Italy sans Silvio

Country's richest man's still got lots of bite

ROME Now that Silvio Berlusconi has stepped down as Italy’s prime minister after losing national elections last month, will the country’s media landscape and cultural climate change?

Don’t count on it. Not for a while, at least. “The Caiman” (crocodile) — as Berlusconi has been dubbed by the leftists and the Cannes-bound Nanni Moretti pic — may have lost the vote, but he’s still got lots of bite.

Consider the following: the 69-year-old TV tycoon leads Italy’s largest political force, Forza Italia, which got 23% of the vote. He is Italy’s richest man, worth $11 billion according to Forbes, and he still controls top commercial web Mediaset.

Furthermore, new Prime Minister Romano Prodi won by a whisker. The former economist has a mere two-vote majority in the upper house Senate, which could make his administration one of the many Italian revolving-door governments.

Still, an anti-Berlusconi backlash is under way, and Mediaset is not feigning indifference.

“There is a desire for revenge,” laments Mediaset prexy Fedele Confalonieri, “with the pretext of more market, pluralism, competition – all things that we have always been perfectly respectful of.”

During Berlusconi’s five-year reign Mediaset profits increased fourfold thanks in part to a government-mandated raising of the anti-trust ceiling on advertising, which allowed its spot sales to soar by as much as $2 billion.

With Prodi’s government still to be installed, saber rattling has already started.

The new speaker of the Lower House, Fausto Bertinotti, who is leader of the Refounded Communist Party, wants new rules to make Mediaset “leaner” and to limit its advertising intake.

But Prodi has played down forcing Mediaset to shed one of its three channels. Given the government’s inherent weakness, most analysts say radical Italo media reforms aren’t likely soon.

Prodi is instead expected to be pushing for a conflict-of-interest law that would force Berlusconi to give up direct ownership of his Fininvest holding to stay in politics.

Though Fininvest has denied reports of a plan to sell its Mediaset stake to Berlusconi’s five children, an ownership transfer may well be in the works.

At RAI, the top posts are filled by political appointees, so the usual post-elections management reshuffle is in the air. But there’s little else in terms of liberating the pubcaster from the Soviet-style censorship that inspired comedian Sabina Guzzanti’s “Viva Zapatero!” Her docu, which recently unspooled at Tribeca, is about how RAI, under Berlusconi’s sway, pulled her satire show.

“We have gotten used to the idea that there are limits on what we are free to say,” the feisty satirist gripes.

Elsewhere in the entertainment community, the main preoccupation is who the next culture minister will be and how much coin will be restored to arts funding slashed by the Berlusconi government.

“For us the main preoccupation is financial,” says Venice Film Festival topper Marco Muller who hopes the E2.5 million ($3.1 million) chopped from the fest’s budget will be reinstated before the upcoming edition. Venice is also hoping a new minister will back crucial plans for a new Palazzo del Cinema.

Muller is likely to stay in place until 2007, when his term expires.

Many in Italy’s film community are rooting for prominent centrist pol Francesco Rutelli, whose journalist wife Barbara Palombelli covers the film world, to be appointed as the next culture czar.

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