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Look, in the Sky, it’s a hit

Italy

ROME — Four years ago, the Italian television landscape was bleak.

Viewers of state pubcaster RAI and Mediaset were fed a steady diet of low-budget variety shows and tired gameshows, the kind of fare that kept the older generation sated, but few others. And, if you could find the hit American TV series, it was sometimes shown out of sequence, and timeslots changed with little notice.

“It’s very surprising when you think back just a few years ago,” says Emiliano Calemzuk, president and managing director of Fox Intl. Channels, Italy. “With Mediaset and RAI, there was such a harsh monopoly on the production of TV programming. That made it easier for us at launch.”

Rupert Murdoch’s satcaster Sky Italia made a bang of a debut in Italy in 2003, offering programming that appealed to Italy’s long-neglected 18-44 demographic. It brought its Fox brand of edgy, youth- and women-skewing shows to proper primetime slots. Italians en masse began turning off sing-alongs with B-list crooners and instead tuned in to “CSI,” “The Simpsons,” “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Thanks to Fox’s populist blend of exclusive pro sports, recent Hollywood blockbusters, the most-popular American and foreign dramas, and Fox-produced hits such as “Wife Swap,” Sky Italia has become one of News Corp.’s most profitable divisions. Murdoch told shareholders on Oct. 20 that subscriptions are booming, with nearly 4 million subs and a churn rate below 10%.

Italy’s old guard is taking notice. In response, RAI has become a more aggressive buyer of the most popular foreign TV series. RAI Uno now broadcasts “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” though after the series have run their course on Fox. And, this time, episodes run in sequence.

“Italy may be the only territory in the world where the terrestrial players follow the lead of satellite,” says the 33-year-old Calemzuk.

Sky Italia has been surprising many in Italy’s media sector. Before Murdoch stepped in and bought troubled satcaster Telepiu in 2003, everyone was convinced the pay TV model in Italy would never fly.

“Making Italians feel comfortable paying for soccer — that’s changed the entire media landscape,” says Michele Polo, chair of the economics department at Bocconi U in Milan. “The taboo has been removed. The route is open to charge for film and other content now.”

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