Auds tune in for unbiased news

With political catfights and claims of bias dogging Italo TV’s main terrestrial channels, viewers are increasingly turning to the one-time minnow of the airwaves, La7, viewing figures suggest.

The growth in La7’s audiences has even led one national newspaper to suggest the TV duopoly enjoyed by pubcaster RAI and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset broadcasting group, could be under threat.

Berlusconi controls Mediaset’s three national free channels and has influence over RAI’s three channels, whose top managers are government appointees.

However, he has no sway over La7, a small private operator, owned by Telecom Italia, which launched nine years ago.

In the past two years, its audience share has doubled, albeit from a low 2% starting point, while its share of key viewing slots has trebled or, in some cases, quadrupled.

The “TGLa7″ 8:30 p.m. newscast is a good example of this hike. With the program considered an unbiased commentator on Berlusconi’s political and sexual shenanigans, its aud share has risen from 2 to an 8, according to the latest Auditel stats, outstripping Mediaset’s “TG4″ evening news on Rete4, which has fallen to a 6.7 share.

RAI’s “TG1″ and “TG5″ on Mediaset’s Canale 5 remain the clear leaders with 25 and 21 shares respectively, though both have registered significant falls in the past two years.

Berlusconi owes much of his extraordinary political staying power to the cozy relationship he enjoys with Italian TV.

But a prominent ex-Berlusconi employee believes his grip on the media is finally loosening, as millions of viewers turn away from established channels and look for more impartial news and debate.

Former Mediaset presenter and news chief Enrico Mentana, who directs “TGLa7,” says, “La7’s success is coming because we give all the news. We provide unpleasant news that might embarrass the public broadcasters or the channels not considered impartial.”

Italy’s political climate has become particularly poisonous in the past 12 months.

Opposition pols say Mediaset news programs failed to report many of the sleaze claims made against Berlusconi, while RAI has come under attack from both pro- and anti-government commentators.

Berlusconi supporters claim that some of the pubcaster’s political yakkers focus on unproven charges that he had sex with an underage prostitute.

On the other hand, RAI’s flagship “TG1″ evening news show is suffering a credibility crisis after being censured for pro-government bias by broadcast watchdog Agcom.

Its director Augusto Minzolini has been dubbed a pro-Berlusconi stooge by other journalists, including news anchor Maria Luisa Busi, who quit in protest in May.

Neutral observers such as TV pundit Aldo Grasso of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, say the overall impression of polarized political stances and lack of objectivity has hit the pubcaster’s credibility.

Criticism of RAI management emerged again on Jan. 27 when director general Mauro Masi, a Berlusconi appointee, rang RAI’s “Annozero” talkshow while it was on air to disown the program, which was probing Berlusconi’s racy private life.

Grasso called the intervention “incredible” and said, “Masi showed his complete inability to manage the organization.”

All this is turning Italos off the main channels — but La7 is picking up viewers, a significant trend, says Augusto Preta of Rome-based ITMedia Consulting in Rome.

“La7 is still a small channel but the fact that it’s acquiring viewers when others are losing viewers, some of whom are going over to new pay TV services, is significant,” says Preta. “It shows the public are hungry for new, fresh programming.”

Even people working for Berlusconi’s TV empire agree.

One Mediaset staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “La7 is cooler, less crass. This is going to pay off in the long run. I think it has already.”

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