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Mediaset Doing Just Fine Despite Berlusconi Verdict

Conviction on tax evasion charges puts Teflon Don on the defensive politically, but leaves his TV empire untouched

Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction last month on tax fraud charges might have seemed like a closing chapter in his long and colorful career. But it was actually just a cliffhanger: There’s lots more drama coming up in the ongoing Berlusconi soap opera, which prominently offers plenty of sex, money, politics, courtroom showdowns and, of course, even more sex.

In June, Berlusconi was found guilty of paying for sex with a minor and abusing his office as prime minister to cover it up. He has appealed the seven-year jail sentence and lifetime ban from public office.

Berlusconi is credited with bringing TV sex to the very Catholic Italy in the 1980s, when he launched commercial service Italo TV, featuring plenty of local T&A to augment Hollywood movies, serials and soaps.

Mediaset recently broke its self-imposed taboo (which had been made in deference to the pope) on getting directly into porn, by launching three “Hot Time” channels on its DTT Mediaset premium pay-TV service.

After nearly 30 trials over more than two decades, the man known as the Teflon Don will appeal the June decision on his sex-and-cover-up charges. If the ruling is upheld, it could signal the end of his political career, but it does not necessarily pose an immediate threat to his Mediaset TV empire.

In fact, analysts at Deutsche Bank upgraded Mediaset stock from “hold” to “buy” a few days after the tax fraud ruling, citing cost-cutting and an upbeat advertising outlook, and downplaying the impact of politics on the bottom line at Italy’s top commercial broadcaster.

In the Aug. 1 tax fraud case, Berlusconi was found guilty of participating in a scheme involving multimillion-dollar Hollywood deals for which Mediaset used offshore companies to evade taxes. That was the third court ruling, and he has run out of appeals.

He was given a four-year sentence, but will serve only one year of either house arrest or community service due to prison overcrowding. Berlusconi, 76, is also likely to be banned from public office for three years.

So is the tide turning for him personally? And is Italy changing its attitudes toward sex?

Pubcaster RAI put a freeze recently on the type of TV titillation that has become synonymous with the Berlusconi name. After airing the Miss Italia beauty pageant for 25 years, RAI cancelled it, with pubcaster prexy Anna Maria Tarantola saying it set “a negative example.”

RAI is the chief broadcasting rival to Berlusconi’s Mediaset, and the cancellation could be seen as a repudiation of his influence.

TV analyst Francesco Siliato said that Berlusconi ushered in a type of TV closely tied to displaying the female body in ways that RAI didn’t dare do at the time. “And now they are becoming more uncomfortable with that again,” he added.

But don’t believe that Italian TV is getting more chaste overall.

Berlusconi’s Mediaset is reportedly in talks to take over airing Miss Italia from RAI. Moreover, many Italian broadcasters are calling this the post-Berlusconi era, and are looking to cash in.

For example, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia paybox service has greenlit a pilot for a talk-reality show titled “Leave It to Rocco” in which global male porn star Rocco Siffredi will counsel middle-aged couples on how to spice up their sex lives.

Maybe Berlusconi could use a similar format for a Mediaset show catering to an older Italo demographic — with himself as the star.

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