcast by Mediaset in Autumn 2013
This deeply intertwined role, at the same time editorial/commercial and political, leaves often behind, in the background, the space occupied by Mediaset into the national media landscape. For at least the last twenty years, most analysis and discourses on those networks had to take into account Berlusconi’s heavy legacy, with discussions sliding towards topics as the “conflict of interests”, or the political interference in establishing favourable conditions in the advertising and television market. At the same time, a more detached point of view could better explain the place occupied nationally and globally by Mediaset, and its variable strategies inside a deeply changed market, thanks to composite (and often contrasting) phenomena as globalization, digitization, conglomeration, etc.
Since 1996 Mediaset is a listed company at the Milan stock exchange: its shares are possessed largely by the Fininvest parent company, controlled by Berlusconi’s family and managing also other major companies in Italy like book publishing houses Mondadori and Einaudi, Mondadori magazines, R101 radio, Mediolanum bank, as well as football team Milan F.C.; however, Mediaset has also shareholders and investors from various parts of the world, including US, Canada and UK.
The composition of Mediaset shareholders (December 2012)
Image source: Mediaset corporate website
After Silvio Berlusconi leaving in 1994 for pursuing his political career, and becoming Italian prime minister in 1994, 2001 and 2008, the society is guided by its president, Fedele Confalonieri, former Berlusconi schoolmate and then trusted ally, and by its vice-president Piersilvio Berlusconi, Silvio’s son. Based in the outskirts of Milan – with its headquarters and a production centre in Cologno Monzese, and news and production facilities in Milano Due, Segrate – and in Rome – with another production centre, a news department and a boardroom –, the company employed 5.902 workers in December 2012, thus confirming its status as a major economic player in the country.
Mediaset plays an important role in Italian media scenario, and established itself as one of the three major player into Italian television market. Although slightly decreasing its revenues in recent years, due to economic crisis and pay and digital television expansion, with a 30,2% market share the company is still very close to its direct competitors Rai, the Italian public service broadcaster (28,5%), and pay TV operator Sky Italia, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp (32%).
At the same time, Mediaset entered also the pay TV environment, with its Mediaset Premium offer on digital terrestrial television, occupying a still partial but growing place also in this market before totally controlled by Sky Italia and targeting lower-income families with a lighter bouquet of soccer and films.

From Fininvest to Mediaset, long story short

In order to better understand the place occupied by Mediaset in the contemporary Italian media scenario, it could be useful to summarize the history of the company, that has proceeded in parallel with the development of commercial television in the country. We can split this history into four stages.
The first phase could be represented by the image of an “heroic conquer”. Silvio Berlusconi, then a real estate developer and entrepreneur that built suburban areas around Milan, started to be interested in television around 1978, with the birth of Telemilano, a cable (and then terrestrial) channel firstly intended to provide a service to the inhabitants of his Milano Due housing complex in Segrate. Soon the channel began to transmit into the wider Milan area, and to be connected with other local private channels around Italy, with an expansive activity of program production that involved both new faces and established stars of the public service broadcaster Rai, including famous host Mike Bongiorno. Berlusconi developed the production and transmission facilities, as well as a rights acquisition company, Rete Italia, and an advertising society, Publitalia ’80. In 1980, Telemilano changes its name in Canale 5, thus establishing itself – in a legislative void – as a national private network, competing directly with both Rai and many other private channels that were blossoming across Italy. The transmission – with synchronized cassettes and then direct broadcasting – all over the national territory, despite the suspension ordered by some praetors in 1984 and thanks to close ties with the socialist government, as well as the acquisition of its two most important competitors Italia 1 (in 1982) and Retequattro (in 1984), established the first (and for a long time only) commercial TV group in the country.
During the second phase the naiveté and the risks of the beginnings are substituted by a “push towards stability”. Channel schedules are no longer filled with US content, but the competition with the PSB becomes harsher over the original productions and the national-popular hosts and artists. The three networks start to follow different editorial guidelines, in order to appeal to different targets, while the company organized itself with the different sections of RTI (networks), Elettronica Industriale (distribution), Videotime (production) and Publitalia. The development of a television advertising market is reinforced by the introduction, in 1986, of a stable form of audience measurement, Auditel. The explosion thus reshapes into a stability, setting the ground for further developments.
In 1990, Italian parliament approved the first law that systematized the Italian television system, the so-called “legge Mammì”, ending the legislative void while confirming the forces already present into the television market. A single broadcaster could control three different channels, thus enabling Berlusconi in its “duopoly” with Rai PSB. At the same time, this law gave to commercial networks the right to broadcast live, as well as the duty to air a newscast on every channel. In the following years, Canale 5, Italia 1 and Retequattro opened their news departments, completing their offer and starting to compete with the public broadcaster also on this ground. In 1994, Silvio Berlusconi started its political life, and soon became Italy’s prime minister: the role of its networks during the electoral campaign, as well as in the following years, opened a debate over a still unsolved conflict of interest between the media mogul and the politician. In 1996, the networks – now called Mediaset – enter the stock market. The Nineties, our third phase, establish Berlusconi’s channels as a “solid presence” in the Italian television landscape.
The last step of this short history could be named of “convergent television”. For Mediaset, it starts in 1999, with the launch of its website, and in 2001, with its online news and gossip department TgCom. The switch-off to digital terrestrial television, on one side, with an increasing number of frequencies, and the competition of satellite pay operator Sky Italia, on the other, forces Mediaset to modify its strategies in order to better fit into the digital scenario and to maintain a considerable market share in a system that has changed from the “duopoly” Rai /Mediaset to a multiplicity of global players.
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A Multichannel Player

During the last decade, Mediaset has then reacted to the profound changes into Italian television system, and more largely in the national and global media scenario, adopting a strategy of expansion across different lines, intended to cover other markets and explore new territories. After several years of identification between Mediaset and its three networks (coordinated in their schedules and their programming, and sometimes attacked as one of the pillars of “Italian duopoly” in television market and as a longstanding reason of conflict of interest in the political sphere), then, Mediaset started to position itself into the convergent landscape as a key player in the multichannel environment. As a result, the numbers of channels offered increased, as well as the involvement in program production.
The main asset of the company is still concentrated in its three main networks, called “generalisti” because intended towards a large, mainstream and undifferentiated audience and somewhat mirroring PSB’s three competitors Raiuno, Raidue and Raitre. On one side, while their ratings are slowly diminishing over the years, they still maintain a central role into the Italian media system, providing shared rituals and events to the national community (musical shows, evening news, national-popular programming) and setting a common timing and a common discourse. On the other, the identities of these channels had to be refined, in order to respond to the challenges of the new digital world and to maintain and reinforce the strong relationship with the audience and its changing habits.
Canale 5, the first television station launched by Silvio Berlusconi and still Mediaset’s flagship network, is mainly a family channel, providing a complete mix of news, fiction and entertainment to a composite audience (both female and male, with an age range that goes from kids to a mature public). It is the network that airs the second most seen evening news in Italy, Tg5, as well as the majority of Mediaset original fiction programming (I Cesaroni, Italian adaptation of Spanish Los Serrano; Taodue’s Squadra Antimafia – Palermo oggi; Il peccato e la vergogna, with famous television actors Gabriel Garko and Manuela Arcuri). On Canale 5 are aired Italia’s Got Talent and the Italian versions of Big Brother and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, talent show Amici di Maria de Filippi and people show C’è posta per te, as well as Striscia la notizia, a fake news program written by Antonio Ricci, broadcast in access prime time since 1988. Last but not least, Canale 5 is the place for a great number of Italian television stars, like Paolo Bonolis and Gerry Scotti, Maria De Filippi and Barbara D’Urso, as well as for one man shows of famous comedians (Checco Zalone) and singers (Adriano Celentano, Gianni Morandi). In the last few years, there has been a shift towards a more female-oriented programming, including the upgrade in prime time of some afternoon soap operas (Italian Centovetrine, Spanish Il segreto).

The second Mediaset network, Italia 1, is intended towards a younger, mostly male, audience, and therefore gives space in its programming to sports (with a sport news program every afternoon and late night talk shows), comedy and satire (with stand-up variety shows like Colorado and infotainment like Le Iene), and blockbuster movies. Italia 1 airs The Simpsons every afternoon and a large number of other US television series (CSI, Arrow, The Following) and sitcoms (The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, Community), as well as anime (Dragon Ball) and cartoons. In the last few years, especially with supernatural and popular science magazines like Mistero and Wild, the channel has tried to appeal to a more adult, yet still mostly male, portion of the audience.
Retequattro, the third Mediaset mainstream channel, is the network more able to speak to a mature audience, both female (in daytime) and male (in late night), programming a large number of movies (with the series I Bellissimi, with auteur and cult films), political talk shows (as right-wing Quinta colonna), crime talk shows (Quarto grado), documentaries (including some BBC series), telenovelas and religious programs (including the Sunday Mass). In the last few seasons, Retequattro focused more on TV series, with both classic successful titles (Perry Mason, Murder, she wrote) and new procedural dramas (The Mentalist, Bones, Law & Order), as well as quality series as Downton Abbey.
One of the reasons of the constant reshaping of these three Mediaset mainstream networks, together with the long-lasting economic crisis and a more general expansion inside the media scenario, has been the launch of a complete digital terrestrial offer, with eight new free channels experimented, and then established, in the period between 2004 and 2013. Following the examples of what happened in several other European major markets, as the British, French and Spanish one, Mediaset decided to exploit the opportunity of switching-off to DTT – a national political decision that the company helped developing, acting as a well-established pressure group with close connections to a “friend” government – occupying more space and presenting a wide portfolio of new brands in order to conquer new viewers, or at least maintain the same market share. This expansion, often more focused on the launch of new networks than on the creation of original programming, was reinforced by similar strategies developed by Italian public service broadcaster Rai and by other players in the market (as Sky Italia and Discovery Networks), and has led to a complete multichannel environment.
A first batch of Mediaset free digital channels was launched in order to occupy some specific genres and areas of programming. It is the case of Boing (from 2004) and Cartoonito (from 2011), made in joint venture with Turner Broadcasting: the former is a thematic channel devoted to kids of scholar age, programming foreign cartoons (Spongebob, Ben 10) and TV series, with some insertions of original shows and fillers; the latter has a younger target, pre-scholar kids, and a schedule filled by cartoons intended towards that age (My Little Pony, Thomas and Friends, The Smurfs). Another channel, TgCom 24 (from 2011), provides a 24/7 coverage of news, with a continuous report on politics, national and international stories, gossip and sports, in strong connection with Mediaset news departments and digital media. Iris, launched in 2007, is the most viewed digital channel in Italy during the last seasons: it gives space to a large number of classic movies, organizing them in thematic collections and providing also cinema, book and art magazines. Digital channel Top Crime, started in 2013, is completely devoted to procedural and legal dramas, offering to the viewers US classic TV series (Columbo), more recent titles (Person of Interest) and also some movies (as an Alfred Hitchcock collection).
Other channels stemmed, in direct or indirect way, from the mainstream networks. It’s the case of La5, that started to broadcast in 2010, intended towards a young and hip female audience: its schedule provides factual programming – both imported and originally produced, with makeover, tutorials, cooking and fashion shows –, as well as some expansions from Canale 5 programs (Uomini e donne Story) and TV series (Parenthood) or soap operas. On the other side, Italia 2 (from 2011) is the extension of Italia 1 towards a younger male audience, providing them US TV series and sitcoms, cartoons, music videos and sports, as well as some factual programming and remixed forms of comedy and satire shows. Also Mediaset Extra (started in 2010) is strictly tied to the rest of the Mediaset offer, being a catch-up channel that airs day-after repetitions, in different slots, of the most important original productions.
This rich free digital terrestrial offer, however, is just one part of a larger expansion strategy. Since 2005, Mediaset has launched Mediaset Premium, its pay television offer on the DTT frequencies, directly competing with Sky Italia satellite pay bouquet. Started as a pay-per-view system to watch Italian football matches, it has soon developed into a more structured system with several linear channels. Its programming is built around the usual premium genres. Sports, and soccer in particular, are the mainstay of Premium Calcio, with Italian Serie A and B matches, and of third-party channels Eurosport and Fox Sports (operated by its main competitor NewsCorp). Movies, both first-run and library, fill the schedules of Premium Cinema, Premium Cinema Comedy, Premium Cinema Emotion and Studio Universal, the latter oriented to classic Hollywood cinema and produced by NBC Universal Italia. Kids programming and cartoons are provided by Disney Channel, Disney Junior and Cartoon Network, while documentaries are displayed on BBC Knowledge and Discovery World. The bouquet is completed by some original channels focused on US and European TV series: Premium Joi (family-oriented comedies and sitcoms), Premium Mya (targeted towards women), Premium Action (thriller and adventure series), and Premium Crime (procedurals and legal dramas). Even if subscribers data are not official, according to a Piersilvio Berlusconi statement, in June 2013 Mediaset Premium had distributed 4.400.000 active cards, thus establishing its presence into the Italian TV market.
The “Mediaset system” is then completed by the online and mobile offer, with websites and apps distributing information and television content – Video Mediaset is a service providing full episodes and short clips taken from Mediaset original productions –, and by the increasing non-linear programming, with Premium On Demand/Net TV and Premium Play, both tied to Mediaset Premium, that give the subscribers the possibility the former to choose their programming inside a large archive of productions and rights, and the latter to watch the pay TV on mobile devices. At last, in December 2013, Mediaset has launched Infinity, an on demand service accessible from computers and smart TVs that is completely independent, even in its name, from the Mediaset brand, and that will try to conquer some positions in the online streaming scenario before the arrival of Netflix inside Italian national market.
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A Fully-Integrated Global Player

In addition to the multiplication of the channels on free-to-air and pay television, Mediaset adopted also a couple of other strategies in order to consolidate the role of the company in both the Italian and global media marketplace: expanding vertically in the supply chain, and developing abroad.
On one side, Mediaset has tried to rationalize its company processes, adding to its main activity of programming and scheduling – or expanding and reorganizing where already existing – both its production and transmission facilities. Regarding transmission, the societies Elettronica Industriale and EI Towers are controlling antenna towers for terrestrial broadcasting all across the country. While in production, together with its internal service VideoTime, mainly focused on entertainment programs, other companies have been founded or acquired to produce shows and various programming, including Medusa – one of the largest cinema production and distribution companies in Italy –, Taodue – a TV fiction developer, founded by Pietro Valsecchi –, and Mediavivere – in charge of daily soap opera Centovetrine and other serial productions. News departments as well have been reimagined, with the creation of News Mediaset (2010), a news agency providing common services to all the news facilities of the group (news Tg5, Tg4 and Studio Aperto, channel TgCom24), and the repositioning of Videonews, an editorial structure now preparing all the information magazines and talk shows, as well as morning and afternoon infotainment shows. A similar concentration, in order to provide content to all the networks and to the digital media (online, mobile) as well, has been made also with Sport Mediaset, the department in charge of producing every sport-related content.

On the other side, Mediaset has reinforced its role as a global player with several acquisitions. After the early (and failed) experiences in the Eighties, in France (with the launch of commercial network LaCinq) and in Germany (with the similar creation of Tele 5), the adventure in Spain proved to be more durable: first with the creation of Telecinco, a channel similar to Canale 5 launched in 1990, and the subsequent development of a media company, Mediaset Espana, and an advertising agency, Publiespana, largely shaped on their Italian counterparts; then, in 2008, with the acquisition of Caribbean channel Caribevision and, in 2009, with the deal with Prisa group to obtain the control of another network, Cuatro, and a 22% participation in pay-TV Digital Plus. As a result, Mediaset Espana ended up reproducing the strategies of its Italian parent company, both in the free-to-air and in the pay TV national markets. Other forms of global expansion, furthermore, have been the participation to Nessma, a channel broadcasting over the Maghreb region, and to CSPN (China Sport Network), a commercial station in China entirely devoted to sports. Last but not least, at the intersection between vertical integration in the supply chain and global development, it could be useful to recall the acquisition of Endemol, the global format company, started in 2007 and ended in 2012 after economic losses and various controversies due to the dominant position of Mediaset inside the market. 
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A stable role into Italian TV Market

As both the history of the company and the recent expansive strategies clearly demonstrate, Mediaset has faced in thirty years a large amount of changes and challenges, yet establishing itself as an important media force in Italy and abroad, and influencing the economic, political and cultural national system.
In the contemporary scenario, with the multiplication of digital platforms and the subsequent ratings and audiences fragmentation, the strategy of playing into multiple markets – as pay TV and on demand, together with free-to-air television – and of focusing on both creating new channels and enhancing new forms of production (with great production values and/or low-cost), proved effective in responding to the multiple modifications of a previously stable scenario.
The positioning of free and pay channels into Italian television scenario (gender/age).
(Data source: Mediaset/RTI free-to-air marketing department)

Expanding the presence in the television arena, with several fresh and original networks, contributed to the creation of a fully complete multichannel, containing the competition of digital media (online, mobile, etc.) and giving to the audiences at least the impression of a strong expansion and a complete renewal in order to better fulfil their needs and expectations. Mediaset strategy worked also towards differentiation: as the positioning maps clearly show, its channels were intended – and concretely succeeded – to cover a wide range of possible target audiences, segmenting them according to criteria of age and gender, as well of income and education: quite every part of the map is “covered” with at least a main or a digital channel, while other competitors as Rai are more focused on some of its parts.
The positioning of Mediaset FTA channels into Italian television scenario (gender/age).
(Data source: Mediaset/RTI free-to-air marketing department)

This diversification strategy was able also to contain the loss in the ratings of the mainstream channels, that now reach percentages inferior to the levels of ten years ago. As audience shares clearly show, the small ratings of a number of new digital networks compensate that loss, maintaining relatively stable the importance of the editorial group in its complex.
The last one of several battles fought by Mediaset along its history – the “conquer” of digital terrestrial television, both in its free and pay sectors – is now accomplished, and the activity for the future years, more than launching new brands or acquiring more products, seems to be the maintenance of that position in respect of a growing competition. However, the battleground for Mediaset, and for all the other TV companies in Italy, is now moving outside television, into the convergent and digital media market: the launch of Infinity service, with on demand fictional content, is a first step in that direction. And a new struggle, for a company that started disruptive and is now seen as conservative, can begin.
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Photo Credits:
Mediaset (Michele Ficara Manganelli / Flickr)

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