Webs set to pay piper for song fest

RAI will do whatever it takes

ROME — While the 48th San Remo Italian Song Festival wrapped this weekend with an audience of more than 15 million and a TV aud share of 62.7%, the real contest will start this month as final negotiations heat up in a bidding war between pubcaster RAI and commercial competitor Mediaset for broadcasting rights to the popular music competition.

San Remo is one of RAI’s key annual TV events, and perhaps Italy’s most enduring pop-culture phenomenon. Despite regular complaints that the competition is rigged and the sugary songs are decades out of date, the fest pulls an average of 13 million viewers per night during its five evenings, with an audience share upwards of 50%.

Italian singers who received an early boost for their careers at San Remo before going on to become major international stars include Andrea Bocelli, Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini.

Generating expenditures of roughly $17 million each year — $11.8 million from RAI; $2.8 million from press and other networks; and $2.5 million from recording companies — the fest is a high-profile window for music labels to launch local talent and profile new releases from their international artists. This year’s guest lineup included Madonna, Celine Dion and Michael Bolton.

Currently, RAI pays the San Remo town council an annual fee of $5.9 million for exclusive rights to the event, in an agreement due to expire in the year 2000. After years of attempting to lure viewers away, even going so far as to establish a short-lived alternative songfest, Mediaset now is hoping to get a piece of the pie.

San Remo town officials have announced that rights will go to the highest bidder, and while details have not yet been disclosed, observers predict the going rate paid by RAI could be more than doubled.

Given the pressure on the new RAI management team headed by Roberto Zaccaria to regain lost ground in the ratings battle against Mediaset, the pubcaster is expected to be extremely aggressive in its bid to hang onto the lucrative tunefest.

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