ROME — An Italian fascination with life behind bars is breeding a burst of edgy TV shows using video cameras inside Italo prisons in pretty unusual ways.
In what is said to be a first, Silvio Berlusconi-owned Mediaset placed “Big Brother”-like cams inside three medium-security cells in the Velletri Jail outside Rome. Footage airs on “Altrove” (Elsewhere), a reality/talkshow about the travails of doing time.
“Altrove” consists of 25-minute montages of jail life without commentary, beamed on Italia 1 latenight Monday through Thursday. On Friday evenings, it becomes a longer yakker aired from the jailhouse, with inmates and prison guards chatting about topics ranging from how violence is dealt with, to the convicts’ dreams and even their sex drives.
“It was really tough to get this show to happen,” says Maurizio Costanzo, Italy’s most prominent TV personality, who is the show’s creator and host.
The main problem, of course, was cutting through red tape to get access to the cells.
“Altrove” came close to being nixed during development after news of Costanzo’s plans for jail cams caused a brouhaha in Parliament. Some leftist pols called it exploitation, while some in the conservative camp feared it could turn convicts into media darlings.
Crime and punishment has been a big issue in Italy after summer’s amnesty put more than 24,000 convicts back on the streets.
Costanzo, Italy’s talkshow king, is quick to point out that, unlike “Big Brother” or other reality shows, the inmates can turn the cameras off at any time.
He actually refuses to call it a reality show, “unless by that you mean that it is about reality,” he says.
While ratings aren’t stellar, they are solid. With an average 8% share, “Altrove” often draws more viewers than Fox’s “Prison Break,” which airs on the same channel.
“There is a growing interest on the part of TV audiences for what goes on in jail, because it’s this hidden-away place most people never see the inside of,” says TV scribe Matilde D’Errico.
He is co-author of Italo skein “Liberanti,” a 10-episode docudrama that followed young convicts in Rome’s Rebibbia jailhouse who were nearing the end of their sentences and preparing their re-entry into society.
Produced by Fox Crime, “Liberanti” aired in June and July to rave reviews on satcaster Sky Italia. The Rupert Murdoch-controlled paybox does not reveal ratings, but a spokespersons says it was a good draw.
Meanwhile, as pubcaster RAI is busy developing a still untitled TV drama set in an Italo slammer, its RAI-3 radio station kicked off a show last week about jail life called “Voci da dentro” (Voices From Inside), aired from prisons all over the Italian peninsula.