In what is being billed as a first, Italian state broadcaster RAI has scored a significant boost to its RaiPlay streaming service by using an original, live variety show hosted by a hot local entertainer to attract viewers.

Rosario Fiorello’s live music and comedy show, called “Viva RaiPlay,” just wrapped a six-week run on pubcaster’s RAI streaming platform, scoring results that RAI says are comparable to its stellar average ratings for a national soccer team match. More important, “Viva RaiPlay” prompted a more than 50% rise in RaiPlay’s registered active users to 4.6 million, the pubcaster reported. That is twice the number of subscribers Netflix chief Reed Hastings recently said the streaming giant has in Italy.

RaiPlay was launched in 2016. RAI CEO Fabrizio Salini said he came up with the idea for “Viva RaiPlay” by asking himself: “How can we do something surprising that will upstage streamers like Netflix?” The results were “beyond expectations” and have “brought RaiPlay into millions of households that up until a few weeks ago had no idea of its existence,” Salini said.

He added that “Viva RaiPlay” has shifted the pubcaster’s reputation from “musty and dusty” to “ahead of the [digital] curve.” 

The RAI chief, who is a former Fox International Channels chief and Sky Italia exec, said that “Viva RaiPlay,” which streamed live three times a week, benefited from multi-platform ties on the pubcaster, which teased the show with specials on RAI’s flagship RAI 1 station and plugged it on its national newscast, plus a live radio spinoff. That is “something that no other public broadcaster around the world has done before,” Salini said.

Fiorello, who is known locally not just as a TV and radio ratings champ but also as an innovator, said Salini gave him carte blanche on the show’s format, which is a free-flowing mix of satirical skits and musical numbers. Many of the performances are by guest stars such as rapper Jovanotti, who during the grand finale of the show last Friday helped bring “Viva RaiPlay” hits to a peak of roughly 15 million.

Besides “Viva RaiPlay,” the streaming service features original content such as edgy short-form crime drama “Liberi Tutti,” about a corrupt lawyer serving his sentence in a Rome halfway house run by his ex-wife. That show dropped on RaiPlay earlier this month.

Salini said that he would like to see RaiPlay originals co-produced with other European pubcasters for distribution on their streamers as well. RAI has already entered into such collaboration on high-end dramas for its linear channels, joining with France Televisions and Germany’s ZDF to make Frank Spotnitz’s “Leonardo” series, about Leonardo da Vinci.

“Viva RaiPlay” host Fiorello says he himself has no wish to cross borders.

In 1999, he played a small role in Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” singing a Neapolitan song on stage, first with Jude Law and then with Matt Damon. But a decade later, he turned down an offer from Harvey Weinstein to play a similar role in “Nine” which, like “Ripley,” Weinstein produced.

“I don’t want to just be part of the backdrop,” Fiorello said. “So I told them they should get a good piano bar guy instead.”

Weinstein was furious, Fiorello said, and sent a note telling him “you will never work in Hollywood again.”

Fiorello’s response: “Who cares?”