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Rai Raises the Drama Series Bar

After churning out pedestrian shows for decades, Italian state broadcaster Rai is making a major push into the global TV arena thanks to a more ambitious mindset that has spawned high-end hit “Medici: Masters of Florence,” and will soon see series “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Name of the Rose” compete for audiences around the world.

As Italian high-end content becomes a hot international commodity thanks to groundbreaking shows such as Sky’s “Gomorrah” and “The Young Pope,” the pubcaster that produces roughly 70% of Italian TV fiction is ready to seize the moment. Rai is putting its own creative stamp on the country’s high-end TV output and fueling a burst of vibrancy in Italy’s TV community.

In a related break with the past, Rai is also venturing into bold business models by teaming up with Netflix on the streaming giant’s first Italian original, “Suburra,” and with HBO on “My Brilliant Friend,” which is based on the first of the four “Neapolitan Novels” by Elena Ferrante. “Friend” will mark HBO’s first completely subtitled project.

“Rai, like all other European public service broadcasters, has had to rethink its role, faced with a changing market which is increasingly global,” says Eleonora Andreatta, who heads its Rai Fiction unit. “It had to think about its identity as a great content producer. And that identity is to focus on Italian creativity, Italian culture, history and tradition.”

The first project of this new Rai era is the English-language “Medici,” which sold widely, including to Netflix for the U.S., after scoring stellar ratings locally on its Rai 1 flagship channel. Framed as a thriller, the first season, toplining Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones”) as well as Dustin Hoffman, played well domestically with younger viewers who are not typically Rai 1’s core demographic and became the most tweeted series of 2016 in Italy.

When “Medici” debuted, Andrea Scrosati, who is in charge of content for Sky in Italy — a Rai rival — tweeted that this was a success for the entire TV industry.

“It was a fresh approach to a story that I think a lot of Italians think they know, but probably don’t know as well as they imagine,” showrunner Frank Spotnitz says.

The second season of “Medici,” toplining Sean Bean, started shooting in September in Tuscany with Jon Cassar (“24”) and Itay’s Jan Michelini sharing directorial duties. It will “mix historical drama with a coming-of-age tale,” says Andreatta.

Cameras start rolling in October on “Brilliant Friend,” being shot by Italian auteur Saverio Costanzo on the outskirts of Naples. The entire neighborhood of Gianturco, where Ferrante’s novel is set, has been meticulously rebuilt for the series. The show will be in the Neapolitan dialect.

It was easy to get Rai and HBO to agree to board this project “because they both understood that there were enough elements within these novels to make them a big success both on Rai1 and HBO,” says Lorenzo Mieli, head of Fremantle Italy, which is producing in tandem with Domenico Procacci’s Fandango.

Andreatta, who calls Ferrante’s work “one of the most powerful and universal stories of female friendship,” says Rai “felt very strongly” that it “belongs to the realm of what European public service television does.” She admits that airing it in primetime on Rai 1, in a drastic departure from the more mainstream local dramas that have been Rai’s staples for ages, will be a gamble, but believes that the Italian TV audience “is a lot more willing to be challenged and stimulated than what we used to think.”

“The Name of the Rose,” which will start shooting at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios in January, co-produced with Wild Bunch TV, is a further indication of Rai’s new international course — “Stories that don’t just belong to Italy, but to the world,” as Andreatta puts it. Italy’s Giacomo Battiato will direct the eight-episode English-language TV adaptation of Umberto Eco’s bestseller.

“There is lots of curiosity and attention toward Italian TV,” says one of the “Rose” producers, Carlo Degli Esposti. “For the first time we are finding that Rai is receptive and becoming a very important driver to provide the oxygen to develop the Italian market’s firepower.”

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