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Berlusconi is Endemol Italia’s own ‘Big Brother’

Topper Bassetti on doing biz with Silvio as boss

ROME — Some might figure that Endemol Italia prexy Paolo Bassetti’s job should be easy, given that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset, Italy’s top commercial TV group, has a 33% stake in parent company and production giant Endemol.

Certainly it’s no secret Berlusconi holds sway over pubcaster RAI, and both these TV players are big Endemol Italia clients.

But contending with this parentage gives Bassetti plenty of headaches, too.

Take Endemol Italia’s “Big Brother” — its 11th edition is still going strong on Mediaset’s Canale 5, with an average 23% primetime share.

In January, three male contestants in the house incurred Vatican ire after they committed blasphemy by cursing at the Virgin Mary on camera, prompting Mediaset to have them kicked out for reasons widely thought to be dictated by the political climate — just as Berlusconi’s own scandal, involving allegations of sex with an underage nightclub dancer, was in full swing.

While Bassetti says Endemol Italia was not inclined to purge the contestants, he wound up having no choice in the matter.

“At Endemol, we try to protect whoever’s in the house but it was Mediaset’s right to make that call,” he says. “Eventually we complied with their wishes.”

Still, Bassetti says Mediaset has little to say regarding Endemol Italia’s day-to-day operations.

“Mediaset has never called me up to say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t sell them that show,’ or anything like that,” he says.

And on the positive side, having a client who is a shareholder means Mediaset pays up.

RAI, by contrast, recently asked all its suppliers, including Endemol, for a 20% discount because of the economic slowdown. Endemol consented.

Bassetti is particularly proud of an RAI-aired Endemol Italia show that the exec sees as groundbreaking — the somber, sermon-like “Vieni via con me” (Come Away With Me), which features anti-Mafia and pro-civil rights monologues, interspersed with high-profile guests, including Roberto Benigni and star architect Renzo Piano.

RAI general director Mauro Masi unsuccessfully tried to have Berlusconi invited as a guest.

Hosted by Fabio Fazio, a mild-mannered family man with the Midas touch when it comes to ratings, “Vieni via” went up against “Big Brother” on four Monday nights and won, becoming an unlikely ratings champ.

It also marked the ascent to TV stardom of co-host Roberto Saviano, bestselling author of Neapolitan mob expose “Gomorrah,” and, lately, a vocal Berlusconi critic.

“(The show is) a TV and a cultural event,” Bassetti says.

Not that Endemol Italia, the country’s top independent TV producer, churning out more than a dozen shows, including Mediaset soap “Cento vetrine,” has highbrow ambitions.

Bassetti is, in fact, proud that Endemol and RAI have developed an original format for a nostalgia show called “I migliori anni” (The Best Years of Our Lives), which pits different musical decades against each other, each repped by a female hostess.

The format has been exported to, among others, TVE in Spain, TF1 in France and Dragon TV in China.

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